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Kevin Lee willing to accept opponents nobody wants to face after fighters like Justin Gaethje turned him down

Kevin Lee (right) lands a head kick on Gregor Gillespie at UFC 244 in New York City on Nov. 2, 2019
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

As a former interim title contender, Kevin Lee has been considered one of the best 155-pound fighters in the UFC for the past few years but he’s struggled to get many top-ranked lightweights to face him.

While his stock took a slight hit after a loss to Al Iaquinta and then a brief stop at welterweight for a single fight, Lee was still cemented in the top-10 in the division but there weren’t many takers ready to accept his challenge.

According to Lee, he tried to land a fight with human wrecking ball Justin Gaethje as he was making his way up the lightweight ranks but he says the former World Series of Fighting champion turned him down.

“I tried to make it,” Lee revealed when speaking to MMA Fighting. “Just because he’s got a number next to his name and he would have been a good fight, too. He turned it down. So I moved on to bigger and better.”

Lee says once Gaethje passed on fighting him, he just started looking towards the challenges in the division that everyone seemed to avoid.

That’s why he had no problem accepting a fight against previously undefeated lightweight prospect Gregor Gillespie, who looked like a future title contender through his first six fights in the UFC. Lee promptly knocked him out in the first round when they clashed at UFC 244 this past November.

Following that win, Lee let the UFC know that he wanted the next toughest guy on the roster that everybody was avoiding.

With some fighters trying to protect a ranking or only accepting certain opponents while publicly saying they’ll face anybody the UFC puts in front of them, Lee is doing his best to walk the walk rather than just talking the talk.

“Gaethje, he’s doing it right now. He did it with me. He’s supposedly the fighter’s fighter type of guy,” Lee said. “The Donald Cerrone type of guy who will fight anybody but they’re all playing politics. I march to my own drum. I’ve always been on my own energy so if I see a bunch of people doing the same thing, I kind of go the other way. I’m willing to do the things that other people aren’t willing to do. That’s what I feel has always kind of separated me from the pack.

“And at the end of the day, I’m going to be the champ. That’s my belt. I’ve got to go through all these guys anyways so let’s go ahead and steal their momentum.”

On Saturday, Lee will travel into enemy territory to face Charles Oliveira in the main event of UFC Brasilia.

The fight came together after Lee practically begged the UFC to give him a fight against Islam Makhachev after they exchanged numerous messages over social media. Makhachev was another of those fighters who everybody is seemingly avoiding, which is exactly why Lee asked the UFC to give it to him.

“I sat with them for so many hours trying to convince them to give me the fight to the point where I was willing to take a pay cut in order to do it,” Lee said. “It’s not the smartest thing on me, especially for a guy like Islam. I’m going to give him his respect. He is one of the toughest dudes in the division. He can beat anyone in the top-5, top-3, he can beat any one of those guys.

“I was willing to do that but at the end of the day, the UFC’s got to do what the UFC’s got to do and whatever makes the most business sense.”

With the Oliveira fight, Lee takes on a lightweight contender coming off six wins in a row while holding the record for the most submission wins in UFC history. He may not have the biggest name in the division but he’s really good — and that’s why Lee was more than ready to sign the contract when the UFC made the offer.

“I don’t care what number is next to their name,” Lee said. “Oliveira is hitting the prime of his career. He’s got a daughter on the way so he’s got a little extra motivation. He’s going to show up and give me a good fight.”

As impressive as Oliveira has been recently, Lee believes this is a big step up in competition for him and he’s ready to show him what it’s like to fight one of the best lightweights in the world.

“I don’t think he’s ever been in a fight of this size, this magnitude,” Lee said. “A main event in his home country. That can add a little bit of pressure. And I don’t think he’s ever fought somebody like me or at my level. The last time he did was Max Holloway and he barely showed up for that fight.

“I’m expecting the right Charles Oliveira in this one. He’s going to see me as his ticket to the top so I’m going to make sure I put him down.”

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