CREDIT: Dominick Latour/fightworld.tv
Remember the name Kevin Lee—he might just be the next UFC lightweight champion.
At 21 years old, Lee makes his UFC debut at UFC 169 on February 1 against Al Iaquinta, and the unbeaten Detroit native is ready to put his record on the line on the sport's biggest stage.
"I think I can become champion," Lee told Bleacher Report. "There's not a doubt in my mind. I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't think I could reach the top."
We've heard that before, right? Of course. Every fighter wants to be the best, to be champion.
But Lee is different.
A freak athlete and former college wrestler, he got into the sport of mixed martial arts just "five or six" years ago by his count. Before that, he had little to no athletic experience whatsoever.
"I remember sitting on the couch, flipping through the channels, and UFC Primetime was on, the one with GSP (Georges St-Pierre) and BJ Penn, I think. I thought to myself, 'I can do that.' I don't know why. Before that, I never even played any sports as a kid; we were too poor to afford anything like that. I didn't even know if I was athletically gifted."
He said that his hardworking, inner-city Detroit family always supported his lifestyle and career choices, but the financial strain left him without on several occasions. The dedication and relentless work ethic of his mother, however, pushed him to his position within the sport, and now he has the chance to make waves on MMA's biggest stage.
"My mom would get up and ride the bus with us to go to the suburbs and to go to school," Lee said. "If my mom didn't help me get up and go out, I wouldn't be here today, in this position."
At 7-0, Lee's professional record is impressive on paper, and it becomes even more noteworthy upon closer examination.
In his first three bouts, he drew previously undefeated Tristar product Levis-Daniel Labrie, French Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Mansour Barnaoui and Division I All-American wrestling standout J.P. Reese.
Combined, their records stood at 17-3. Lee defeated them all via decision, and he couldn't even purchase a post-fight celebratory beer. He had been training MMA exclusively for just one year.
"The toughness was just in me," Lee said. "I did really, really good in wrestling my first couple years, defeating guys who had been wrestling since they were in diapers. I really feel like my MMA career just kind of took off from there."
After this three-fight decision streak, he began a tear through the local lightweight ranks. None of his next four opponents saw the final bell, as Lee earned four straight submission victories, with two in the first round.
What sparked this ferocious streak of finishes? Confidence.
"The difference was just the confidence I had after those first three fights. I had the opportunity to work with some UFC guys in training, to spar with Anthony Pettis, and just that in itself was a confidence booster, knowing I could hang with guys like that."
Don't be fooled by Lee's history of submissions, however. He does not consider himself a submission specialist. Rather, he says he's simply able to piece together the MMA game and work it to his advantage at all times inside the cage.
"I'm a complete mixed martial artist, and I feel like I'm able to put it all together better than anybody else. When I wrestled, I started wrestling with the intention of getting into MMA. I gave up my last couple years of eligibility in college to go pro."
Facing Iaquinta at UFC 169, Lee has the chance to prove that his meteoric rise was no fluke. He has studied the New Yorker's game extensively, and he feels the matchup is in his favor in all areas of the game.
"He's got that aggressive, Ray Longo fighting style, but it's really punch-heavy. He plays really well into my game plan, and I can mold myself around his game or make him play mine. The ideal outcome is a knockout in the first round."
While Lee said the Fight of the Night or Knockout of the Night bonus would provide a welcome financial boost, his desire to finish business with Iaquinta inside the Octagon early comes with another payoff: He gets to settle in before watching his idol go to battle in the night's co-main event.
"Jose Aldo is my idol...He's one of my idols, right there with GSP. I think Jose is the best fighter in the world, he's the No. 1 pound-for-pound guy, and it's been that way for years, just nobody has seen it that way yet. I want my fight to be over as quickly as possible so I can get out, change, maybe shower a little bit, then get back out there and cheer him on."
When the night is over and Lee's work inside the cage is done, his family's battle against unfavorable living conditions at home will rage on.
With a win at UFC 169 and a promising career ahead, Lee hopes to change all that and to provide his parents—the same parents who rode the bus with him to school and who worked long hours for little pay—with a home outside the city.
"If I would get a Fight Night bonus, I'd give it to my parents to help them out," Lee said. "They're still in Detroit, and I want to do what I can to help them out, to help them get out."
Lee's journey toward a better career—toward a better life for himself and his family—begins at UFC 169.
And, if it plays out how he sees it, it will lead to a golden belt strapped around his waist in the future.