Kevin Lee: Wrestling for MMA

Kevin Lee
(Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

The hype surrounding 26-year-old Kevin Lee has cooled off substantially after a bizarre showing in his 2018 rematch with Al Iaquinta. The former Division 2 wrestler successfully finished two out of three takedown attempts, choosing to spend the vast majority of the fight striking at mid-range.

In the first four years of his UFC career, Lee made his mark as a volume shooter, physical scrambler, and an opportunistic back-taker. However, his wrestling was at its most conservative against Iaquinta in December.

Lee is an enormous lightweight, one who has been campaigning for a 165-pound division for some time. It’s entirely possible the weight cut had become too much, draining Lee of precious energy that should be spent on hyper-athletic wrestling exchanges.

Now that Lee is at 170 pounds, will we see his breakneck pace return? In anticipation of his main event bout against Rafael dos Anjos, let’s look back and examine the wrestling habits and tactics of Kevin Lee.

The MMA Wrestling of Kevin Lee

vs. Al Iaquinta (2014)

Kevin Lee had only been an MMA fighter for two years when he made his UFC debut. While his wrestling was obviously his biggest strength, Lee didn’t quite look like “just a wrestler”, at least, not in the way fighters used to.

The most basic setup for leg attacks in MMA is to shoot reactively under a strike. A layer deeper, fighters should consider which strikes are best to shoot under, and which shot is best for which strike. These are difficult decisions to make in the moment, but repetitions and drilling make those reactions automatic.

From what I can see, Lee chooses his shots based on range more so than strike selection. In the following clip, Lee enters on a head outside single from range off Iaquinta’s body jab, but shoots a double off the jab when Iaquinta is walking in with it.

Kevin Lee wrestles with Al Iaquinta
Unpopular opinion: a clean reactive double is prettier than Al cutting back for the heel hook off Lee’s single.

Lee uses the single to cover distance, and the double to intercept motion. That’s where being “just a wrestler” comes into play. If the double leg is your money shot, then you want to strike in a way that is going to draw your opponent into committing to a punch that will bring them forward and take their hands away from their hips. Iaquinta stepping in on the left hook was perfect, he narrowed his base by turning his hips and stepped into Lee’s wrestling range in one motion.

This is why feints become so crucial at a high level, a skilled opponent is going to have trained their reactions and will make reads on you mid-fight. For example, if Iaquinta sees Lee shooting when he steps in with the jab, after making that read, he could feint the jab and counter with an intercepting strike. You could also get ahead on your defense, sprawling and digging underhooks, which is what Iaquinta did.

In this fight, it appeared that Lee was striking to take breaks from wrestling, not to set anything up. Lee became predictable for the more experienced Iaquinta, who started catching Lee’s shots and digging underhooks.

While Lee has become much more well-rounded as a fighter and found more effective setups for his wrestling since then, some reads still hold true.

Tony Ferguson steps in behind his jab, Lee anticipates a right hand behind it and shoots a double.

Tony Ferguson sprawls on Kevin Lee
Not Lee’s best shot, and the timing was a little off, but that was a fine setup.

vs. Jesse Ronson (2014)

Months later, Lee had his second UFC fight against Canadian veteran striker Jesse Ronson.

While there are many tactics I’d like to highlight from this fight, the most obvious observation is that Kevin Lee is an insane athlete who pushed a grueling pace against Ronson. While there were decent technical adjustments at play, Lee found more success late in the fight because he gassed his opponent. Pushing a high pace and forcing your opponent to fight through tough positions is indeed a wrestling tactic.

Ronson was much more of a kickboxer than Iaquinta, and though this is simplistic and reductive, it did mean that he was going to throw more kicks.

Like punches with forward momentum, kicks are a quick trigger for takedowns from Lee. One other new wrinkle (that we pretty much never saw again) was making space and attacking off the clinch, then shooting under as Ronson swung back and brought his hands away from his hips.

Kevin Lee shoots on Jesse Ronson
It was a sloppy reaction, but parrying the low kick across and keeping the ankle for your takedown entry is A+ stuff from Lee.

But Lee’s reactive entries off kicks did not result in clean takedowns. He didn’t simply shoot through the hips. His shots did catch Ronson off balance, and that allowed him to drive back to the cage.

Learning to wrestle on the cage is a skill area completely unique to MMA. Many wrestlers can attest they’ve had practices where they’ve used the wall, but it is rarely if ever a dedicated part of training. It’s not an easy adjustment to make. Johny Hendricks, a two-time NCAA Division 1 champion and three-time finalist, struggled immensely against the cage when he fought Rick Story, an NAIA runner-up.

The idea for the defending man is to widen your base as much as possible. That doesn’t mean do a split or stand bow-legged, the stance is closer to a deep lunge. This makes sense, as you’re typically angling off the whizzer on one of the attacking arms, and either underhooking or fighting wrists with the other.

Kevin Lee wrestles Jesse Ronson against the cage
Lee is absurdly strong so respect to Ronson for defending.

Ronson did a fine job with these tactics. Lee’s aim was to get his hands locked, which would require making Ronson’s base much more narrow. While still attacking the double, Lee turned his hip in and attempted to bring Ronson’s left leg closer to his right, rather than fighting to collapse both legs with the double. It didn’t work, but it was a great idea.

vs. Jon Tuck (2014)

We’ve seen Lee shoot off his opponents’ punches and low kicks thus far. The amount of wind-up and power in the strike seems to have determined how clean of an entry Lee can get. On that note, in these early fights, Lee was not finishing takedowns without a clean entry.

Guam’s Jon Tuck is a fairly accomplished grappler, and he likely got used to fighters not wanting to take him down. Feeling he could strike freely, Tuck threw an explosive turning side kick to open the fight. As we all should know, turning your back on a wrestler is a terrible idea.

Kevin Lee takes down Jon Tuck
Just wait for the bodylock in the Iaquinta rematch. It’s so gnarly.

In the Ronson fight, we saw Lee attacking off the clinch and then level changing, here we saw “dirty boxing” as a setup for an underhook. Controlling the wrist with his left, Lee used his right overhooking arm to punch and bring up Tuck’s guard. As the arm came up, Lee swam for the right underhook, then threw off the left grip and got his second underhook for the bodylock.

Kevin Lee has freaky mutant android strength, and it’s pretty much a guarantee that he’ll put you on your back if he gets to the bodylock.

On the topic of Lee’s physical attributes, his strength and long arms allow him to get grips around the legs through underhooks. Throughout his UFC career, you will see Lee finishing doubles on the cage even when his opponent has an underhook.

vs. Michel Prazeres (2015)

Human fire hydrant Michel Prazeres used to be a lightweight, it was ridiculous. The tradeoff was an incredibly taxing weight cut, Prazeres had a difficult time keeping a pace through three rounds.

Up until very recently, Lee had some of the best cardio in the UFC. Talented wrestlers that come into MMA sometimes neglect their defense, they assume everyone they fight will be looking to strike with them and defend shots. Prazeres caught Lee off-guard by aggressively pursuing the takedown throughout the first round.

Looking ahead to his next matchup, would it make sense for Rafael dos Anjos to shoot on Lee? What we start to see in this fight, and continue to see later, is that engaging in any wrestling with Lee is a bad idea. His hips are unreal, and he pushes a punishing pace in scrambles. If you shoot on Kevin Lee, it’s very likely that he’ll have the last laugh.

After a round of grueling exchanges, Prazeres was toast.

Kevin Lee takes down Michel Prazeres
Michel “Absolute Unit” Prazeres.

You’ll see Lee’s usual setups and finishes here, but it’s mostly a case of Prazeres being too tired to properly defend anything for a prolonged period of time. My hope is that at 170, Lee can be this kind of cardio threat again, it was one of his greatest weapons.

vs. Efrain Escudero (2016)

If you love the smaller details of wrestling, I highly recommend watching Kevin Lee vs. Efrain Escudero. There were plenty of mini-exchanges that showed the savvy of Escudero, a skilled fighter who is greater than his record suggests.

What I’d like to highlight is the moment where Lee decides he’s going to pummel for an underhook and reverse position on the cage.

Kevin Lee slams Efrain Escudero
The first of two fighters with USA Wrestling tattoos Lee has faced in his career.

The timing on the double entry was nice, but Lee’s strength will never stop amazing me.

vs. Jake Matthews (2016)

Jake Matthews was a fellow giant lightweight, one who has seen much more success since moving up to 170.

There isn’t anything particularly new to point out, just Lee shooting through underhooks again and the strength of his bodylock.

Kevin Lee takes down Jake Matthews
You’re not supposed to be able to do that.

This does highlight the trend of Lee coming up from his entries into the bodylock. He’s a much more high percentage finisher from that position, and his takedown entries are great setups, even if the entries themselves are not well set up.

vs. Magomed Mustafaev (2016)

Magomed Mustafaev is an athletic fighter in his own right, he throws single strikes with absurd speed and power. Craft is often lacking, and he can be easily worn out if things don’t go his way. Mustafaev recently made me look very stupid when he finished a very interesting fighter that I was excited about, Rafael Fiziev.

Lee’s striking defense in this fight was less than optimal, but with Mustafaev loading up on everything, it wasn’t very difficult for Lee to find his entries.

Kevin Lee takes down Magomed Mustafaev
I’m still salty about Fiziev.

Mustafaev showed his own power in scrambles, constantly getting back to his feet in a manner that defies logic.

But eventually, he faded under Lee’s wrestling onslaught.

vs. Francisco Trinaldo (2017)

Francisco Trinaldo deserves his own article, I promise it will happen. The man is 40 years old and still having a ton of success as a striker in the lightweight division. Most of the old man fighters that stick around near the top in the UFC are in the heavier weight classes, where the average for athletic ability is much lower.

I believe this was a case of the threat of wrestling opening up striking opportunities. In the first round, Lee actually used his own striking offense to set up his takedown entry. I don’t think we had ever seen that before. Lee throws the lead rear straight, looks to double up with it and uses the motion on the right hand to hit his level change, just as Trinaldo goes to nail what appears to be an easy counter.

Kevin Lee takes down Francisco Trinaldo.
The greatest maneuver in Kevin Lee’s career.

Lee controlled the rest of the round. Fearing the entry, Lee was able to follow through on his combinations, with Trinaldo frozen in anticipation of the takedown.

Hurt by a head kick, Trinaldo clinched up and drove forward on a bodylock.

In the most brilliant maneuver of his career, Lee slapped on a whizzer, hooked his near leg inside Trinaldo’s, posted on the mat, and simultaneously kicked through, torqued the whizzer, and essentially cartwheeled into mount.

It was amazing.

vs. Michael Chiesa (2017)

Most people remember this fight for the weird press conference brawl after a seemingly innocuous comment about Michael Chiesa‘s mother, and the controversy of the finish.

But there was plenty of quality content in this matchup of wrestlers turned rear naked choke specialists.

After a slip (or maybe a knockdown) by Lee, we were treated to some beautiful work off his back. Lee made great use of butterfly hooks to elevate Chiesa, giving him space and an angle to dig a deep underhook and push Chiesa’s back to the cage.

Kevin Lee scrambles and slams Michael Chiesa.
I did think the stoppage was early, by the way.

Perhaps anticipating that Lee could finish through the underhook, Chiesa got a strong grip and instead looked to swim toward the back, or at least an attacking position from guard when Lee made his move.

As Chiesa moved to apply the body triangle, that’s when Lee slammed. I’m really impressed with Lee’s sense of timing, but I’m sure he’s had a lot of experience slamming people.

vs. Tony Ferguson (2017)

Grand Valley State University was excited to have two of their wrestlers meet in a UFC main event, for a title, no less.

While Tony Ferguson is comfortable on his back, he doesn’t go willingly these days. The Danny Castillo fight was a lesson in the virtues of defending takedowns.

The first scramble of the fight foreshadowed what was to come. Even if Lee was getting his bodylock, winning scrambles, hitting all his usual attacks, Ferguson was going to be able to capitalize if Lee wasn’t careful. In his effort to get on top, Ferguson nearly sat into a triangle.

Another one of Lee’s habits almost bit him, Lee saw Ferguson loading up, and shot under a strike. But if his shot came one moment sooner, he would have level changed directly into an uppercut. We can certainly give Lee the benefit of the doubt, and assume he was waiting for the arc of the strike to play out before he shot, but it may well have been luck.

One other note is that Lee still has that quick trigger for catching low kicks. Rafael dos Anjos has been a prolific low kicker at times, we’ll talk about those implications later.

Ultimately, Lee was submitted. He was noticeably fatigued. However, Lee very obviously was fighting a staph infection, typically not the kind of condition that helps your cardio.

vs. Edson Barboza (2018)

Edson Barboza is a fun fighter. His strikes are pretty, I love to watch him work. With that being said, his defense, namely his footwork, is baffling. Wrestling isn’t exactly Barboza’s weakness, pressure is. I’m sure it doesn’t help when the fighter pressuring him is a wrestler.

Barboza willingly gives up substantial ground, often backing himself up to the cage when there’s a whiff of pressure. This was more subtle in some portions of the bout, when Barboza still had some space between him and the fence, Lee was able to shoot explosively and almost immediately get his hands locked.

Kevin Lee takes down Edson Barboza
Lee’s instincts were on point in this one, had a great feel for when his shots were there.

Rafael dos Anjos struggles with wrestlers who can pressure effectively. I can’t say I’ve seen Kevin Lee pressure anyone except in this fight with Edson Barboza. With that being said, Lee has only had one fight since then, and his tactics may have been significantly altered due to physical limitations.

Edson Barboza is magnetically attracted to the cage, but Lee does do his part in influencing him. In the scramble that starts when Lee is on his knees, Lee had just been rocked by a wheel kick. In the ensuing exchange, Lee cuts off Barboza’s retreat to the left, and Barboza’s desperate gallop to escape leads him right back to the cage.

Edson Barboza makes weird mistakes
WHY DID YOU SHOOT ON HIM?

The other portion of this clip, Barboza shooting on Lee, is inexcusable.

vs. Al Iaquinta (2018)

From fight to fight, we had seen growth from Kevin Lee when it came to enforcing his grappling.

That stopped in his last fight.

In the first round, Lee exclusively stood with Iaquinta. He did not pressure, he did not shoot. He lost the round.

In the second, Lee took his entry for the double off the jab, with Iaquinta largely static. This is not his best look, but he was able to get a bite on the leg, switch to the seatbelt and get to his bodylock.

Driving Iaquinta back with the bodylock, Lee got to an outside trip position and collapsed Iaquinta, pulling him in with the lock.

In an encouraging turn, Lee shot again in the third round. Again it was off the Iaquinta jab, but this time it was more clear that Iaquinta was beginning a combination and that the right hand was coming.

With a clean entry for his double, Lee drove through sat Iaquinta to his hip. As Iaquinta crawled to get his back to the cage, Lee climbed up the body and got to his lock once again. A beautiful mat return set up another back take and gave Lee the round.

In the fourth round, Lee didn’t shoot once. He lost the round.

It’s possible Lee felt that he could stall out Iaquinta and possibly win rounds on the feet without expending too much energy, sealing three rounds with takedowns.

Lee took his third shot in the fifth round, as Iaquinta began to step forward, feinting his jab. Lee collected the leg and got to his knees, with Iaquinta sitting through the corner, looking to attack or reverse. Lee stood with the single, and Iaquinta locked through the crotch.

While it’s much more likely this scramble was influenced by jiu jitsu, it wouldn’t be out of place in folkstyle wrestling. Lee gets back to his knees, steps back over the leg of Iaquinta and attacks the far ankle. He passes the ankle and gets a more secure position behind Iaquinta, who abandons the attack and gets to the cage for safety.

It was a beautiful maneuver, especially in the fifth round of a tough fight, but Lee lacked the energy to get to work on the cage, and was not able to implement his grappling.

vs. Rafael dos Anjos (UFC Fight Night 152)

Kevin Lee can beat Rafael dos Anjos, there is a very clear path.

But he will need to pressure. Dos Anjos is a skilled enough wrestler, and certainly a skilled enough grappler, that reactive shots off of low exposure strikes are not likely to lead to takedowns for Lee.

The blueprint is there for a fighter like Lee to beat dos Anjos, he’s going to have to put on enough offense to get dos Anjos near the cage, and he’ll be able to shoot explosively to get the fight to the cage. It’s a very similar approach as he took against Barboza, but it will not be nearly as easy to get dos Anjos in those positions.

If Lee takes entire rounds to strike and take breaks, he’s going to be hurt, badly.

But if he does mix up his attack and hits his usual triggers, there are opportunities for solid entries. Dos Anjos is a consistent low kicker, and Lee has shown talent for shooting off those attacks.

The fight has the potential to look a few different ways, and it’s my belief that the outcome will be entirely determined by the strategy Kevin Lee pursues. Will Lee get back to the growth we’ve seen in all but one fight in his career, or will dos Anjos be able to snap his losing streak and run a striking clinic on the young wrestler?

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