Saturday’s UFC Fight Night main event has been a long time coming for 26-year-old Kevin Lee.
A lightweight for his entire career thus far, Lee (17-4) will make his welterweight debut against Rafael dos Anjos (28-11) inside Blue Cross Arena in Rochester, New York. The move to 170 pounds could have happened even sooner for Lee because he has struggled to make the cut to 155 in recent years.
It’s interesting that this new start at welterweight will come against Dos Anjos, who in many ways is in the exact spot Lee hopes to avoid.
Dos Anjos, 34, is also a former lightweight, a one-time champion in that division. He recorded three wins in a row after making the jump in 2017 but has since lost back-to-back fights, convincingly, to the top of the division, Kamaru Usman and Colby Covington.
One has to imagine Lee is wary of the same fate — talented enough to rise through the division but undersized for the physical wrestlers who wait at the top. The good news for Lee is he comes from a wrestling base, and arguably his greatest weakness at lightweight (a suspect gas tank) should improve now that he’s not cutting as much weight.
It’s an intriguing matchup on both sides, but a little more so for Lee. Because “How will Kevin Lee perform as a welterweight?” is a question we’ve been waiting a while to have answered.
By the numbers
1: Fight in which Lee has not secured a takedown among his 14 Octagon appearances. Since making his debut in 2014, Lee has had at least one takedown in more fights than anyone else on the UFC roster.
5:44:24: Octagon time (in hours, minutes and seconds) for dos Anjos, the seventh most in UFC history. If Saturday’s fight goes the full 25 minutes, he will move into second place, behind Frankie Edgar (6:47:33).
10: Lightweight wins for Lee since his 2014 debut in the UFC. That ties him with Tony Ferguson, Francisco Trinaldo and Beneil Dariush for most during that span. (He cannot take over the lead on Saturday, of course, as it is a welterweight fight.)
10: Unanimous decisions won by dos Anjos, tied with Edgar and Georges St-Pierre for most in UFC history.
Source: ESPN Stats & Information
A look back
Things are looking up … before the move up: Rafael dos Anjos gets the lightweight belt put around his waist by UFC president Dana White after his surprisingly dominant win over Anthony Pettis, who came into the March 2015 title bout off four straight finishes. For dos Anjos, it is his ninth victory in his past 10 fights, with the lone defeat coming against unbeaten Khabib Nurmagomedov. The Brazilian will go on to successfully defend his strap once, in a quick TKO of Donald Cerrone, before dropping the title via TKO to Eddie Alvarez. Two fights later, dos Anjos will move up to welterweight.
Five vs. five
“Each staredown is a little different, each guy’s a little different. But I could see something in his eyes a little bit. He’s still kind of got that fire, and even though a lot of people might be looking at it and say I’m the more skilled fighter or RDA is kind of on a downslope a little bit, I think he’s going to show up and I think he’s going to give me a fight. I could see the little twitch in his eyes. I think he knows he’s in for one. I’m in for one, too.”
–Lee, speaking to ESPN about his first staredown with dos Anjos
Kevin Lee offers an inside look at the training he is undergoing for his fight vs. Rafael dos Anjos. Watch UFC Destined on ESPN+.
And the winner is …
The blueprint is there for Lee. Dos Anjos’ recent losses to Usman and Covington weren’t exactly the same, but the overriding theme is that he struggled with active, physical wrestlers. The million-dollar question is whether Lee’s endurance will hold up if the five-round fight goes late. I could see a rare finish of dos Anjos, though.
Brett Okamoto’s pick: Lee via second-round TKO.
Waiting in the wings
Hmm, who is the No. 1 contender at 165 pounds? (Joking.)
What to watch for (beyond the main event)
Three of a kind
Charles Oliveira and Nik Lentz have history. They first met in 2011 in a back-and-forth battle in Pittsburgh that earned each of them a Fight of the Night bonus. Oliveira got his hand raised after securing a choke, but that wasn’t the end of the story. He had set up his submission with an illegal knee to Lentz’s head, and while it had gone unnoticed by the referee, the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission stepped in three days later and declared the bout a no contest.
Oliveira and Lentz went at it again in 2015, and “Do Bronx” got another submission — this time without controversy. It was again Fight of the Night, and Oliveira also earned a Performance of the Night bonus.
When these two step into the cage together for the third time Saturday, it will complete the 11th trilogy in UFC history — just the third with none of the fights being for a title. Doesn’t that, in itself, deserve a pair of bonus checks?
Nickname of the night
“Cara de Sapato” (Portuguese for “Shoe Face”) is quite the moniker for a fighter. Problem is, it doesn’t really fit Antonio Carlos Junior, who along with being a jiu-jitsu ace is also a good-looking guy. There are some shoe-evoking faces in MMA — not naming names here — but the Brazilian middleweight’s is not one.
You want a nickname that fits to a tee? Try “The Carny.” Can’t you just see Nik Lentz manning a weight-guessing booth on the midway, strong-arming all of the passing marks to spend their money at his carnival attraction?
Ex-champ vs. ex-champ
Megan Anderson (9-3) became Invicta FC’s featherweight champion in 2017 shortly after Cris “Cyborg” Justino vacated the belt to join the UFC. But before the Aussie could defend the strap even once, the UFC came calling for her, too. So she moved on to the big show, where she has fought Holly Holm (decision loss) and Cat Zingano (KO win).
In Anderson’s absence, the Invicta title was vacant once more, and Felicia Spencer stepped into the void, winning the belt last November.
But now Spencer (6-0) is moving on, too. On Saturday she makes her UFC debut … against Megan Anderson.