The breakthrough performance at last weekend’s UFC Fight Night 128 event, which took place last Saturday at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, New Jersey, came in the main event, where Kevin Lee battered Edson Barboza so badly the doctor was forced to stop the bout in the fifth round. Lee’s combination of dominant takedowns to get the fight to the mat to go along with brutal ground-and-pound once he got it there was the perfect foil to Barboza’s dynamic striking game, and Lee dominated every second of the fight except for one close call in the third round when he survived getting rocked by a Barboza spin kick. Overall it was the best performance of Lee’s career to date, as the 25-year-old native of Detroit improved his MMA record to 17-3, with a 10-3 record inside the Octagon.
It’s clear after his dominant performance over Barboza that Lee is one of the top-five lightweight contenders currently fighting in the UFC. Lee has won six of his last seven fights including stoppage wins over Barboza, Michael Chiesa and Francisco Trinaldo in that time period with his only loss since 2015 coming to former interim lightweight champion Tony Ferguson at UFC 216 in October 2017. Lee has improved remarkably throughout his UFC career since suffering a unanimous decision defeat to Al Iaquinta back in his Octagon debut at UFC 169 in February 2014. Other than a shocking upset KO to Leonardo Santos at UFC 194 in December 2015 and the submission loss to Ferguson in his first-ever UFC title fight, Lee has been nothing short of impressive inside the cage and is clearly one of the best 155 pounders in the world.
As good as Lee is at 155lbs, though, I feel like he would be even more effective if the UFC opened up a 165lbs weight class. As good as the Barboza win was, we have to keep in mind that Lee did miss weight by a pound for it, and he also struggled to make weight against Ferguson, missing on his first attempt but hitting the 155lbs championship mark on his second attempt. After losing to Ferguson, Lee said he wanted to move up in weight and was targeting a move up to 170lbs since there is currently no 165lbs division in the UFC. For whatever reason Lee decided to stay at 155lbs, and he missed weight by a pound against Barboza. Obviously after this dominant win Lee will be sticking around lightweight for the foreseeable future, but he did mention in post-fight interviews that he would move up to 165lbs if the UFC opened up that weight class.
Although 165lbs would be a godsend for a bunch of lightweight tweeners who have trouble making 155lbs like Lee and Nate Diaz, or smaller welterweights like Jorge Masvidal and Donald Cerrone, so far only Lee has been the guy who has been vocal in the media about the UFC making this new division. UFC president Dana White said a while back the promotion wasn’t looking to bring in a new weight class, but as the sport grows and the UFC roster grows it could definitely happen. And if it happens, Lee would be the guy I think would be the favorite to be the inaugural champion of that division. As good as Lee is at lightweight, I can’t help but think he will be even better at 165 since he will be able to focus more on improving his skills in camp rather than focusing on his weight, and he won’t be killing himself on weigh-in day like he is now to make 155. The Lee we see right now is a killer, but the Lee we could see at 165 might be one of the best fighters we’ve ever seen compete in MMA.
With his combination of dominant wrestling, vicious ground-and-pound, improving striking and the ability to talk on the mic, Lee is one of the UFC’s fastest-rising stars and at just 25 will continue to get better and better. He’s already one of the best lightweights in the world, but imagine he didn’t have to kill his body cutting all that weight and could just focus on making improvements at 165. That fighter would be absolutely amazing. Lee’s a great fighter at 155, but he could be even better at 165, and I hope the UFC seriously considers opening up this new weight class sooner rather than later.