Kevin Lee is back, focused and intent upon proving himself the best in the world

If Kevin Lee had retired following his last bout, a win on March 11, 2022, over Diego Sanchez at Khabib Nurmagomedov’s Eagle FC, 10 years from now he’d be remembered as a talented fighter who had an excellent career.

He’s 19-7, finished 11 of his 19 wins, defeated outstanding fighters like Michael Chiesa and Edson Barboza and fought for a world title.

Those who were there for his career, though, might view it a bit differently.

Lee is an abundantly talented fighter, one of the most physically gifted in the UFC during his time. But for all those skills, he never truly put it together. He wasn’t the fighter many who have watched him closely and, honestly, he himself expected he’d become.

Lee, though, didn’t retire and he re-signed with the UFC after being unceremoniously cut following an Aug. 28, 2021, loss to Daniel Rodriguez at Apex in Las Vegas.

It’s a different Lee, though, who will make the walk at Apex on Saturday for his first bout in 15 months to fight Rinat Fakhretdinov.

Asked why he wasn’t able to reach the lofty expectations his physical gifts suggested he should, Lee sounded an optimistic tone.

“For starters, I’m only 30 years old and I feel like I’m just coming into my prime,” Lee said. “The last few years I’ve been dealing with injuries and even that last fight in the UFC, I felt it was rushed [because I was coming off] an injury. Sometimes, these things take time for your body to catch up. But now is the right time for my next stint in the UFC.

“Before you look up, I’ll be on top of the mountain. But it’s a process and these things can take time.”

Lee had two knee surgeries after a loss to Charles Oliveira in Brasilia, Brazil, in 2020 right before the pandemic. Even now, he questions himself for taking the Rodriguez fight. He wasn’t ready for it, he said, but did it almost out of rote.

He believed in himself so much that he said yes to any bout he was offered. As he looks back, that machismo or whatever it was that led him to say yes wound up costing him big time.

“That was a bad period for me, and I don’t even try to hide that fact,” he said of the time in 2020 and 2021 when he lost to Oliveira, had his surgeries and then accepted the Rodriguez fight. “After my fight with Charles, when I needed the two knee surgeries, there was just a lot going on, man. When you have those surgeries and they give you those pain pills, I … I was in a dark place. Honestly, I never should have taken that fight. I did it out of habit and trying to make things happen.”

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - AUGUST 28: Kevin Lee prepares to fight Daniel Rodriguez in a welterweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on August 28, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

Veteran Kevin Lee has rejoined the UFC after one bout with Khabib Nurmagomedov’s Eagle FC and will face Rinat Fakhretdinov on Saturday at UFC Vegas 76 at Apex in Las Vegas. (Chris Unger/Getty Images)

He joined Nurmagomedov’s Eagle FC after losing to Rodriguez and defeated the veteran Sanchez. Now, 15 months later, he’s healthy, in a better headspace and feeling like it’s the right time for the start of his second act.

He knows he’s in tough. When a reporter suggested he couldn’t pronounce Fakhretdinov’s last name, Lee laughed and noted it could be a source of pressure.

“I just learned how to pronounce it this week, to be honest with you, but that’s one of those things which adds some pressure,” Lee said. “Not a lot of people know about him, especially in the States. He doesn’t really speak English. He’s not that braggadocious, but when you look at his skill set, he’s almost kind of like Khamzat Chimaev. He’s really, really aggressive, real strong and knows how to go out there and get a W.

“It’s a lot of pressure on me to show he isn’t in my league. I’m in an odd spot. I’m supposed to win this fight, but at the same time, I’m an underdog. I see a lot of people doubting me for this fight. I need to step in there and put on a good game. He’s tough, but I have to show I’m in a different league.”

It will be one of the great redemption stories in the UFC if he’s able to get all the way back and win a title. He joined the UFC in 2014, more than two years before the company was sold for over $4 billion, and was quickly anointed a future star.

He lost a bout in 2017 to Tony Ferguson for the interim lightweight belt, and hasn’t gotten back to that point since. He had plenty of ups and downs along the way, but said he always knew in his heart he’d eventually get to prove to the masses what he’d always believed about himself.

“It’s not that I ever doubted myself, but there was this hump and it just didn’t seem like I was able to get over it,” Lee said. “I want to prove to myself that I can. Doubt isn’t the right word for it … because I never doubted my abilities. I have always known what I can do. I’ve been in there with the best in the world, in the cage and out of the cage, and I know who I am and where I stack up.

“I don’t need anyone or anything to tell me that, but there have been times when I’ve been my own roadblock. Now, though I’m laser-focused on being the best fighter in the world.”