- Kevin Lee's nickname is the Phenom and he's set himself up for an interim lightweight title fight against Ultimate Fighter season 13 winner Tony Ferguson.
UFC 216 is headlined a flyweight title fight and an interim lightweight title bout. In the co-main, Demetrious Johnson gets a second chance at a record number of title defenses when he faces Ray Borg, after their UFC 215 bout was delayed.
But the highlight of Saturday's show at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas is the interim lightweight title showdown. In one corner, The Ultimate Fighter season 13 winner, Tony Ferguson, who is on a nine-fight win streak. In the other, rising contender Kevin Lee.
At UFC 211, Lee grabbed headlines for an on-stage incident with Mike Chiesa at a press conference. Sharing a stage with Daniel Cormier and Jon Jones, Lee managed to steal the spotlight with his attire, his words and his ability to force Chiesa to act out.
The moment didn’t go to waste, and Lee cemented his place in MMA fans’ minds with a first-round submission win. He parlayed his moment into an interim title shot.
Ferguson was the first name up for the interim title and Lee’s combustible post-fight interview with Ferguson made him the perfect opponent after Khabib Nurmagomedov let his shot slip away at UFC 209.
The detractors have plenty of ammunition against Lee. He hasn’t fought top contenders, he talked his way into a title shot and perhaps the most popular dig—he’s just emulating lightweight champion Conor McGregor’s brash trash talk.
“It’s just me, it’s just how I grew up in Detroit, we talk s--- and get into fights,” Lee told SI.com. “Even when I did the interview with Tony, I don’t care if it was just him watching or a million people watching or 100 million people.
“I’m just being me and telling him how I really feel. It ain’t no act. “
That freedom to be himself is the essence of Lee’s confidence. It's organic, not forced. It doesn’t occupy his mental faculties or his through process.
“You see it from a lot of these guys,” Lee said. “I think Michael Johnson is probably the biggest example of it. I went back and watched his fight with Tony Ferguson and that Mike was way different than the Mike now. He’s trying. He’s talking about killing people and doing all this.
“I tell people the real. I ain’t going to kill you, of course I’m not, I don’t even want to. When you’re trying to make those little sound bytes and all that, it never works out well and I think that it comes through in the fight.”
With the advent of social media, public figures are often a target of constant beration from fans, detractors and potential opponents. For some fighters, it’s a powerful tool and for other’s, a distraction that challenges their mental toughness.
“Honestly, I don’t read most of them. It don’t bother me,” Lee said. “For some people it do, it really do, they get annoyed by it. If you got hate in your heart like that and you’re watching me, I feel sorry for you really. At the end of the day, I feel sorry.
“Even when other fighters talk s---, there is no room for emotion in this game.”
In the week leading up to his fight, which will take place just days after the worst mass shooting in United States history, Lee spent his free time visiting a children's hospital in his adopted hometown. It wasn’t a UFC event or public relations move; Lee didn’t even publicize it. It was just a chance for him to visit the toughest warriors he knows and draw inspiration ahead of a chance to change his family’s life for the better.
As a kid, Lee’s struggles in urban Detroit were different than those of the children he visited in hospital, but a certain bond exists.
“After this one, I’m going to go back to Detroit and throw a big block party,” Lee said. “I’m going to give back to the kids that come up in the same situation I did, in the same neighborhood, in the same city. I think this one is mostly going to be about giving back to them.
“I’m going to go back and share with the city a little bit. I’m going to show the kids that you can have the right things and do the right things. With a little bit of hard work and a little bit of dedication, I know everybody says it, but it really can be true.”
Lee will return home to Detroit as a beacon of light and hope in a downtrodden city. The most important message he wants to send kids is that there are many avenues to better yourself despite the circumstances you were born into.
And in the shadows of Little Caesars Arena, Lee will have an eye on a grander homecoming at UFC 218 in December.
“If I walk out of [UFC 216] with no bruises, scratches or no nothing, I’ll defend the title against Khabib in Detroit. I’ve said it before and I really mean that, I’ll take out both the No. 1 contenders and then maybe fight Conor.
“If Conor wants to take a warm-up fight against Nate, or whatever he wants to do, I really don’t care. I’ll defend the title against the most deserving challenger to the title, if McGregor feels like that’s him, he can prove it to me.”
Tony Ferguson’s chance has finally come
For two men walking out of the same college wrestling program at Grand Valley State University into the cage to fight for a UFC world title, the contrast couldn’t be greater. One, Lee, is a henom, as his nickname suggests, with 11 UFC fights under his belt already and a title shot at 25 years old.
“We came from the same university, I was the captain of a two-time national championship team,” Ferguson said. “I came from that same background he did, but he is a quitter. He didn’t want that in a college, he was looking for something different. I’m not trying to look for a fast route, I wanted to make sure that what I learned I’m going to use.”
Ferguson is a grizzled UFC veteran, who has worked for years to finally get his shot at gold. He was turned away from The Ultimate Fighter multiple times before finally forcing his way on to the show and winning in a weight class 15 pounds heavier than the one he normally competes at.
“I’ve been working my ass off for plenty of years, over 20,” Ferguson said. “I got a double doctorate in athletics.”
Ferguson has always had to fight for every opportunity. When most fighters overcome one obstacle to reach a goal, Ferguson has to overcome two. Finally, at 33, Ferguson gets his long-awaited and overdue title shot.
“My mental capacity is way beyond a lot of these younger and older fighters, and a lot of the vets,” Ferguson said.
In Ferguson’s 13-fight UFC career, he has just one loss, which came over five years ago. Since then he has rattled off nine straight wins, including dispatching former lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos last year in a five-round fight at altitude in Mexico City.
“The things that have always taken me off course, I’ve learned from them,” Ferguson said. “It’s trial and error. I’m a master trainer and the reason why I am is because of trial and error.”
Ferguson would’ve preferred to fight Conor McGregor or Khabib Nurmagomedov. Both are bigger names in the sport than Lee, but neither was ready to step into the cage.
“Nobody else was going to sign on the dotted line,” Ferguson said. “This guy is the perfect dance partner. He talks a lot of s---, I don’t like to talk, I like to talk with my fists.”
Ray Borg is looking to change his family’s life for the better
Ray Borg is once again standing in the way of history at UFC 216, when flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson aims to set the record for consecutive title defenses. Originally the title bout was booked for UFC 215, but UFC doctors pulled Borg from the fight over health concerns.
The bout was rescheduled less than a month later, and Borg was able to keep his title shot.
“It’s always a scary situation when something like that happens on whether or not I’m going to get the shot,” Borg said.
In the past, withdrawing from bouts has caused fighters to lose their shot. Khabib Nurmagomedov was slated to fight Tony Ferguson for the interim lightweight title at UFC 209, but after a hospital visit during his weight cut forced him out of the bout, the slot went to Kevin Lee.
“It made me feel more comfortable knowing the UFC doctor was looking out for my best interest and health,” Borg said.
Borg’s road to the title shot wasn’t easy, so it’s only fitting the fight was delayed. The UFC pushed for former bantamweight TJ Dillashaw to challenge Johnson for the flyweight title after his bantamweight title bout against Cody Garbrandt at UFC 213 fell through.
Johnson adamantly opposed Dillashaw fighting, since he had never competed professionally at 125-pounds and was concerned the fight could fall through if he failed to make weight.
It was a super fight that could’ve potentially been lucrative for Johnson, though he claims that wouldn’t be the case given his current contract situation. Instead, Johnson campaigned for Borg, the No. 3 contender behind a pair of fighters Johnson has already beaten, to get the shot.
“There was much respect there, for him respecting how the rankings work,” Borg said. “[Jussier] Formiga was supposed to get the next shot if he beat me, I beat Formiga so I got his shot.”
Borg added: “He just did what a good champion would do, respect the rankings and fight who is next in his division.”
At 24, Borg is young and has a long, bright future. He already has seven fights under his belt in three years in the UFC, and perhaps over a decade of competition ahead of him.
A title win at this age could set Borg up to be champion for a long time, and more importantly change his family’s life for the better. Champions get paid in the UFC.
Title holders get pay-per-view points for their contract, though Johnson inexplicably is getting that perk for the first time of his career at UFC 216, allowing them earn more than just their show money or win bonuses. In the Reebok deal, champions get paid the most out of any fighters, $40,000 per fight. Just challenging for the title has already given Borg a bump from $5,000 to $30,000.
“That’s always the motivation,” Borg said. “I know that there is even more to come if I go in there and win this belt.
“So I’m looking to go in there and better my life and better my career with a win”
The last hurdle on the path to a more prosperous career is perhaps the best UFC fighter of all-time.
“Either way, history is going to be made that night,” Borg said. “He is either going to get his 11th victory or I’m going to be the second ever UFC flyweight champion.”