Outspoken lightweight contender Kevin Lee faces battle-tested Tony Ferguson for the interim UFC lightweight title on October 7, but despite having fewer big-name opponents on his resume, I believe he’s a solid pick to score an odds-against victory at UFC 216.
Lee, known as "The Motown Phenom," has risen through the UFC’s lightweight ranks, most recently defeating an underrated contender in Michael Chiesa to propel himself into next Saturday’s interim title clash with Ferguson.
Ferguson is the betting favorite and, on paper, that makes sense. He’s been in the title mix longer than Lee, has defeated more highly-ranked, more highly-touted, opposition and hasn’t tasted defeat in his last nine bouts, a run stretching back five and a half years.
© Etzel Espinosa-USA TODAY Sports
But sometimes when assessing fight sports – and MMA in particular, where there are so many different ways to win and lose a bout – the answers can’t always be found on the stats sheets.
Stylistically Lee looks like the right type of fighter to halt Ferguson’s undefeated streak and stop "El Cucuy" from extending his winning run into double figures.
Lee may be a flash-dressing, trash-talking character outside the octagon, but inside it he’s developed into a focused, highly-skilled, patient fighter with ever-improving striking skills backing up a formidable ground game.
Lee’s confidence initially showed in his early UFC performances, but he came unstuck against Brazilian Leonardo Santos, who flash TKO’d him at UFC 194 in 2015. Some suggested Lee’s rise toward the top would end there and then, but he’s rebounded superbly, tightened up his game markedly and now looks a more more compact, savvy fighter, and a worthy contender.
And it’s that composure and compactness that I believe gives him an outstanding shot of claiming the upset victory at UFC 216.
Ferguson has always been had a wild fighting style, coming barrelling forward throwing strikes, rolling for leg locks and diving in for takedowns. His all-or-nothing approach has overpowered many an opponent during his remarkable run to the top of the lightweight division. But a composed, well-drilled opponent with a strong ground game could prove to be Ferguson’s Kryptonite.
© Etzel Espinosa-USA TODAY Sports
There’s no doubting Ferguson is tough. He’s taken some of the nastiest leg kicks I’ve ever seen from Edson Barboza, and he recovered to win after being badly rocked by Lando Vannata. But against an elite grappler like Lee, I think Ferguson may come unstuck.
There’s also the question of activity. Ferguson hasn’t fought since November last year. Since that time, Lee has won three fights in the UFC, all by submission. Both men have form on paper, but Lee has the recent reps under his belt.
Many are likely to side with Ferguson, citing his wide-ranging, wild fighting style, as well as his more impressive fighting resume to date.
But I believe that during Ferguson’s time on the sidelines we’ve seen Lee discover his winning formula, and I believe the Detroit man has the skills to defeat Ferguson in the opening three rounds of the contest, most likely by submission finish.
Given my pick of Lee within three rounds, I also like the over/under market, with a couple of bookies on my side of the pond offering sporting odds of +120 on Under 2.5 Rounds.
- Tony Ferguson: -200 (StanJames.com)
- Kevin Lee: +200 (Bet365)
PICK: KEVIN LEE VIA SUBMISSION
[Main image credit: © Jason Silva-USA TODAY Sports]