Kevin Lee vs. Al Iaquinta 2 headlines UFC on FOX 31 this December 15, 2018 at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
One sentence summary:
David: Kevin Lee tries to get back into title contention by fighting the world’s toughest real estate agent.
Phil: The UFC doesn’t like Raging Al that much, so it’s time to retrospectively erase one of his best wins.
Record: Kevin Lee 17-3 | Al Iaquinta 13-4-1 Draw
Odds: Kevin Lee -335 | Al Iaquinta +305
History / Introduction to Both Fighters
David: Lee was somewhere between Melvin Guillard and Charles Oliveira after he lost to Leonardo Santos to me: a talented prospect who would either never quite figure the game it, or had the game figured out but had just topped out earlier than we anticipated. He ended being neither, hewing closer to the Max Holloway path minus the historic run and ridiculous instincts. Now Lee is a mainstay as a top flight lightweight and someone you can rely on force Michael Chiesa into a random killcrazy rampage.
Phil: Kevin Lee has an interesting history at lightweight, where he tended to pick up wins and losses which didn’t look all that great in retrospect, but which have improved over time. Jake Matthews win looks better than it did, and that Michel Prazeres win looks great considering that Trator hasn’t lost since. Meanwhile, the loss to Leonardo Santos was weird and remains so, but it’s not like Santos has lost since. Other than that, Lee has just steadily worked his way up and up. There’s a lot of weird power dynamics at the top of lightweight at the moment, and a lot of fighters deserving of a shot, but Lee remains someone that would be on the first ballot for a lot of people when discussing future champions at either this weight class or a hypothetical 165. He’s a great personality: thoughtful and smart, with a mix of abrasiveness and self-awareness which you either dig a lot or find infuriating, and he’s increasingly a must-watch talent.
David: I poke fun at the real estate thing, but only because Al seemed confused about his job that one time. In truth, I have a lot of respect for Al. He has a quietly phenomenal record. He’s outspoken (not always for the best), works two jobs (just kidding: an 8-3 UFC fighter should not have to work two jobs), and has a fun, almost quixotic swagger about him that isn’t steeped in the east coast machismo of his peers. He had no problem fighting Khabib when everyone else did, and frankly gave a better account of himself than Conor McGregor (IMO: and taking into account that MMA-math is worthless, but convenient as a rhetorical tool). Somehow this has all added up to a fight with one of lightweight’s top contenders at a random time, but at least these guys aren’t a broken fibula away from a permanent capacity rollator like the fight from a few weeks ago.
Phil: Raging Al is someone who has become a strangely central figure in the UFC while not actually doing that much. He was heavily favoured to win TUF before getting Chiesa’d, and never quite picked up the marquee win which would announce him as an elite lightweight. The possible exception is the Masvidal fight, which won our coveted “Robbery of the Year” award, much to Al’s...uh, rage. He retired to go and work in real estate, and then came back at just the right time to win the lottery to fight Khabib Nurmagomedov. He put forward a brave effort (his best moment was still when he pretended to be disappointed by the decision), but retains his weird spot: highly ranked, well-known, but without the actual wins to really back it up?
What’s at stake?
David: I honestly don’t know. Even if this were a more meaningful matchup (again, I reiterate: this is a good fight, but the timing feels off) for Lee, a win won’t clarify his status among the lightweight elite: company he’s already functionally in.
Phil: Not much. Al announces himself as a real contender should he pull through, and Lee will just get derailed. The whole Ferguson/Khabib/Conor/Poirier logjam is unlikely to resolve itself any time soon, though, so Lee is mostly just treading water with a win.
Where do they want it?
Phil: Lee has evolved a far more comfortable, dangerous range striking game. He’s finally learned to rely on his prodigious reach, working off a long jab and more figuring out how to push his opponents in one direction or the other with a dipping right hand or a body kick. He’s always been a powerful kicker and this is something which he’s carried with him as he’s improved (witness him whomping Barboza’s entire body sideways with a body kick, or going upside the head on Francisco Trinaldo). A degree of comfort in the pocket has done major lifting in making him a more consistent threat everywhere, as he no longer turns away from oncoming strikes or feels compelled to run into the safety zone of his wrestling game. His wrestling game in general works as a combination of GSP and Khabib- a powerful double leg as the centerpiece, with can-opener and knee slide guard passes is all reminiscent of the Canadian great. Like Khabib, he also likes wrestling rides and trapping the wrist. Unlike either man, he’s also a tremendously dangerous submission threat. As he’s evolved into a complete package, Lee’s only real flaw remains his chin: he’s been dropped or hurt by almost everyone he’s fought, including Iaquinta in their first bout.
David: Lee is a fighter truly learning to understand that sometimes it’s better to go wide than straight. What the hell does that even mean? It means some fighters attack you with one thing. And sometimes doing one thing really well is not only good enough, but preferable. Lee is realizing (whether the result of self-awareness, coaching, or just raw instinct) that his defense isn’t good enough, so to keep his defense from getting attention, he’s become more committed to attacking from many angles: literally and figuratively. With a range of brutal kicks, and straight rights, he measures from a distance without losing the ability to make opponents feel like they have space (i.e. Cheater Arms). He also has some of the most dangerous top games in the sport. His grappling doesn’t jump at you because he’s not a true blue technician, but his ability to cut the guard up, and transition to dominant positions is achieved by a scary combination of speed, power, and timing.
Phil: In some ways when looking at Iaquinta, it’s hard to say what there is about his game which would make him qualify as elite. He’s a powerful puncher, but not one of the bigger ones in the division. He’s a good combination striker, but has neither the defined pressure of a Poirier, McGregor or Gaethje, or the outside boxing of a Masvidal or a Diaz. Instead he ends up as a kind of lightweight JDS, working best in midrange exchanges where he can plant his feet, slip and exchange. He’s always been crafty (manipulating Pearson’s head movement into a fight-ending exchange) and tough (the Khabib fight), but he’s someone that got given his best possible style elite matchup in the division in Masvidal, and still struggled mightily. His takedown defense is solid, enabled by good fundamental footwork, but he also makes bizarre grappling brainfarts.
David: Come on? Switching from defending a single leg into a backdoor heelhook attempt is the best kind of brainfart: the kind that’s so noxious it can used as a weapon. Anyway, Iaquinta is an “inexplicably” successful fighter. His game cuts to the heart of how sometimes it’s just the fundamentals. For a guy who relies primarily on the sweet science of boxing, it makes sense that his assets are not overt. Two things stand out when looking at Raging Al’s game: his timing, and his movement. Iaquinta is on the cutting edge of sports training. He’s in the gym with the kind of brain goggles that Steph Curry uses to enhance his sense of timing. In addition to turning visual learning into violent efficiency, he’s just effortless with his footwork. He slides in and out, using lateral movements to keep the punch entries coming from a variety of angles instead of simply straight in or out.
Insight from past fights?
Phil: The first thing about their previous fight is that it’s more competitive than I remembered it being. Iaquinta drops Lee badly (of course) but he also almost gets submitted, and the stanzas on the feet were closer than I remembered, despite Lee’s bizarre Mayweather stylings. More recently, looking at how much Khabib’s takedowns closed down Iaquinta’s striking and allowed Khabib to pick him off on the feet, it’s hard not to see Lee’s long jab getting some serious play.
David: The thing I took from their first fight is that Lee likes to experiment. He’s the rare example of an athlete (ok fine: yes, and explosive) challenging his own body to see what it can do. Yea a shoulder roll defense on the feet was a bad MMA idea, but he tried it, it didn’t work, and now he moves on a brighter fighter. The big thing is, as you already mentioned, Lee’s defense. Even though it’s gotten better, this is a guy who got jabbed to the floor by Iaquinta, got cracked by a spinning back elbow from Mustafaev, and had to dance for the KO gods just to keep Barboza from killing him.
Phil: Lee’s weight cut? I think he took some time to make it, and he’s clearly growing into that ridiculous frame. Other than that not much. Both guys are tough and professional.
David: I believe Lee is improving in just enough areas to remain a threat regardless of how vulnerable he is on the feet. I mean, even when he’s hurt I just get the impression it won’t matter. Plus Iaquinta doesn’t have the kind of offense to pressure over the long haul. At his worst, Iaquinta struggled to beat Lee. Lee is comfortably at his best right now while Iaquinta has the attitude of a man one foot out of the sport. Kevin Lee by Decision
Phil: The main problem for Lee is that he’s still not all that comfortable on the feet, and he still runs out of mental stamina there on occasion, causing him to get clocked. Iaquinta is more durable than him, and a powerful hitter who already knows that he can hurt Lee. With that being said, everything else seems to favour Lee. He’s younger, bigger, more athletic, more visibly improved and more offensively dangerous. Unless Iaquinta can pressure him, Raging Al will find himself at the end of those Dhalsim limbs (although given the grappling and damage Lee puts out, maybe Seth* is a better comparison). Regardless Kevin Lee by submission, round 3.
*This is the greatest comparison ever. As a Seth player, I hated the perception of him as “broken” just because he could spam google arms off the jump. One uppercut, and he was done. Balanced character, who only ever breakthrough in Poongko’s hands.