Why is it that some fighters pay their dues for years without ever receiving a title shot or any significant time in the limelight, while others make their debut and become instant celebrities?
What is the “It” factor, and how does the UFC or any organization for that matter, determine who has it?
Freshmen fighters like Paige VanZant and Sage Northcutt somehow steal the stage after only one fight for the UFC, while other fighters, such as Kevin Lee (11-1) – who has already fought five times for the UFC and is currently riding a 4-fight-win-streak – and his upcoming opponent, who has even more experience, winning eight of his last nine fights for the UFC, Leonardo Santos, have not seen the limelight or been given a top ten fighter.
“The MoTown Phenom” Kevin Lee put this “It Factor” phenomenon in laymen’s terms, to try and explain what it means to the UFC’s more experienced and established fighters:
“I think everybody knows someone like that; whatever your job is, when the boss’ son, or the coach’s son, suddenly comes on and gets that special treatment. Everyone has met and not liked a person like that, especially when you’ve been the one keeping your head down, pushing through.
Lee has made his feelings clear through his social media and various interviews, even going as far as calling out Sage, and putting in the call to UFC matchmaker Joe Silva:
“I spoke out for all the veteran fighters. That kid gets more shine than anyone in the division, and it all comes from Dana. I think a lot of people feel the same way about that boss’ son, etc. The only difference is for me, I’m a professional fighter, so I can actually beat him up, if they let me, maybe even early next year.”
Kevin Lee has demonstrated improvement with every UFC he has had, from his first fight, which he took on three-week’s notice, against TUF alum Al Iaquinta. Lee showed heart by forcing the fight to a decision, but his first and only loss was an eye-opener.
“I realized that the training back at home wasn’t cutting it. I had only trained three weeks for the fight, and I kind of half-assed it. I wasn’t taking training as seriously as I could and should.”
Lee’s journey to that first UFC fight began when he was a teenager and he joined the wrestling team.
“I’m one of those rare people, who wanted to do MMA before wrestling, but I started late, at 16. I started with my wrestling, but always with the intention of going into MMA. In school, I was more athletic than most and I could overpower a lot of kids, that is what got me started”
However, once he reached college (with a wrestling scholarship to Grand Valley State University where he studied bio-med) he found he still had much to learn:
“My first two months, they beat the shit out of me. My technical problems showed up, but realizing them is what made me who I am. I discovered that I couldn’t get through on athletic ability alone. You hear a lot of people say fighting is 90% mental, but not a lot of people actually focus on the mental part of the game, and instead rely more on the physical. I try to find balance and I do a lot of studying; I am a real student of the game.”
Evidently he was a good student: when he got the call from the UFC, he was undefeated, with four of his seven wins by submission. However, making it into the big leagues was an educational level-up. His fight with Iaquinta left him with a damaged eye, but right after he recovered from his eye surgery, he decided to make some changes:
“I just got in the car and started driving west. When I got to Vegas, my old coach had some connections, so I went around to a few places. After I saw the level of sparring partners, I knew where I belonged. I had a bag in my car, so I just stayed.”
After trying a few places, he ended up at Drysdale MMA:
“He was in my corner for my last fight. His blend of wrestling and jiu jitsu is unmatched; he has so much knowledge in this game.”
In addition to his MMA training at Drysdale, Lee supplements his training with boxing. When Roy Jones Jr opened up his gym last year, Lee was one of the first to sign up and he spends his boxing training between RJJ and Mayweather’s school. Although the idea of having Floyd in his corner for a UFC fight would be a dream come true for Lee, it seems unlikely, due to the current relationship between FMJ and the UFC, but if it does happen…..
“I think I’m gonna be the first money team MMA fighter!”
So what is it that catches the eyes of the UFC powers that be, to make them want to spotlight new fighters, who haven’t yet proven themselves against ranked peers? Lee believed he had proven himself enough to this point, that surely his next call would be against a top-ten fighter, but it wasn’t yet his time. After all, Conor McGregor only fought twice for the UFC before they gave him a top-5 opponent:
“When they first gave me the opponent, I wasn’t too happy. I wanted someone higher in the pecking order. But I sat down and thought about it. He’s really well known, especially in Brazil. He is one of the best BJJ guys in the world; he submitted GSP in less than a minute! Drysdale is giving me a lot of insight, and wants me take him seriously; he’s been around the game for a long time.”
Leonardo Santos hasn’t lost a fight since 2009, (the only fight he didn’t win in his last nine fights was a draw against Norman Parke), and he does indeed have the prestige of having submitted former UFC Welterweight Champion George St. Pierre in under a minute.
However, while Lee is taking his opponent seriously, he is fully confident in his growing skills and does not doubt he will come out the victor, and not just in this fight:
“I think he’s over the hill now, I think he’s slow, He’s gonna find out he’s not on my level. It’s gonna be youth against experience, and I think I’m hungrier for it. The lightweight division is wide open right now. I’m 100% sure Cerrone beats Dos Anjos, then Khabib is gonna beat Cerrone, and then I’m gonna come beat Khabib.”
Kevin Lee took a page from McGregor’s book and decided to make his own prediction:
“I think I’ve got all the bases covered and this is my mystic prediction. I’ve got just eight more months to catch Bones (for the youngest champion in the UFC), but even if I don’t break that record, I will still be champion when I’m 24.”