Las Vegan Kevin Lee is revisiting his past in an effort to take a big step forward in the future.
The lightweight contender hopes avenging a 2014 loss to Al Iaquinta in the main event of the UFC on Fox 31 card in Milwaukee on Saturday night will help propel him to a title shot.
It’s the pursuit of the belt, not blind vengeance, that prompted Lee to take the rematch against Iaquinta nearly five years since Iaquinta spoiled Lee’s UFC debut with a unanimous decision victory at UFC 169 in New Jersey.
The bout headlines the final event on Fox as the UFC’s new deal with ESPN begins in January. Saturday’s main card on the network begins at 5 p.m. Preliminary card bouts begin on Fox Sports 1 at 2 p.m.
Iaquinta is coming off a somewhat competitive loss to champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and Lee believes a dominant win Saturday would allow him to lobby for a title bout against Nurmagomedov.
“His last fight he went real well with Khabib,” Lee told reporters this week about Iaquinta. “That’s what motivates me even more. I’m chasing that title. Of course, I want the fight back. He’s got the bogus win over me he shouldn’t have.
“That bites at me a little, but more than anything I want that title and he’s the quickest route to it right now. It just makes the most sense.”
Lee was 7-0 as a pro when he signed with the UFC to fight Iaquinta back in 2014 and suffered the first loss of his career.
Both fighters have made tremendous strides forward to the elite upper echelon of the lightweight division. Lee is 10-2 since that first meeting, with one of those losses coming in an interim title fight last year when he had a great start against Tony Ferguson before getting submitted in the third round.
Iaquinta, however, feels he still has a mental edge.
“I’ve seen him progress each fight,” Iaquinta said of Lee. “I think he’s gotten bigger, stronger and more powerful. I’m just way smarter. I outsmarted him in the first fight. He was second-guessing himself in between rounds and he’ll be second-guessing himself right off the bat. He saw what I was made of in the first fight and I’m still made of the same (expletive). I’m just way smarter, way more mature and I’ve been in there with tougher guys. He got lucky he got me so early because he would have got knocked out like the rest of them.”
Lee, a 26-year-old who came to Las Vegas from Detroit when he committed full-time to an MMA career, expects to overwhelm Iaquinta on his way to the top of the division.
He insists he’s not looking ahead, though.
“I always have my long-term goals in the back of my head, but right now my focus is 100 percent on Al and seeing his tendencies and what he likes to do,” Lee said. “There’s a lot of things that I can take advantage of to make sure I shine on Saturday. After that, I can be me and let it flow and just see who’s next.”
Lee hopes that will be a shot against Nurmagomedov even if deep down he admits Ferguson should rightfully get that chance.
Ferguson and Nurmagomedov have been booked to face each other on four occasions over the last few years only to have each of the bouts scrapped. Now with Nurmagomedov as the champion and Ferguson the unquestioned top contender, the organization is likely to try to book it again.
Lee says he would like to see it happen because he likes it in the interest of pure competition, but he’s not going to let that stop him from his own pursuits.
“Maybe some things are just destined to never happen,” he said. “If it doesn’t, then you know I’m going to squeeze my way in there. I think people will see Saturday night I’m the rightful holder of that title anyway and then I’ll let the people decide. I’m going to whoop Al so bad the people will be screaming for it.”