Australia’s own Jake Matthews heads to Las Vegas to compete at the Ultimate Fighter 23 Finale this weekend. This will be his first official international fight, with a win set to propel the young star up the stacked lightweight rankings. The young prospect was initially slated to fight Scotsman Steven Ray, however an injury ruled Ray out of the bout and American wrestler Kevin Lee stepped in.
Lee is by no means a step down in competition, yet he nonetheless presents a different challenge than Ray, with his own unique skills and tendencies. Ray largely likes to force his opponents to stand and trade with him utilising his strong counter wrestling. From his southpaw stance he fires powerful left straights off of his jab, strong leg kicks, as well as a sneaky counter right hook as he moves backwards. Under the tutelage of one of MMA’s best minds, Tristar’s Firas Zahabi, a fight against Ray was set to be a true test.
Lee on the other hand mixes his ground and striking game together, integrating his constantly evolving striking into his strong high school wrestling base. Lee’s bread and butter is his single and double leg takedowns which he can hit in the centre of the octagon and against the cage. Once he has taken the fight to the ground Lee looks to pepper his opponents with a barrage of short punches and elbows from half-guard. As his opponents scramble Lee will usually look for the opportunity to take the back and lock up the body triangle, from where he attempts to sink in his nasty rear naked choke. Yet Lee is by no means a one trick pony, with an increasingly dangerous striking game. Since his first fight in the UFC Lee’s striking has revolved around his quick jab. Lee will look to establish his distance with the jab, and then pounce with swift jab/right straight combinations. Lee has also consistently used a strong right leg roundhouse to the body, looking to sap his opponent’s cardio.
However the most appealing factor of Lee’s striking is its evolution. Lee has constantly improved, notably adding in a strong lead leg switch kick. In his most recent fight against Efrain Escudero Lee showed another new tool, the ability to effectively switch stances. Lee will use his usual book of tricks before switching to southpaw and shooting out piston like right hand jabs, lead hand hooks, and left roundhouse kicks.
These skills coupled with Lee’s athleticism make him one of the lightweight divisions most promising prospects. Early in his UFC career his cardio seemed suspect, yet it seems like he has dealt with these issues and continues to make strives. In a way Lee’s skill set is similar to Matthews, both have strong grappling coupled with increasingly smooth striking. On July 9th we will see who can effectively utilise their skill sets to rise towards UFC gold.
Jake Crane is a Melbourne based contributor for Fight News Australia.