Following an upset defeat against Al Iaquinta, Kevin Lee decided to make the move up to the UFC's welterweight division. In his first bout at 170 pounds, Lee will fight in the main event of Saturday's UFC Fight Night card in Rochester, New York, against Rafael dos Anjos -- a former lightweight champion who made a similar transition to welterweight in 2017.
At lightweight, Lee relied on his physical wrestling style to control fights, and he will certainly attempt that style here. Dos Anjos is coming off back-to-back losses against former collegiate wrestlers who used that skill set to subdue him along the fence and on the ground.
Will Lee's offense translate at welterweight? Has dos Anjos made adjustments for facing a wrestler? A look at a few key statistical categories highlights the factors that could answer these questions and end up determining the winner on Saturday night.
Lee's takedown prowess is somewhat overlooked, since he spent his entire UFC career in the same division as lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov. "The Motown Phenom" may not be at the same level as Nurmagomedov, but Lee is still a consistent and dangerous takedown threat. In 14 career UFC fights, he has landed 35 takedowns, which is good enough for 10th in lightweight history. The total equates to a rate of 3.10 takedowns per 15 minutes, which is seventh best among all combined ranked lightweights and welterweights. He lands only 40 percent of his takedown attempts, but he more than makes up for that with volume, as he attempts 7.09 takedowns per 15 minutes.
Dos Anjos is also a skilled takedown artist. As a lightweight, the former champion was landing 2.33 takedowns per 15 minutes. However, since moving up to welterweight that rate has dropped all the way down to 0.96. Not only has his takedown rate fallen off a cliff following the move up in weight, but the change has also resulted in the emergence of an apparent defensive wrestling liability. As a welterweight, he has surrendered 3.20 takedowns per 15 minutes.
Size plays a large role in all combat sports, but its influence is even more notable in competitions that include grappling. Both of these fighters are former lightweights who leaned on their wrestling in the past. Dos Anjos has not been able to impose his will the same way up a weight, but then again, he has faced three tough wrestlers in a row: Robbie Lawler, Colby Covington and Kamaru Usman. The role of size and strength is an unknown factor when predicting the grappling contest here. Will Lee be even more physically imposing when he does not have to cut the extra weight, or will dos Anjos revert to his wrestling success when matched against someone more similar to his natural weight?
Despite the unknown, the wrestling balance seems to favor Lee. If he is able to establish his trademark takedown game at his new weight class, it should go a long way to determining the winner of this fight. Both fighters have solid striking numbers, but they both rely heavily on their wrestling to set up an important portion of their strikes.
Striking differential/distance striking
In terms of striking differential, which is significant strikes landed per minute (SLpM) minus significant strikes absorbed per minute (SApM), Lee has a small advantage. His career differential is +0.88, while dos Anjos checks in at +0.29. The metrics for both fighters are very similar and composed of similar offensive and defense rates. Lee's SLpM currently stands at 4.06, and he absorbs 3.18 significant strikes per minute. On the other hand, dos Anjos lands 3.62 per minute and has a career 3.62 SApM.
Overall, their striking rates are similar and near the average for ranked lightweights and welterweights. However, both fighters see a drastic offensive decline when including only distance strikes. At distance, which is defined as standing and not in the clinch, Dos Anjos lands only 2.41 per minute, and Lee's rate falls all the way to 2.15. Both fighters are also rather inaccurate at distance. Dos Anjos lands only 39 percent of his attempts at distance, while Lee's accuracy is even worse, at 31 percent.
While each fighter has respectable overall striking numbers, the numbers point to a necessity for each to land in positions other than standing at distance -- and with similar numbers, the combatant who is able to control the position of this fight will have the advantage.
Winning the takedown contest in this fight will be vital, because the fighter who can work from the top position will have a decided edge in striking opportunities. Both fighters excel in terms of ground striking, but Lee has had the better track record up to this point. In his UFC career, he has landed 257 significant ground strikes while absorbing only 45. The Grand Rapids, Michigan, native also is extremely accurate on the ground, as he has landed 76 percent of his significant strike attempts on the floor.
Lee does a good job of mixing up his offense from the top position. He not only looks to strike, but also uses that striking to set up his submission game. Lee has averaged 1.29 passes per takedown and has claimed four rear-naked choke submission victories in the UFC.
Dos Anjos has also been successful striking on the ground. He has landed 186 significant ground strikes in his UFC career. In 2014, he picked up a signature victory over Nate Diaz, thanks in large part to his ground striking. In the bout, dos Anjos landed 39 of his 51 significant ground attempts on the way to a one-sided decision. However, since moving up to welterweight, takedowns have been harder to come by, and he has therefore been unable to land on the floor. In his last outing, against Kamaru Usman, dos Anjos was outlanded 49-5 on the ground.
An ability to control positioning in a fight through wrestling is always vital in MMA, and that could easily be the determining factor in this contest. Both fighters have shown that they can impose their will offensively on the floor.
If neither fighter is able to establish ground or positional control, there is one key factor that could turn the fight into dos Anjos' favor. During his UFC career, 20 percent of dos Anjos' landed significant strikes have come against his opponents' legs. When striking the legs, he has landed 83 percent of his attempts. In his last UFC victory, dos Anjos outlanded former champion Lawler 24-1, in terms of significant leg strikes.
On the other hand, only 2 percent of his landed significant strikes have connected to the legs. He does the vast majority of his striking at the head (78 percent) and body (20 percent). If dos Anjos is able to establish distance, he should be able to land from outside of Lee's range. While both fighters typically like to close the distance and fight in close quarters, this is a wrinkle that could give Lee some problems.