kevin-lee.jpgKevin Lee almost didn’t get to go through with his first amateur MMA fight because he showed up to the building without a mouthpiece or a cup. He just didn’t know they were required, but someone was able to get him some so he could fight later in the night.

It took him a few minutes before it sunk in that he could also strike, which changed the fight significantly for the wrestler.

And here’s the thing: That experience, which seems laughable now to the up-and-coming 155-pounder, wasn’t that long ago, in 2010.

“I was home for the summer after graduating high school,” Lee told MMAjunkie.com (www.mmajunkie.com). “I was just trying to get involved in jiu-jitsu and kind of signed up for an amateur fight by accident. I had that fight on a Saturday and a jits tournament on a Sunday.

“It was a crazy weekend.”

Now, not even three years later, Lee is making a name for himself in MMA. Balancing his career with studies in biomedical sciences, he improved his professional record to 4-0 this past weekend by beating Bellator veteran Kyle Prepolec with a second-round submission at Michiana Fight League 29.

All four of Lee’s pro victories have came in just more than a full calendar year, since he gave up his final two years of wrestling eligibility at Grand Valley State University to pursue his professional career. An equally quick learner in wrestling, the 20-year-old Detroit native picked up that sport during his junior year of high school and quickly became a recruitable athlete.

Because his background includes difficult family times (his first attempt at wrestling was cut short, in part, because of an uncertain living situation), Lee was provided with plenty of motivation to make himself a success. That was boosted by a backstage meeting with his fighting idol, Georges St-Pierre, after one of his fights.

He is an example, he admits, that the biggest step some naturally talented athletes have to take to get involved in MMA is deciding how seriously they want to be a success.

“The mental part, I would say, is about 80 percent,” he said. “No I would go higher, like 90 percent. No, 95 percent. If you have the hunger and passion to do it, you can get it done.”

Often an underdog

Lee was born and raised in Detroit, in an area that he described as “the lowest of the low class you could possibly imagine.”

His father was always a role model because of his work ethic and his intelligence, but Lee said he had gotten into some trouble when he was younger that kept him from a higher station in life.

“He worked so much I barely got to see him,” he said. “He’s literally the smartest man I’ve met so far. He’s smart, but he just doesn’t get the recognition for it.”

It was an early lesson for Lee that talent itself wasn’t enough to be a success. It needed a healthy dose of motivation while staying on the right path.

He was a basketball lover through his youth, but during his freshman year of high school, he didn’t make the basketball team. He considered wrestling, but it didn’t work out then.

“We kind of lost the house,” he said. “It was right about the time the economy was dropping, so I pretty much had to stop wrestling.”

He got interested again as a junior, partially because his high school wasn’t known for wrestling, which provided another dose of motivation to take ownership of the team and stand out. He did well enough to earn a spot on the team at Grand Valley State, but he quickly gained another interest the summer after he graduated from high school.

Quick learner

Lee had liked MMA from the first time he saw a fight, which he remembers as St-Pierre vs. B.J. Penn. Seeing the sport helped his interest in wrestling.

After his high school graduation, he thought about getting involved in jiu-jitsu. Because of that, he unexpectedly landed in his first amateur MMA fight, the first of 10 he would win without a loss.

He was coaxed by coaches attending the first fight to join a gym and legitimately begin training. For the next two years, he would balance his college wrestling career as well as his MMA training and more amateur fights.

By the time he finished his sophomore wrestling season, he felt he had proved whatever he could as an amateur fighter. He had beaten some of the state’s best, and his passion was running strong. He decided to become a professional fighter and give up wrestling.

“I just wanted a bigger challenge,” he said.

He has met those challenges. His pro debut came on March 31, 2012, with a victory. He gained more inspiration in June 2012 after a bout at Instinct Fighting 4 in Montreal, where he beat Mansour Barnaoui. One of his idols, St-Pierre, came to the dressing room.

“He said it was a good fight, and I was just flabbergasted,” he said.

In his third fight, Lee was scheduled to face an opponent who was later reassigned to another fight. As a replacement, Lee drew J.P. Reese, a former Division I wrestler who was a Bellator veteran. Changing his strategy quickly, Lee beat Reese by decision, which boosted his confidence.

After winning again and improving to 4-0, Lee is hoping to continue his regular string of fights while balancing his education toward what he hopes is a career in sports medicine.

“I can’t even really put it into words how amazing it has been,” Lee said of his quickly progressing career. “It’s not all about how early you got started or how much time you’ve put in. If you have the drive, you can compete.”

Award-winning newspaper reporter Kyle Nagel pens “Fight Path” each week. The column focuses on the circumstances that led fighters to a profession in MMA. Know a fighter with an interesting story? Email us at news [at] mmajunkie.com.

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