Kevin Lee explains decision to return from retirement, reveals timeline to fight again after ACL surgery

UFC 244: Lee v Gillespie
Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Kevin Lee really was done.

Despite recently announcing his return from retirement just six months after calling it a career, the one-time UFC interim title challenger promises he didn’t make an emotional decision when he decided to walk away from MMA this past July. In fact, Lee says he contemplated laying his gloves down in the cage after his loss to Rinat Fakhretdinov, but opted to take some time to make sure that was really the best decision for him.

It wasn’t until 10 days later that he confirmed his retirement from the sport, and Lee really did walk away with the intention to never fight again.

“I was pretty resolved [in that decision to retire],” Lee told MMA Fighting. “It really started with that fight in Eagle [FC]. That’s when I first re-injured myself really big and I spent like a year, almost a year and a half trying to battle back from that without having a surgery. Each day was just harder than the last. That was probably the toughest training camp, the toughest lead-up to a fight I had. Just physically my body was getting broken down.

“At that point, when I decided to retire, it wasn’t an emotional decision. I really thought about it the night of the fight when the fight didn’t go my way. I waited until that died down to see if I would feel any different, and I didn’t. I still felt like I needed to retire at that time. I don’t regret that decision. I think it was well needed.”

Lee spent the next six months completely detached from MMA.

He didn’t go back to the gym, which was a very normal routine for him. Lee didn’t even rush into surgery despite suffering another torn ACL in his knee, an injury that plagued him several times throughout his career.

Instead, Lee began thinking about new businesses he could invest in, which included building a real estate portfolio. But as much as he tried to forget about fighting, he never could.

“When I say I spent six months away from MMA, I didn’t watch no fights, I didn’t step into the gym or anything,” Lee said. “I feel like that was a good reset for me and it honestly really made me realize what I love in this world is fighting. I could do other things out here, and I thought maybe if I made money doing something else that would kind of make fighting go away for me, and it didn’t. I was still thinking about it, and the real reason I decided to retire was because of the injuries.

“The last two months, I’ve really been contemplating [a comeback]. Honestly, the final straw for me, I spoke with my mom — I had a conversation with her and she said something to me that really woke me up. She said, ‘The smile in your soul is gone.’ It made me really realize that it’s time for me, I’ve got to come back. There’s nothing that I love more in this world than fighting, and as much as I tried to separate myself from it in the last six months, for some reason it just keeps pulling me back.”

Lee announced his plans to fight again on the final day of January, but it turns out his return to action won’t happen anytime soon.

Because he suffered another torn ACL in his knee, Lee had to undergo surgery to repair the damage done, so he’s still rehabilitating and recovering from that injury. That likely puts his next fight sometime towards the end of 2024, but he wanted to make himself accountable to do the work that it will take to compete again.

Lee admits he still frets about suffering another serious injury, but that’s a risk he’s willing to take to fight again.

“I re-tore my ACL, so I had surgery Sept. 12,” Lee revealed. “Right now, I’m about four months out from the surgery date. I’m getting stronger. Even during my retirement, I stayed in a little bit of physical therapy. Nothing major or nothing crazy, but I’m getting stronger.

“Even though I’m afraid — even now as I sit here, I’m still afraid to get hurt again — but I’m willing to roll those dice if that’s what God calls me to do. The announcement was more for myself and for other people to know that I’m throwing my hat back in the ring, but that don’t necessarily mean that I’m going to take a fight in two months or three months. It’s going to be a little bit of a warming up process to get back in there.”

Lee promises there was a lot of time and thought put into his decision to return again, just as he made sure to let his emotions calm down before announcing his retirement.

He’s going to put everything into this comeback and wants to leave the sport with no regrets this time around.

“When I said I was retired, I really meant that,” Lee said. “Now that I say I’m not [retired], I really mean that. It changes my whole lifestyle when I say these things.

“I don’t want to get to 40 years old and being like, ‘Damn, if I had only really tried. If only I [hadn’t] really gotten sucked up into drinking too much and smoking weed and doing all these things and not letting the money get to my head. If I had not done that part, what could I have been?’ That’s the point where I’m at right now. What can I do? I think if I really, really focus in and buckle down on this thing, I could be a serious world champion.”

Logistically, Lee knows he’s still months away from fighting, and that includes the necessary six months of drug testing required to return to the UFC. Because he retired, Lee dropped out of the UFC’s anti-doping program, and he expects to get back into the testing pool in the near future. But right now he’s still recovering from knee surgery, so he has time to spare.

“That’s something that we’re going to kind of solve in maybe March or April,” Lee said. “Right now it’s just going to be about getting healthy and getting in really, absolutely fantastic shape, the best shape of my life, and then we’ll make decisions on signing contracts and exactly what we have to do logistically to step back into the cage.

“This isn’t something that’s going to be a two month, three month thing. It’s going to be another six months or so before you actually see me step back into the cage.”

Lee also declared that he plans to return at 155 pounds, which is where he spent the majority of his career, but also began draining him more and more as he went through severe weight cuts. Looking back now, Lee takes responsibility for some of the problems he faced getting down to lightweight, but he’s ensuring no corners get cut this time around.

“At lightweight I’m for sure one of the top five in the world, and I feel I can compete against anybody and I can make the weight,” Lee said. “With the right preparation, I can make the weight.”

At 31, Lee is actually in the prime of his athletic career even though he already has 27 fights on his résumé. He’s not looking to jump back into the fire on day one, and if he’s required to make a slow climb back up the ladder, then that’s exactly what he’ll do.

Lee is just ready to get back to work.

“Now is the time,” Lee said. “Now is the time for me to really seize it, especially if I’m still chasing a world championship. Now is the time.”

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