Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Kevin Lee still has a lot left to accomplish, and he’s confident all of his goals can be met while fighting outside of the UFC.

As the one-time UFC interim title contender prepares for his debut at Eagle FC 46 on Friday night, he’s completely at peace with his decision to sign a four-fight deal with the fledgling promotion owned by Khabib Nurmagomedov. While there are longer tenured organizations out there with bigger television deals such as Bellator MMA or even the PFL, Lee has no doubt that Nurmagomedov and his team are going to do everything possible to bring in the best competition to face him now that he’s under their umbrella.

“It’s an exciting time,” Lee said on The Fighter vs. The Writer. “It’s kind of reinvigorated me a little bit. I feel like the chip on my shoulder got even bigger and I’ve got a lot to prove.”

Lee’s road to Eagle FC began after his surprising release from the UFC, which came two months after his last loss inside the octagon. It certainly wasn’t how Lee expected his UFC run to end, but he’s also happy that the situation forced him to test the open market to discover what else was out there.

When Eagle FC came calling with a lucrative offer, Lee began to realize that fighting in the world’s most prominent MMA promotion doesn’t always equate to success.

Now he’s not only happy with the financial compensation he’s receiving, but the 29-year-old fighter anticipates even more athletes doing the same once they hit free agency.

“There’s some dream matchups that I would love still out there,” Lee said. “I’m still a fan of the sport. I still would love some good matchups.

Dustin Poirier is talking about it, Nate Diaz is talking about it — there’s a lot of people that are kind of about to start testing even more free agency. So let’s go on and make these fights happen and give people what they want.”

Diaz is perhaps the highest profile name currently awaiting the chance to enter free agency, with just one fight left on his current deal with the UFC.

Diaz has been adamant about fighting out his contract and has been pursuing a showdown against Poirier in order to fulfill his UFC obligations before testing the open market.

Once he’s available, Lee welcomes the chance to face Diaz.

“Sounds like a huge one [with Nate Diaz],” Lee said. “Sounds good to me.”

With a fight scheduled against Diego Sanchez for his Eagle FC debut and the potential to face opponents like Diaz down the road, Lee is confident he won’t struggle to find worthwhile fights outside the UFC. Despite the perception that the UFC is the only show in town, Lee believes he can absolutely define his legacy if he never returns there again.

“I could definitely make my mark and be bigger than any fighter that the UFC has right now, in terms of the world,” Lee said. “MMA is such a small community and we all know each other and we give respect to people who do great in this sport, but I’ve seen a lot of people who are vets, who are UFC champions, and you take two steps outside the MMA world and nobody knows who they are. They don’t even look twice at them.

“There’s just a lot more to life than just that. So I feel like I could never step foot in the UFC octagon again and still be the biggest artist that they made, and be bigger than any of the other mixed martial artists that they’ve made.”

That said, Lee won’t close the door on returning to the UFC one day in the future, because he never wants to burn bridges when his career is concerned. He appreciates the time he spent in the UFC, and under the right circumstances, he’s not opposed to fighting there again.

“I could see me going back for the right fight,” Lee said. “One thing you can’t take away from the UFC, it definitely has some of the best competition in the world as far as just competing, going out there and competing against the best guys. The UFC does do a good job of grooming them and making guys there.

“I could see me going back there for the right fight. When you talk about a Charles Oliveira fight after a couple of them, there would be a few fights. A Conor McGregor fight always, but there would be a few fights that I could see me going back for.”

For now, Lee is only thinking about the next four fights ahead with Eagle FC — and his mission to become a champion starts with his collision with Sanchez on Friday night.

“I sit back at the end of the day and I’m like, man, this s*** is working out kind of nice,” Lee said. “This is kind of nice. Next is a gold belt. That’s the only thing on my mind.

“That’s all I’m thinking about these days and that’s how these fight camps go — it’s hurry up and wait. Now I’m like, let’s f****** do this s***. Let’s get it over with. Let’s do it. The lights are bright but I’ve always shined underneath them. I can’t wait.”

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