When the “British Invasion” hit the UFC several years ago, the doors to the biggest stage in mixed martial arts were flung open, and fighters across the United Kingdom set their sights on making a home in the UFC.
Seemingly overnight, scores of hard-nosed Brits took to the Octagon in hopes of battling their way onto the organization’s roster. Some would eventually climb high enough to obtain superstar status, where others broke against the harsh realities of the sport’s ultimate proving ground.
While the high tide of the British surge would come and go, the avenues of export laid down by the initial wave would provide opportunities for the next generation of England’s finest.
Birmingham native Vaughan Lee respects the work his fellow countrymen have done to bring UK MMA to the forefront of the sport, and it’s a cause he’s proud to carry on, as the 30-year-old bantamweight parlayed his success on the English mixed martial arts circuit into an opportunity to compete in the UFC.
For the past two years, Lee has been battling to gain traction under the UFC banner. It has been a “give and take” affair, as the Team UTC fighter has experienced mixed results inside the cage. Following a setback in his promotional debut against Chris Cariaso at UFC 138 in November of 2011, Lee bounced back strong with a victory over Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto as he submitted the Japanese star in the first round of their tilt at UFC 144.
Unfortunately, a loss to rising star TJ Dillashaw in his next outing would prevent Lee from building on the momentum - but nevertheless - he was determined to get things back on track.
A victory over Motonubu Tezuka at UFC on FUEL TV 7 would put Lee back into the win column and once again he’s positioned to climb the divisional ladder in the 135-pound weight class. His next opportunity will come at UFC on FUEL TV 10 On June 8th when he squares off with former WEC contender Raphael Assuncao in Fortaleza, Brazil.
For Lee, the glory of victory provides ample motivation. But dedicating this fight to the community he represents and the people he loves has brought added inspiration.
“I’m bringing fireworks,” Lee said. “Whether it goes to the ground or it’s a standup fight; I’m ready for everything. I’m fighting for everyone that I love. I’m not just fighting for myself out there. I’m fighting for everyone. I’m fighting for the West Midlands up here in Birmingham. I’m fighting for everyone that is struggling. It’s not just about me. This fight is for everyone and I’m going to give it everything I’ve got.”
While facing Assuncao certainly provides difficult challenges, competing against a Brazilian in his home country presents an entirely different obstacle. The country widely regarded to be the birthplace of mixed martial arts has produced a passionate fan base whose commitment to the sport has been known to create a very unique environment in which to compete.
Lee knows full well what he’s going to walk into in Fortaleza. That being said, he also admits there isn’t much a fighter can do to prepare for the Brazilian crowd.
“To be honest, Brazil is going to be very hostile,” Lee said. “They are a very energetic people and they live for the fights. To prepare we have installed heaters in the gym to make it really hot and humid in order to get used to the heat in Brazil. I don’t know how you could simulate or train for that crowd though.
“I think about it all the time. It’s just in my mind and a part of getting focused for the opponent at hand. I know it’s easier said than done, but it is something I’m going to have to try to do. This training camp has been the longest camp I’ve had and we are flying out a bit earlier to adapt to the climate.”
When Lee steps into the Octagon to face Assuncao on June 8th, he will not only be looking to take a big step forward in the division but to stop his opponent’s momentum cold in the process. Since dropping down to the bantamweight division, Assuncao has been on a roll, collecting three consecutive victories, with his most recent coming over Mike Easton at UFC on FOX 5 last December.
With knockout power and solid submission skills, the WEC veteran is a well-rounded threat. But it is Assuncao’s aggression that has Lee excited about the fight.
“Stylistically I think it’s a good matchup,” Lee said. “I want a fight where someone is going to stand in there and try to take my head off like Kid [Yamamoto] tried to. I like those kinds of fights. I like to have a scrap or a good row. I don’t care much for the fights where I have to constantly be looking to defend the takedowns. Assuncao is going to come out swinging and that’s good for me.”
The fight between Lee and Assuncao may not have any immediate impact on the bantamweight title picture, but with the division experiencing strange times in 2013, every 135-pound fighter on a solid winning streak has a chance to become a future contender.
Reigning champion Dominick Cruz has been on the sidelines for nearly two years with a knee injury and interim champion Renan Barao recently suffered a foot injury that will put him out of action for the foreseeable future. This turn of events has created a unique situation and Lee believes it is anyone’s game at the moment.
“The guys in the top 10 of this division are awesome,” Lee said. “Anyone who gets a good string of wins put together is definitely in line for a shot at the title and any of those guys can take it. Things are a bit weird at the moment. There are guys coming up right now like the Alpha Male guys who are making waves. “Bang” [Duane Ludwig] is their new head coach and they are just on a rampage. It’s crazy at the moment. Everyone is improving and the division is getting super-good.”