Kevin Lee attended a charity event Tuesday at the Luxor, next door to Mandalay Bay, and glanced up to the 32nd floor room where the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history was perpetrated.
“It’s been heartbreaking, and it’s taken my mind away from me for a long time this week,” Lee said. “But now I’ve got a job to do.”
Lee, 25, is fighting Costa Mesa’s Tony Ferguson in Saturday night’s UFC 216 main event at T-Mobile Arena, a card expected to draw more than 10,000 fans just a few blocks north from where Stephen Paddock opened fire on a crowd at the Route 91 country music festival.
“We’re here in Las Vegas … it’s hard to stay focused with that [tragedy],” Ferguson told the UFC’s Megan Olivi. “But we’re here for a reason. We’re here to fight. … We don’t just do this to fight and beat somebody up. We aim to inspire, to motivate, to get people to see the grit and determination. Hopefully, this might be a distraction for some people.”
Should Ferguson (23-3) defeat Lee (16-2) for the UFC’s interim lightweight belt, he’ll be in position to land his richest fight yet with lightweight champion Conor McGregor, who likely made $100 million in his Aug. 26 novelty boxing match against Floyd Mayweather Jr.
While some Las Vegas shows have been postponed, Celine Dion and Jennifer Lopez are among those scheduled to perform this weekend. The UFC plans a $1 million donation to those affected by the tragedy.
“Growing up in Detroit, there was so much gun violence, that was the norm,” Lee, 25, said. “And I’ll speak honestly: When I was a kid, I carried a gun for no reason. It was just out of fear, because everyone else had them. When I grew up, I realized what’s important in life. You put it down, walk away, fight another day.”
Lee has lived in Las Vegas while riding a five-fight winning streak that has taken him here.
“I’m just like a lot of people here. We come from other places, but we all come together. That’s what’s beautiful about Vegas, walking around and seeing people from all different walks of life. … We’re all the same. I hope that resonates,” Lee said.
“This is bigger than myself. It’d be easy to sit and feel sorry for yourself, but I’m willing to sacrifice my energy and put my body on the line to take people’s minds off it. If I can give you 25 minutes of not thinking about something else, then it’s worth it to me — to fight and take the biggest risk I can take. That’s what life is all about.”
Lee and flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson agreed the tragedy makes the timing right to address the toll of guns on society. Johnson said he keeps two guns in his home for personal safety, “but I don’t agree somebody should have so many guns. … They should tighten up the gun laws.”
Said Lee: “The more we can create a dialogue, the more that we can speak up for the people without a voice, that’s what I’m trying to do now. My voice is going to be bigger. I’ve got to get that gold belt. Once I’ve got that gold belt around my waist, my voice will be even bigger and then I can really speak up.”
Johnson seeks to break longtime middleweight champion Anderson Silva’s record of 10 consecutive successful title defenses yet understands more is at stake.
“Things will go on. Vegas will bounce back,” Johnson said. “It will take some time. I don’t expect things to change overnight. But I’m pleased the UFC is going on with this event to help people get through this, and hopefully we can provide some good entertainment.”
Follow Lance Pugmire on Twitter @latimespugmire