UFC president Dana White left no doubt which direction he wants to go with the lightweight division following Tony Ferguson’s UFC interim title victory over Kevin Lee on Saturday night.
“Tony’s the interim champion, Conor [McGregor]’s the champion, that’s the fight that makes sense, White said at the UFC 216 post-fight press conference in Las Vegas. “It’s the fight that has to happen.”
Of course, we could fill this entire column simply listing fights White insisted have to happen that didn’t quite make it to the Octagon.
McGregor, the guy who won the real lightweight belt last November he has yet to defend, still holds the best hand in this little poker game. Not only is he the UFC’s biggest star, but with Ronda Rousey and Jon Jones out of the picture, McGregor has a Secretariat-like lead on whomever’s No. 2 at the moment.
If McGregor decides a Nate Diaz trilogy fight is the one that will make him the most money, that fight will be made, and White knows it.
But White at least has to say the right things in public for now. Ferguson didn’t elevate himself into an A-list drawing card with his third-round submission of Kevin Lee at T-Mobile Arena, but he cemented his claim as the hottest fighter in the company’s deepest division with his 10th consecutive victory.
That’s enough to make Ferguson useful to White as he gets ready to start negotiating with the notoriously difficult McGregor.
Remember when Khabib Nurmagomedov was expected to fight then champion Eddie Alvarez for the lightweight belt last fall, only to have the rug pulled out from under him when McGregor swooped in and got the fight with Alvarez at Madison Square Garden? In that sense, Ferguson is the 2017 version of Nurmagomedov (though we’ll stop the comparison there, since, you know, Ferguson shows up, makes weight, and fights).
Ferguson, of course, has earned his keep the old-fashioned way. Even after winning The Ultimate Fighter 13, he wasn’t put on any sort of fast track. He had to take the long road to get there, winning one fight after another against increasing levels of competition, showing steady improvement and showing off new skills at each step along the way before earning his claim to a championship.
It’s almost as if this is a sport, or something.
Then there’s the fact McGregor vs. Ferguson is an intriguing matchup on paper. It’s almost like a cartoon version of the stereotype of a McGregor fight. That thing where McGregor starts off fast, then gasses? Well, Ferguson has a tendency to leave his hands down that seems to invite a huge McGregor left hand. And yet, there are few guys who do a better job of starting slow and then turning up the heat once their comfortable like Ferguson.
Ferguson, for his part, doesn’t seem too worried.
“I’ll sit him on his ass, and everybody’s the same size on the ground,” Ferguson said. “Conor McGregor poses no threat to me, especially when I hit him with my jab. He’s going to be running away like Katsunori Kikuno did, and I’ll chase after his ass like a cornerback, and I’ll slam him to the ground and finish him with a D’Arce choke or any other choke of my pleasing.”
There are plenty of reasons to make McGregor vs. Ferguson. But, when McGregor knocked out Jose Aldo less than two years ago, would anyone have foreseen a path in which McGregor fought Nate Diaz twice, took the lightweight belt from Eddie Alvarez, then boxed Floyd Mayweather? McGregor vs. Ferguson is the fight to make on paper from the most pure sports perspective, but I wouldn’t book your hotel and plane tickets for that one just yet.
UFC 216 quotes
“Defend or vacate, motherf*cker.” — Ferguson to McGregor.
“I felt like tonight, the crowd was chanting his name, and I think people are coming around,” White said. “That’s the thing. Sometimes it takes longer for some people. Crazy to think, but people didn’t love Chuck Liddell at one time either. They didn’t hate him; they just didn’t care. And then Chuck became a massive superstar for us. And Anderson Silva … he kicked Vitor (Belfort) in the face and exploded.” — White on UFC flyweight champ Demetrious Johnson.
“I kneed him and then I shook his weight, I shifted his weight,” Johnson said. “And when he shifted, he went back and threw an elbow and was like, ‘Got you.’ And then that’s when I threw him up and then landed in the armbar. Yeah. F*ck yeah.” — Johnson, on his incredible suplex-to-armbar finish of Ray Borg.
“I feel like I disrespected Ray Borg a little bit with the whole T.J. Dillashaw (thing). That kid came to fight. He came to fight, he didn’t want to tap to that armbar. I don’t know if you guys talked to him yet, his arm can’t be feeling too good, but (he’s) a stud and I meant no disrespect.” — White gives Borg his due.
“I was going to make the weight, even if I had to cut my foot off or something. I said it before, it damn near killed me and I had to do what I had to do. I had a job to do, I’m a professional and I’m going to come out here no matter how bad it hurts.” — Lee, who had a bad weight cut and a staph infection leading to the fight.
Up: Demetrious Johnson Are there really any haters left after what the UFC flyweight champion pulled off on Saturday night? “Mighty Mouse” was well on his way to either a 50-45-or-better scorecard in his title defense against Ray Borg on Saturday night. He could have cruised to victory and earned all of his well-deserved plaudits for successfully defending his belt for the 11th time and surpassing Anderson Silva’s UFC record. But no. That wasn’t enough. DJ finished the fight in the final two minutes (the third time during his reign that he’s stopped an opponent after the 23-minute mark) by suplexing Borg and catching him midair in an armbar to win the fight (Side note: I’m totally down with those who believe this move should be called “The Mouse Trap”). That’s on the short list of greatest MMA in-ring moments, alongside things like Matt Huges taking Frank Trigg for a ride at UFC 52, Silva face-kicking Vitor Belfort at UFC 126, and Antony Pettis’ “Showtime kick” of Benson Henderson in the WEC, and a clip that will forever serve as a monument to DJ’s greatness.
Hold: Kevin Lee Should I give Lee a “down” instead of a “hold”? Maybe. But I’m not inclined to hand out too any “downs” after a tremendous night of fights for a city who needed exactly the type of card that reminds the world why Las Vegas is referred to as the world’s fight capital. Nor am I going to kick Lee while he’s down. Don’t forget Lee was ranked No. 7 heading into this fight, and stepped up and accepted the challenge anyway. Don’t forget Lee is just 25 years old. You can question the amount of weight Lee had to cut so close to the fight. You can question how the Nevada Athletic Commission let a glaring case of staph infection get past them. These are both symptoms of a bad system that need to be addressed in the long run. But you can’t question Lee’s heart, you can’t question his resilience, and you can’t question his toughness. Kevin Lee gave all he had to give on Saturday night, and while that wasn’t enough to knock off a prime Tony Ferguson, you best bet the “Motown Phenom” will be a star when all is said and done.
Up: John Moraga. Moraga, a former flyweight title challenger, was simply supposed to be cannon fodder on Saturday. He took a 1-3 record in his past four fights with him to T-Mobile Arena, and he was expected to lose to undefeated Chechen Magomed Bibulatov. Instead, Moraga exposed Bibulatov with a wicked left hand and sent him back to Grozny to his stated hero — dictator and probable closet case Ramzan Kadyrov — with a TKO loss in just 1:38. Moraga was so emotional after the bout that he could barely express his feelings, and but for the rest of us, it’s easy to call this fight a feel-good moment.
Up: All four competitors in the night’s two draws. Every once in awhile, a draw comes along that not only lifts the profile of both fighters, but also demands an instant rematch. Two of them in the same night happen about as often as one hits Powerball, and yet, there we were at UFC 216, with two compelling battles that ended in stalemates. In the case of Lando Vannata vs. Bobby Green, an illegal leg strike to the downed Green caused a point deduction for Vannata, which changed what would have been a split decision in his favor into a split draw. But it was the rest of the fight after the foul, the sort of wild and weird encounter that usually ensues when Green goads someone into his style of fight, that demands a runback. Those guys both earned their $50,000 Fight of the Night bonus checks. Then there was the main-card opener between Beneil Dariush and Even Dunham. In this case, Dariush put a 10-8 beating on Dunham in the opening round, only to have Dunham roar back over the final two rounds and forge a majority draw. No one was officially a winer in either bout, but all of them raised their stock in the process.
I wasn’t in Las Vegas this week, so I can’t claim to know firsthand what it was like to be in town this week in the wake of last Sunday’s horrible incident which took the lives of nearly 60 people.
But from afar, one thing was pretty obvious: Las Vegas is the UFC’s hometown, and the UFC did a commendable job in helping its hometown heal. From the UFC donating $1 million to victims of the assault, to donating 1,500 tickets to the first responders who put their lives on the line to help save others, to the frequent references to their hometowns, for all the things for which you can criticize the UFC, there’s little doubt they stepped to the forefront and showed love for their community this week.
And then there were the fights themselves. I do understand this to a degree on a personal level. Boston is my hometown, and when David Ortiz stepped out at Fenway Park after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings and proclaimed “This is our f*cking city,” it helped unite the community and move forward from a tragedy. I hope the citizens of Las Vegas felt the same way on Saturday night, because even if UFC 216 wasn’t the highest-profile fight card, it was a tremendous night of action and things felt normal again for an evening.
Fights I’d like to see next
Is it weird that the fights I most want to see are runbacks of last night’s two draws? As I’ve already stated, both were compelling matchups that left you wanting to see a decisive victor. Other than that, McGregor vs. Ferguson would of course be great, but I’m not holding my breath waiting for it; Mighty Mouse has a logical next contender in the winner of the upcoming Henry Cejudo vs. Sergio Pettis fight, but there’s nothing that really suggests DJ will have trouble with either; and Fabricio Werdum’s last-minute matchup with Walt Harris pretty much was what we expected it to be. So yeah, I’ll stuck with a runback on those draws. If the UFC and FS1 wanted to think out of the box, they could put both on a Fight Night, replay the fights in the leadup, and build up to a decent cable rating.
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