Welcome to The Verdict, a regular MMA Plus feature where we take a look at each UFC main event in-depth once the smoke has cleared. No snap judgements, no jumping the gun, just the biggest talking points and conclusions from the weekend’s UFC 216 interim lightweight title headliner between Tony Ferguson and Kevin Lee.
This marks the promotion’s second-worst box office performance at the T-Mobile Arena since the venue opened in 2016, with only The Ultimate Fighter 25 Finale drawing worse numbers out of the seven shows it has hosted.
Lando Vannata and Bobby Green would take home the evening’s “Fight of the Night” payments with Demetrious Johnson and John Moraga also awarded performance bonuses.
“Defend or vacate.” With those three words, new interim-lightweight titleholder Tony Ferguson laid down the gauntlet to absent 155lb champion Conor McGregor during his post-fight speech after an impressive submission win over surging contender Kevin Lee at UFC 216.
Having finally got his hands on a version of the gold, “El Cucuy” would make clear his desire to unify the belts as quickly as possible and in doing so, has seemingly done the impossible which is silence talk of the nonsensical trilogy fight between McGregor and his fierce rival Nate Diaz.
Despite a four-year win streak, which stretched to ten bouts on Saturday night, Ferguson’s name has rarely entered into the McGregor narrative since the Irishman defeated Eddie Alvarez for the lightweight title at UFC 205 last November.
While people played up a mega showdown with undefeated Russian Khabib Nurmagomedov or a ‘decider’ bout with Diaz, the Californian seemed the unattractive option in terms of potential drawing power or his ability to crossover to the mainstream despite his status among the hardcore fans as one of the most dangerous fighters in the division.
However, with Khabib’s weight cutting and injury woes and Diaz’s inactivity paired with his extraordinary demands, Ferguson has quietly gone about his business, capturing the interim belt before calling out the Irishman, as he positioned himself as the definitive opponent for McGregor on his return.
This could spell bad news for “The Notorious” as Ferguson is arguably one of the most technically sound opponents he will have had to face in his career. With his unorthodox striking style and slick ground game he has developed under the tutelage of BJJ kingpin Eddie Bravo, “El Cucuy” is a nightmare of a match-up for the champion and excels in areas where McGregor has struggled previously.
Not only does Ferguson have the ability to take advantage of the Irishman on the mat, he has also demonstrated far superior cardio compared to McGregor’s notoriously dodgy gas tank, especially in a gruelling five-round battle with Rafael Dos Anjos at altitude in Mexico City.
It’s surely no coincidence that Ferguson has been left out of McGregor’s rhetoric in the past 12 months. The Irish fighter and his SBG Ireland team will be more than aware of the threat posed by the Californian and will sensibly have planned to stay away from a match-up with Ferguson for as long as possible however that time is coming to an end.
The interim champion put it best himself during the UFC 216 post-fight press conference when he sent a warning to the current champion:-
“You can’t run anymore, man. You’re in check. And I’m great at chess.”