Saturday, at UFC 216, the UFC awarded an interim 155-pound belt to Tony Ferguson following a third-round triangle choke of Kevin Lee. It was a wild, action-packed, back-and-forth fight between two legitimate talents in MMA’s deepest and most compelling division.
But interim titles are defined by the absence of someone else. In this case, that someone else is motor-mouthed, iron-fisted Irishman Conor McGregor, the UFC’s official lightweight champion and not just the biggest but the only star in a sport desperately hanging on to the fringes of mainstream awareness.
If there were any justice, Ferguson’s victory over Lee would guarantee him a crack at McGregor’s belt and a multi-million dollar payday. Ferguson has been in the UFC for six years. During his time in the promotion, he has lost just once, against top lightweight Michael Johnson back in 2012. (Ferguson broke his arm mid-fight.) Since then, Ferguson has run off 10 consecutive wins, all but three of them finishes. Outside McGregor and the prodigal, undefeated Khabib Nurmagomedov, there aren’t many top lightweights left for Ferguson to beat.
Ferguson has obviously earned a shot at the undisputed lightweight championship and a life-changing paycheck. None of that makes it a given that Ferguson will actually get to step in the cage with the Irishman.
McGregor exists outside the normal bounds of matchmaking. No fighter in the history of the UFC has owned, much less exercised, this much leverage. The promotion is increasingly beholden to him rather than the other way around. He was a superstar before fighting Floyd Mayweather in August; now, after what might have been a nine-figure payday, he’s untouchable.
There are two different components to McGregor’s lofty status. The first is the fact that he is now, by any metric, the single biggest star in MMA history. He has drawn more than a million buys in each of his last four headlining efforts; Brock Lesnar, with three, is the only other fighter to have more than one event of that magnitude under his belt. That all was before McGregor came within a hair’s breadth of setting the all-time record for a boxing pay-per-view against Floyd Mayweather in August. In the process, McGregor garnered a level of mainstream exposure and name recognition unheard of for an MMA fighter.
The second component is the UFC’s lack of other stars of even a moderate magnitude. In the past, the UFC had a multitude of reliable draws. Georges St-Pierre and Anderson Silva pulled big numbers between 2009 and 2013; so did Lesnar between 2008 and 2011. During that 2008 to 2013 period, the UFC’s heyday on pay-per-view, a variety of middle-class pay-per-view draws supported the promotion between the big draws’ headlining efforts. McGregor’s rise up the ranks coexisted with the meteoric ascent and even more spectacular fall of Ronda Rousey. Mercurial and transcendent talent Jon Jones was generally good for a solid if not always spectacular buyrate.
But now McGregor stands alone atop the heap. His two fights with Nate Diaz and his title-winning effort against Eddie Alvarez powered the UFC to its best ever year on pay-per-view: By himself, he accounted for almost half of the year’s total sales.
That’s an unprecedented level of leverage over the UFC for a single fighter. Not only is McGregor a huge draw; he’s the only draw.
All of this means that matchmaking for McGregor is unlike that for any other fighter on the roster. He can pick and choose who he wants to fight based on what will get him paid the most. Conversely, the UFC has to be aware of the fact that an event he’s headlining is their only guaranteed opportunity for a big payday. That changes the equation.
In practically any other situation, the obvious move would be to book the interim champion, Ferguson, against the actual champion, McGregor. You’d sell the winner as the best lightweight on the planet.
But that’s predicated on the belief that the key narrative in a fight involves determining who the best is. That’s what a title belt is: a narrative in physical form, a promotional tool designed to give life to a story that will get fans to pay money to see the fight.
McGregor has long since transcended that. His status as a draw is less dependent on actually being the best in the world than it is buttressed by a plausible claim to being the best. That’s a key difference. McGregor doesn’t have to prove he’s the best lightweight in the world by beating Ferguson in order to maintain his status as a draw; the Irishman just has to be able to say that he’s the best with the knowledge that enough people will buy it. For him, the potential gap between claim and reality is irrelevant.
A third fight with Nate Diaz is the most likely outcome for McGregor’s return to the Octagon, assuming he ever actually returns. It’ll be an entertaining build, an outstanding fight, and an enormous event that will draw huge numbers. Ferguson will be left on the sidelines.
That would be a pity of epic proportions. Not only has Ferguson earned the shot; the new interim champion is a hellaciously wild, fun fighter who would make a compelling foe for McGregor. Ferguson is an unorthodox striker who pushes an incredible pace. In his fight with former lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos, which took place at altitude in Mexico City, Ferguson landed 199 strikes in 25 minutes. That’s an insane workrate. Popping jabs and crisp punching combinations lead into slashing elbows and vicious kicks. His rhythm is strange and awkward, his movement bizarre. He complements his work on the feet with a nasty, lethal, and downright strange submission game. He rolls for leg locks and loves to scramble. If his opponent leaves his neck out there, Ferguson hops on a choke lickety-split, like the triangle he used to finish Lee on Saturday.
Ferguson’s durability is off the charts, and he’s more than willing to eat a few shots to work the fight at his pace. The guy is all action, all the time.
Ferguson is both a difficult and an easy matchup for the Irish superstar. On the one hand, his ability to push the pace and jump on submissions spells trouble for McGregor, who has had trouble with both of those things. On the other, Ferguson is hittable and nowhere near as polished with footwork, angles, and command of distance as McGregor. That dynamic means that McGregor could lace Ferguson with vicious counters in the early going. Either Ferguson would wind up staring at a doctor’s flashlight, or he’d weather the storm, wear McGregor down, and choke him out later in the fight.
That’s a fight I want to see.
If you feel inclined to criticize McGregor for his inactivity or his failure to defend his titles, don’t appeal to some lost, mythical age when the UFC lined up worthy challengers for its belts, and don’t be mad about an ideal of pugilistic excellence that never really existed. Be angry because Tony Ferguson and Conor McGregor would put on an insanely entertaining fight, and we probably never will get to see it.