UFC 216: Tony Ferguson and Kevin Lee Are Auditioning for a Conor McGregor Fight

Chad Dundas@@chaddundasMMA Lead WriterOctober 4, 2017

LAS VEGAS, NV - AUGUST 24:   (L-R) Opponents Tony Ferguson and Kevin Lee face off during the UFC 215 & UFC 216 Title Bout Participants Las Vegas Media Day at the UFC Headquarters on August 24, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Tony Ferguson and Kevin Lee will compete on Saturday at UFC 216 for a chance at MMA's richest prize.

And no, that doesn't mean the UFC's interim lightweight title.

That makeshift championship will be a nice bonus and—depending on who emerges victorious this weekend at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas—either Ferguson or Lee will make a fine interim 155-pound king. More than just a scrap over the gold, however, this pair should probably think of their main-event bout as an audition.

After all, the winner stands a decent chance of being Conor McGregor's next opponent, whenever the actual lightweight champ returns to the Octagon.

This guy is still calling the shots.
This guy is still calling the shots.Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

McGregor last week made his first public appearance since his mega-hyped boxing match with Floyd Mayweather on August 26. During an interview with British journalist Caroline Pearce in Glasgow, Scotland, at an event called "An Evening With Conor McGregor," the 29-year-old Irish fighter appeared eager to get back to action.

McGregor also mentioned a laundry list of possibilities for his next bout.

"I'm sitting on a loss in my mind," he said of moving on from his 10th-round TKO defeat by Mayweather, via MMA Fighting's Peter Carroll. "So I'm just seeing what options are there."

McGregor listed a rematch with Mayweather in boxing or MMA as well as a potential meeting in the Octagon with boxer Paul Malignaggi among his hopes and dreams. From the outside looking in, however, both those options seem somewhat far-fetched.

On the more realistic side of things, McGregor said he's also eyeing a third fight against Nate Diaz or a title defense against a top lightweight contender like Khabib Nurmagomedov, Justin Gaethje or the winner of Ferguson vs. Lee.

Most observers believe McGregor's pick will be Diaz.

Nate Diaz might have the inside track to a fight against McGregor.
Nate Diaz might have the inside track to a fight against McGregor.Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

A trilogy fight with the Stockton bad boy will earn McGregor the most money, and his advisers have already said they'd prefer it. On top of that, it's a winnable matchup for McGregor, since he defeated Diaz via majority decision in their most recent meeting in August 2016.

But McGregor also knows Diaz drives a hard financial bargain in negotiations and told Pearce last week that if Diaz "starts to price himself out" of a third fight (h/t MMA Junkie), he might not want to wait. McGregor warned he might simply move on to a unification fight against the winner of Ferguson vs. Lee.

If that came to pass, it might well make MMA purists happy. They've been complaining about McGregor's unwillingness to defend his UFC titles since he beat Jose Aldo for the featherweight strap in December 2015.

Now that he's been away from the sport for over a year, those criticisms seem more valid than ever. McGregor's last UFC appearance was his lightweight title win over Eddie Alvarez at UFC 205 in November 2016, and afterward he announced an extended absence from competition—one that lasted until he boxed Mayweather this summer.

McGregor lands a left on Diaz during their second fight.
McGregor lands a left on Diaz during their second fight.Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

The delay was long enough for the UFC to twice set up interim title fights.

First, the company moved to put Ferguson opposite Nurmagomedov at UFC 209, before Nurmagomedov was hospitalized during his weight cut. Now it will be Ferguson and Lee vying for the interim gold and perhaps the opportunity to coax McGregor off the bench and into the cage.

As always, however, McGregor calls his own shots.

"It's got to excite me," McGregor said, via Carroll. "Let me see what these two fools do this weekend. We'll see what the energy is like."

Effort shouldn't be a problem for Ferguson and Lee, both of whom are high-energy performers and savvy enough to know exactly what's at stake here for both of them.

Especially for Lee, this fight represents a life-changing opportunity.

The 25-year-old Michigan native has been ticketed as a potential star since arriving in the UFC in early 2014. That said, his in-cage resume to this point doesn't exactly scream immediate title contender.

Lee is 9-2 overall in the UFC but hasn't faced much top-flight competition. His current five-fight win streak includes four consecutive stoppages, but it also features names like Efrain Escudero and Magomed Mustafaev.

His most recent victory, over Michael Chiesa in June, was a main-event affair but was mostly notable because Lee and Chiesa managed to stoke some excitement with their on-stage scuffle during a press conference in May.

On the plus side, Lee has a very high ceiling and obvious charisma. In the new, WME-IMG owned UFC, that was enough to fast-forward the No. 7-ranked lightweight to an immediate interim title shot.

As far as this big step-up in competition against the uber-tough Ferguson goes, Lee's certainly not lacking in confidence.

"When you look at it, and you say a man is tough, and that's his biggest attribute, that ain't good for him," Lee said this week at a media lunch, via MMA Junkie's Simon Samano. "That just means it's going to take a longer ass-whooping."

A win here immediately forges Lee as an elite lightweight, wraps a title around his waist and puts him in prime position to score a future date with McGregor. As far as one-night opportunities go, it's hard to top that.

Most of the same is also true for Ferguson, with one exception: we already know El Cucuy is elite.

Ferguson has been fighting in the Octagon since 2011, has put up a record of 12-1 and has been taking on high-level competition—Josh Thomson, Edson Barboza and Rafael dos Anjos, for example—for at least the last couple years.

Tony Ferguson is as ready for prime time as he's going to get.
Tony Ferguson is as ready for prime time as he's going to get.Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

More recently it has felt like it was only a matter of time before the 33-year-old Californian got a crack at the gold. Ferguson is one of a handful of 155-pounders whose careers have been sidetracked by McGregor's protracted absence. While this fight seems like Lee's big break, it feels as though it's a long time coming for Ferguson.

As for Lee's meteoric rise to an interim title shot, the longtime contender doesn't seem to mind. He said this week during a media lunch he thinks Lee deserves it. Well, sort of.

"Kevin Lee has got more heart than half these dudes in the Top Five," Ferguson said, via Junkie's Samano. "Since he's got more heart, we're going to go in there and give you guy a f--king show. … He's a very well-rounded fighter. He's an athlete. … [But] I know how to beat this kid. He's mentally weak, like half the roster in the UFC."

Ferguson and Lee face off, with Dana White keeping them apart.
Ferguson and Lee face off, with Dana White keeping them apart.Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Ferguson is going off as a 2-to-1 favorite for this fight, according to Odds Shark. If he emerges victorious here, his exciting style and status as an eager trash-talker also make him a compelling opponent for McGregor down the road.

The Irishman, though, continues to control the most lucrative real estate in the sport.

After coming out of the Mayweather fight even more famous than before, McGregor has the entire UFC roster and most of boxing angling for a bout against him.

That's why when Ferguson and Lee meet this weekend at UFC 216, winning the interim lightweight title will be high on the priority list—but impressing McGregor in the process may be even more important.


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