UFC 216: Tony Ferguson vs Kevin Lee Preview

UFC 216 Kevin Lee Tony Ferguson
Credit: Sherdog.com

Tony Ferguson and Kevin Lee are fighting for what they call the true lightweight championship.  But the shadow of “The Notorious” looms over the UFC 216 main event.

Over the summer, Conor McGregor solidified himself as the biggest star in mixed martial arts when he competed against Floyd Mayweather in a boxing match.  However, his hiatus left the UFC lightweight division in disarray.  Almost a year since “The Notorious” won the lightweight belt, Tony Ferguson and Kevin Lee will compete for a piece of the championship when they fight for the interim belt at UFC 216 on Saturday night.

Ferguson has been here before, being scheduled to face Khabib Nurmagomedov in March for the interim title.  That fight was scrapped at the last minute, and since then he has been on the sidelines watching the McGregor situation unfold while waiting to hear what the UFC had planned.  His consistency in being prepared to compete has paid off as Ferguson is the one getting a shot at gold while “The Eagle” is being relegated to the sidelines despite being a target of McGregor’s comments.

Lost in all of the hype surrounding this summer’s crossover event was the fact that “El Cucuy” has been putting together an impressive UFC run over the past several years.  He rides a nine fight win-streak that includes victories over contenders like Edson Barboza and former champion Rafael dos Anjos.  Since winning The Ultimate Fighter, he has evolved into a powerful and unorthodox striker with a competent grappling game.

He’s taken all of the right steps in 2017: winning fights, being prepared, and making it clear he’s ready for “The Notorious” or any other top candidate.  However, Ferguson may still find himself on the outside looking in regardless of a victory on Saturday.

Talk has focused on the UFC leaning towards making the trilogy with McGregor and Nate Diaz at the end of the year or in early 2018.  McGregor has also expressed interest in facing Nurmagomedov in the UFC’s debut in Russia.  All that talk has left Ferguson and Lee in an unenviable position.  How invested can one get in selling a fight if the UFC and McGregor appear to have already made up their minds about moving forward with someone else?

The fighter with the biggest upside in the situation is Kevin Lee.  “The Motown Phenom” burst into the general MMA consciousness when he got into a press conference scuffle with Michael Chiesa earlier this year.  While he infamously became the fighter who did (or didn’t) talk about another man’s mother, the fact was he drew attention to himself.  When coupled with his on-air battle with Ferguson after submitting Chiesa, he was the logical choice to be elevated to the next level.

With fellow top-contender Nurmagomedov recovering from back surgery and no champions available for the card (at least until the Mighty Mouse fight was rescheduled), Lee now finds himself with a shot at UFC gold and a bargaining chip for the biggest fight in MMA.  His name was far from being a contender in such talks to open the year, but that is a testament to his brashness and performances.

Breaking down the actual fight, it will come down to the fighter who finds their timing first.  Both men have shown themselves to be multi-faceted and the one who can take control early will put a lot of pressure on their opponent to rally back in the later rounds.  Statistically, both complete takedowns with the same level of efficiency.  Ferguson, however, has significantly better takedown defense.

Neither fighter will want to end up on their back in this fight.  Ferguson is the larger athlete who constantly poses the threat of the darce choke.  Lee showed impressive wrestling and submission skills of his own in taking out the grappling ace Chiesa in his last outing.

Ferguson has been proven against a higher level of competition, but Lee has also seen the success of Robert Whittaker working his way to a similar position this year and is aware that he has the opportunity to do the same.  The biggest fight in MMA involves “The Notorious,” and Saturday’s winner has the strongest case to book it in 2018.