Tony Ferguson whittled down the myriad of options for Conor McGregor’s next fight to a simple pair — defend or vacate.
That was Ferguson’s message to McGregor, the lineal lightweight champion, after he won the interim lightweight title in the main event of UFC 216 Saturday night at T-Mobile Arena with a third-round submission over Kevin Lee. The good news for Ferguson was UFC President Dana White agreed, albeit in a less stern tone.
“Tony is the interim champion; Conor is the champion. It’s the fight that makes sense,” White said at the post-fight press conference before correcting himself. “It’s not the fight that makes sense — It’s the fight that has to happen.”
Typically when an interim title fight is contested, the true champion is cageside to watch or at least prepared to issue some sort of statement afterwards. But McGregor, as he would be the first to say, is above the rules.
He’s maintained almost total silence on his fighting future since losing via TKO in a boxing match against Floyd Mayweather in August, and didn’t break it for Ferguson. McGregor’s only social media dispatch Saturday was a commercial from one of his sponsors, Bud Light. Ferguson was unsurprised.
“That boy is scared,” Ferguson said. “He’s never mentioned my name, not one time during this whole entire time.”
Although Ferguson could make life-changing money by facing McGregor — speculatively a bigger payday in one night than the rest of his career combined — he said he was not pushing for it. Ferguson isn’t pressuring McGregor to fight him; he just wants the UFC’s biggest star to make a decision one way or the other.
McGregor has held up Ferguson’s career long enough. McGregor’s decision to move from featherweight to lightweight last year was part of the reason Ferguson had to win nine straight fights, an inordinately high amount, before receiving a title shot.
Ferguson is nowhere as big of a draw as McGregor, but he's proven his mettle by knocking off all the other best fighters in the division.
“Tony is a busy guy, he keeps coming forward,” White said. “He keeps throwing all kinds of different things at you, and Conor is awesome. There’s no way that’s not a great fight. It’s not possible.”
Ferguson looked and seemed McGregor-esque in some ways at UFC 216. For one thing, he taunted Lee throughout the fight.
Ferguson let his guard down and allowed Lee to hit him, especially in the first round, but continued to talk trash regardless.
“We were just out there having fun,” Ferguson said. “I wanted to piss him. I’m the matador, he’s the bull. You slap him on the ass, and he comes forward just like I wanted him to.”
Ferguson claimed everything that happened was part of his strategy. He even wanted to allow Lee to take him down, so he could work off of his back to get a submission.
That’s exactly how it played out, as Ferguson forced Lee to tap out to a triangle choke to finish the bout at 4:02 of the third round. If Ferguson is to be believed, the execution of his plan is eerily reminiscent of McGregor, who gained a “Mystic Mac” alter ego in the UFC for predicting precisely what would occur in his fights.
Whose version would win out in a fight between two fighters who swear by visualization? Lee knows where he would weigh in.
“Tony’s the toughest fight in this division,” Lee said. “He’s the rightful champion.”
There’s only one way to find out, and the concern is that McGregor will choose something other than unifying the lightweight titles. There’s a lingering trilogy fight with Nate Diaz, as well as an unsettled rivalry with retired boxing champion Paulie Mallignaggi.
White specifically shot down the former, calling it, “Internet (expletive),” and expressed confidence McGregor still wanted to fight before the end of the year — likely at UFC 219 on Dec. 30 at T-Mobile. White stood behind everything Ferguson said in regards to McGregor.
“This is chess, and this is check,” Ferguson said. “It’s going to be checkmate soon. He’s got nowhere else to run. Literally, he’s running out of time...He needs to defend or vacate, but I’ll tell you what Conor: Just set it down and you won’t get hurt.”