As the dust settles on UFC 216 and Tony ‘El Cucuy’ Ferguson walks away with the interim lightweight belt, the speculation will continue to grow as to when (and if) Conor McGregor will make his UFC return and who will be his next opponent.
Although Nate Diaz was the early favourite, here are five reasons why the UFC cannot look past making a lightweight unification bout and award Ferguson his own shot at the champ.
1. Integrity of the UFC rankings and titles
It is no secret that the UFC acts firstly and foremost as a business to generate revenue.
In the past this has caused dismay and frustration for the loyal fans and roster of fighter alike. This was particularly frustrating when genuine contenders, who have fought their way to the top of the pile, are overlooked in favour of a ‘money fight’.
The return of Georges St-Pierre is a prime example of this. He is returning from a four-year hiatus to a weight class he has never fought in before and immediately challenging for the title.
A lightweight unification bout is an opportunity to regain the trust of their fighters and reaffirm that the UFC titles and rankings system do, in fact, matter.
Ferguson is on a current ten-fight win streak and is holding the interim lightweight strap. Any fight other than a unification bout would not be in the best interest of the division.
A Tony Ferguson- Conor McGregor build up would be fascinating to watch. McGregor excels when his opponent tries to match him in the verbal department.
The likes of Diaz and Alvarez have tried this, and failed.
Ferguson however, has a penchant for appearing mysterious and quirky. During the final face off in the run-in to UFC 216, Ferguson sang, danced and smiled with his earphones in and shapes on while his opponent, Kevin Lee, continued to hurl threats across the intervening Dana White.
Joe Rogan described El Cucuy as ‘weird’ on Saturday night and this view appears to be held widely throughout the MMA community. Lee made many references to this in the run up to Saturday night’s main event.
It would be captivating to see what approach McGregor would take to get inside the head of the American.
Will we see a more aggressive Ferguson take the bait of the Irishman, or would the SBG fighter become frustrated by the calm, mysterious persona that Tony likes to exude.
3. Match-up of unorthodox striking styles
Tony Ferguson is just as unorthodox inside the octagon as he is outside it. The 33-year-old has a similar obsession with movement to his Irish counterpart.
While McGregor was scoffed at for his training with Ido Portal and the ‘noodle sticks’, El Cucuy has been mocked for how he incorporates break dancing into his training routines.
Nobody can dispute that these uncommon techniques work for both men.
Ferguson attacks with every arsenal at his disposal, utilising elbows and knees particularly. He has even managed to score a knockout in the past with a scissor kick while lying down on the mat.
The new interim champion fought on Saturday night with his arms low and his chin high leading to many suggestions that this would be an ideal opponent for the Crumlin native.
There is no questioning the power McGregor possesses, particularly in his left hand.
Conor is rangy and has incredible timing. An opportunity to see both men trade blows with their very own, distinctive styles would be riveting.
4. Test Conor McGregor’s ground game
Some still feel it is unfair that Conor McGregor’s ground game gets targeted so much.
He has defeated the likes of Chad Mendes, Nate Diaz and Eddie Alvarez, all whom are very accomplished on the mat.
El Cucuy would, however, be the greatest test to McGregor’s skills on the canvas since he joined the UFC.
The two-time All-American wrestler and BJJ Brown Belt could cause serious trouble for The Notorious if he can take the fight to the floor.
All three of McGregor’s professional defeats have come from submissions while six of Ferguson’s last ten victories have come by way of submission.
This is an opportunity for McGregor to answer the critics who claim his ground game remains his Achilles heel.
5. No alternative fight captures the imagination like Ferguson
The main alternative for a return to the UFC would be against Nate Diaz.
This is a fight we have seen twice already and it is not something new and exciting. As for the other options, none excite like a potential face off with Ferguson.
Khabib Nurmagomedov is not ready to take on McGregor until he proves he is a genuine contender who can make weight.
While there is nothing for McGregor to achieve in the featherweight division having already been the champion and having defeated the current champion.
A step up in weight class to welterweight would be too much of a risk when he is so comfortable and capable at 155lbs.
The expedition into boxing was very profitable and generally accepted to have been entertaining to the public.
But the fact remains that it was not a competitive fight and it is difficult to see what is left to be achieved for McGregor inside the boxing ring.
Ultimately, a show-down between Tony Ferguson and Conor McGregor makes sense for all the right reasons. The UFC must take heed of the growing excitement for this potential contest and Dana White needs to make it happen.
Cathal Geeney, Pundit Arena