For a man who has had very few compliments for the Irishman in the past, Tony Ferguson recently admitted that he has been impressed by the progress of Conor McGregor.
Interim titles have seemingly lost some of their weight in recent times but following the announcement that the UFC’s top lightweight contender Tony Ferguson would be taking his first crack at promotional gold against the highly-touted Kevin Lee, fans – at this stage – are just delighted to see a matchup between two of the most talented 155lb-rs on the planet, belt or no belt.
Ferguson himself is known as one of MMA’s most dynamic and unpredictable fighters and possesses elite level skills no matter where the fight takes place. On the feet, his relentless pressure and unorthodox striking has seen him go toe-to-toe with the likes of Rafael dos Anjos and Edson Barboza but in recent times, a lot of his finishes have come on the ground, where his 10th Planet jiu-jitsu only serves to augment his now-infamous d’Arce Choke, a technique he has used to tap-out the likes of the aforementioned Barboza and also the crafty prospect Lando Vannata.
Of course, his eagerly anticipated clash with the unbeaten Russian superstar Khabib Nurmagomedov has been scheduled and cancelled on several occasions at this point but, despite the fact that the fans would still happily pay good money to see this pair throw down, the UFC has elected to give the rising contender Kevin Lee the nod instead, a decision that has – for the most part – been accepted as the right call, all things considered.
Lee has gone an impressive 9-2 in the UFC so far and after his latest win over submission specialist Michael Chiesa, has apparently done enough to warrant a shot at UFC gold. UFC 216 will play host to this potentially thrilling matchup and if past showings are anything to go by, everything from the trash-talk to the actual contest will be memorable, to say the least.
Ferguson, on a recent appearance on ESPN’s Five Rounds podcast, told host Brett Okamoto that he took the fight because he felt that winning an interim title would force the hand of the lightweight champ Conor McGregor and put him into the pole position to fight for the undisputed belt when the Irishman returns from his foray into the world of boxing after August 26th.
“As far as what Conor is at, if he does ‘MayMac’ and he wins or loses it doesn’t matter, he’s going to have to defend his belt against the person that has the interim title. It’s defend or vacate. I mean that’s what makes sense to me because that’s the way the rules have always went. You have to fight the one who has the title, to unify the titles. If I’m going to have an interim title, I want to fight Conor.”
His motivations for this one are clear but as host Okamoto correctly pointed out, the promotional interim middleweight title-holder Robert Whittaker has just been passed up for a shot at the champ Michael Bisping due to the return of Georges St-Pierre, a man who has never once fought in the 185lb division, but also someone who is an undoubted PPV draw in a fight alongside Bisping.
‘Defend or vacate’ has become something of a slogan thrown around by ‘El Cucuy’ in recent times and though he understands that his opportunity to fight McGregor may never come, he remains entirely adamant that the champion’s inactivity atop the lightweight division must result in a vacation of the belt entirely.
“If he wants the trilogy with Nate he has to drop the belt. He can’t hold onto the belt and do all of that other stuff. He did it for a whole entire year, you had your kid, that’s great, now let’s fight. If he wants to fight Nate a third time, fans are going to react a certain way. I’ll squash f**king Nate, we all know the best fight that’s out there right now is going to be me and Conor McGregor.”
“I’ve moved on from calling him ‘McNuggets’ because his game has gotten a little bit better. His boxing has gotten better. When he throws punches he has learned to block his face a little bit better. He’s got his sh*t together as far as his hands. I see myself as one of the most valuable opponents to Conor McGregor. I’m not going to change, I’m not going to start talking sh*t, I’m not going to try to be anybody that I’m not. I’ve been the same person even since before the Ultimate Fighter.”
“I work hard and I let my fists do the talking.”
Cillian Cunningham, Pundit Arena