UFC 216: The Conor McGregor Sweepstakes

In the main event of UFC 216 on Saturday, 155 lb. contenders Tony Ferguson and Kevin Lee will battle for the interim lightweight championship. The winner will have a shiny gold belt wrapped around his waist and will shoot to the top of the rankings. But that’s not the real prize they’re fighting for.

Ferguson and Lee are competing for the biggest prize in the sport of mixed-martial arts: a contracted fight with Conor McGregor.

The Irish MMA star, fresh off a lucrative detour into the sport of boxing, still holds the lightweight belt that he won in November of last year at Madison Square Garden. Because of his time away from the cage, the UFC has added an interim belt which Ferguson and Lee will contest for.

Conventional wisdom would say that the winner of Ferguson-Lee, as the interim champion, will be next in line for McGregor in a unification bout. That’s how things should go, from a meritocracy standpoint. But if there’s one rule in the current landscape of the UFC, it’s that Conor McGregor calls his own shots.

Following his fight with Mayweather, McGregor’s favorite option for his next fight seemed to be one that would sweep the Ferguson-Lee winner aside: a rubber match with his rival Nate Diaz. The two Diaz fights last year were two of the biggest events in the promotion’s history. McGregor recognizes that Diaz has a notoriety among casual fans that lesser known fighters like Ferguson and Lee don’t have.

So how can Tony Ferguson or Kevin Lee jump ahead of Nate Diaz and get the “money fight” that every fighter on the roster wants?

They have to not only win. They must get McGregor’s attention.

The Irishman discussed Ferguson and Lee’s fight (though he named neither of them) during a live Q&A in Glasgow over the weekend:

“Nathan (Nate Diaz) is there. He’s trying to come in here and make all of these demands. If he starts pricing himself out of an event, I probably will defend against the person who wins this interim belt…or someone along that line to legitimize it again.

“I’ve already gone from the highest of the high in terms of a money fight. Now the question I always get is about defending the belt and legitimizing the sport and the rankings.

“Maybe now it would be a good time for me to go and do that and shut that side up.”

Now, there are two ways to take McGregor’s comments. On one hand, he could be well-aware that Nate Diaz is his next planned opponent, and he’s simply wavering so that Diaz feels pressured not to hold out for more money than the UFC wants to give him.

On the other hand, McGregor may have more respect for the meritocracy of the division than fans give him credit for. He’s heard the criticism: Conor McGregor has never defended a title, he won’t face a top contender. It seems that the doubt of those fans has caught McGregor’s eye, and shutting them up is the kind of challenge that can excite him following a nine-figure payday.

Tony Ferguson (22-3) is as deserving of a contender as there is in the UFC. He’s won nine straight, his last win coming over former champion Rafael Dos Anjos. He brings an exciting, unpredictable, violent style that guarantees action every time he steps into the cage. And he’s a unique personality that would undoubtedly provide entertainment during the buildup to a fight with McGregor.

His opponent Kevin Lee (16-2) is the one taking a massive step up at only 25 years of age. He’s the underdog and rightfully so, as he’s never faced anyone like Ferguson.

But if Lee can pull off the upset and defeat Ferguson at UFC 216, he has one skill that is essential to get the attention of McGregor: command over the microphone. Lee is sharp, witty and charismatic when he gets the chance to cut a promo, and that’s what he’ll need to do if he gets the rare opportunity to call out Conor McGregor.

The championship belt on the line is a nice marketing tool for the UFC to promote their headlining event, but it means little to Tony Ferguson and Kevin Lee. They know what is really at stake, and they know that prize will be watching closely somewhere in Ireland.

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