McGregor’s shaky promise adds last-minute value to UFC 216

Conor McGregor leaves the octagon with his title belts after knocking out Eddie Alvarez during a lightweight mixed martial arts bout at UFC 205, early Sunday, Nov. 13, 2016, at Madison Square Garden in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
(AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Two of the greatest lightweights on the planet present day, Tony Ferguson and Kevin Lee,  will square off on Saturday night in hopes of becoming a UFC champion — albeit a titleholder of the lowest degree. They will fight for the promotion’s interim lightweight strap, a crown created in the extended absence of true champion Conor McGregor.

McGregor first won the title last fall when defeating then-lightweight kingpin Eddie Alvarez via second-round TKO at UFC 205. It was the second divisional championship McGregor had seized in less than a year, adding the 155-pound title to the 145-pound crown already firmly fastened around his waist. Having neglected his responsibilities as the featherweight champion by venturing off into fights with Nate Diaz and Alvarez in the months that followed his first championship win, McGregor was forced to vacate the throne shortly after his historic two-division conquest.

He was left with just one championship as he stepped away from the sport to pursue a boxing super-fight against Floyd Mayweather, essentially putting another division — one tremendously deep with deserving contenders — on hold while he collected the greatest payday of his career.

That, of course, was a problem. The UFC initially planned to resolve the concern at UFC 209 in March, booking Ferguson opposite Khabib Nurmagomedov in an interim championship bout before weight-cutting issues for Nurmagomedov derailed any sort of conceivable progress in a division quickly running out of ways to stay busy without its champion.

Now several months later, the UFC rebooked Ferguson to compete for an interim crown, though this time he’d be facing Lee, a fast-rising contender looking to seize the moment and catapult himself into the biggest fight in all of combat sports.

Or so one would think, anyway. Interim champions do, after all, eventually go on to fight the true champion of the division, unifying the two crowns to create an undisputed title for the last man standing.

But as has often been the case with McGregor’s UFC career, protocol doesn’t play as great of a role as it normally does. Asked whether Ferguson or Lee would be next for McGregor upon his UFC return, company president Dana White admitted he wasn’t sure. Though controversial, there’s a fairly simple explanation for that.

With McGregor coming off of the biggest fight of his career, and essentially one of the two biggest combat sports events of all time, his promised return to the UFC would likely provide the company with as big of a spectacle as it’s had in recent years. But while McGregor’s return alone would likely move the needle in ways not yet seen in 2017, a capable dance partner would certainly be welcome.

At time of publication, there is no fighter more suited to fill that role than one Nathan Diaz — the longtime fan favorite who helped McGregor reportedly provide the UFC with nearly 3 million pay-per-view buys across two events in 2016. After going 1-1 through the first two fights, a trilogy bout would logically be in order — a concept that hasn’t escaped McGregor or his team, who’ve previously expressed a desire to face Diaz over any other contender in the division.

That was the narrative surrounding UFC 216’s main event: an interim championship fight reduced to nothing more than a five-round contest between two top contenders competing for plated gold. If they weren’t guaranteed the first crack at McGregor’s lightweight championship, Ferguson vs. Lee was essentially stripped of what significance was added when initially slapped with the interim championship implications.

But just when the situation appeared dire, McGregor expectedly came in to save the day.

The lightweight champion claimed he was not set on taking on Diaz just yet, admitting he was waiting for Saturday’s interim championship contest to transpire before he would make a decision on his future.

That, needless to say, changes everything.

It may not propel UFC 216 into the stratosphere in terms of PPV buys, but it suddenly re-injects value into a headliner that didn’t really have much at this point last month. Whether McGregor is truly interested in facing Ferguson or Lee, or whether he’s merely burning a fire under Diaz to accept the company’s offer for a trilogy fight later this year or early next, his claims give Ferguson and Lee something to fight for. It gives the fans a greater reason to tune in. It gives the company a plausible narrative to promote its upcoming event.

In the end, it’s difficult to imagine McGregor passing up the opportunity to face Diaz straight away. Both Ferguson and Lee present true threats to the Irishman’s case as the greatest lightweight on the planet, with a potential loss to either man crippling what excitement would otherwise surround McGregor vs. Diaz III in the near future.

The time to strike on this trilogy, and reap in the financial rewards associated with what may be the best-selling contest in UFC history, is now.

Whether McGregor will have time to circle back and face the interim champion afterward remains to be seen.

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