Six years and 13 wins later, Tony Ferguson is officially a UFC champion — albeit the interim kind. But while most fighters inside the Octagon would prefer to be recognized as the undisputed titleholder in their respective division, Ferguson’s strap of gold comes as somewhat of a lottery ticket.
Defeating Kevin Lee in Saturday night’s main event at UFC 216, Ferguson effectively inserted himself into the discussion for a date with returning UFC lightweight champion Conor McGregor. Assuming McGregor intends on keeping his title, he’ll be required to face Ferguson to unify the two crowns once he returns from his extended hiatus from mixed martial arts.
That, however, was never as concrete a promise as it has been for virtually every other interim champion in the history of the organization. Asked prior to McGregor’s date with Floyd Mayweather whether Ferguson vs. Lee would create the Irishman’s next UFC opponent, Dana White admitted he wasn’t sure. That was mostly a result of understanding what both McGregor and the general public preferred: a trilogy opposite Nate Diaz.
McGregor vs. Diaz III was briefly rumored to be taking place at UFC 219 in late December, only to be publicly shot down by several people involved, including McGregor’s coach John Kavanagh and White. The UFC president doubled down on the absence of any discussions for McGregor-Diaz III shortly after Ferguson’s victory at UFC 216, noting that McGregor vs. Ferguson is “the fight that has to happen.”
“Nobody’s talked about Diaz. Diaz has never been talked about. That’s internet bullsh-t,” White said during the UFC 216 post-fight press conference. “Tony’s the interim champion, Conor’s the champion, that’s the fight that makes sense. It’s the fight that has to happen, it doesn’t ‘make sense,’ it’s the fight that has to happen.”
So that’s it, right? McGregor vs. Ferguson for the undisputed UFC lightweight championship; case closed?
There’s a reason Ferguson vs. Lee was not guaranteed an immediate shot at McGregor to begin with. Though “El Cucuy” has grown in popularity, he’s still not on the level of Diaz. McGregor vs. Diaz III could very well go on to surpass the promotion’s all-time record for pay-per-view buys, whereas McGregor vs. Ferguson would likely just become another solid night at the box office. Running the risk of losing out on the magnitude of the trilogy by, say, seeing McGregor lose to Ferguson, would be a massive blow to the company — especially considering how poorly 2017 has gone from a blockbuster front for its new owners.
That should not be lost on White, regardless of what he said shortly after Ferguson’s win.
In truth, White’s comments can be seen as a mere negotiating tactic against Diaz, whose coaches have recently made claims of wanting a bigger paycheck to participate in such a grand event. It’s simple, really: The moment White publicly sided with Ferguson as the next contender, a fire was lit underneath Diaz to accept whatever offer the UFC was originally making — or at least bring his number further down than where it previously stood.
It’s the exact same tactic White used last fall, when the UFC frontman sent two bout agreements to then-top contender Khabib Nurmagomedov for a title fight at UFC 205 and 206. Hoping to get McGregor to agree to a lightweight championship showdown with Eddie Alvarez — which White publicly claimed was never on the table — the UFC went after Nurmagomedov much in the same way it currently has Ferguson.
McGregor went on to face Alvarez at UFC 205, with Nurmagomedov relegated to the preliminary card. If history repeats itself, the immediate future doesn’t look very bright for Ferguson.
“I honestly think that people would rather – like, I think people would rather see Conor vs. Diaz,” McGregor’s boxing coach Owen Roddy recently told Submission Radio (h/t MMAjunkie). “I just think it’s a more exciting fight for everybody. It’s the trilogy. The first two fights, the back and forth between the guys and the way the fights went – you know, who wouldn’t want to see the third fight? But of course, it makes sense that he fights (Ferguson), he defends the belt.
“Whatever happens, I don’t know, but I said this already: I would like to see (McGregor-Diaz 3). The Ferguson fight is an interesting one as well. Like, he’s an exciting fighter so it will be an exciting fight. So either or, either or.”
White is right: McGregor vs. Ferguson is the bout that needs to happen. But it speaks volumes to realize we’d be surprised if it actually took place.