From a truly great lightweight main event pairing sullied by a lack of drawing power -- a drawing power known as “Conor McGregor” -- to a potential piece of Ultimate Fighting Championship history playing second fiddle to an interim title bout, there was already a lamentable aspect to UFC 216 on Saturday in Las Vegas; and that was before true human tragedy struck.
After weeks of entertaining trash talk, Tony Ferguson and Kevin Lee will square off for a slice of the UFC lightweight title, while the greatest fighter in the sport, Demetrious Johnson, seeks to break the legendary Anderson Silva’s record of 10 consecutive UFC title defenses when he risks his 125-pound strap against Ray Borg. However, no matter the outcomes, UFC 216 will forever be inextricably linked to its geographical and temporal proximity to the horrific mass shooting at Las Vegas’ Route 91 Harvest festival on Oct. 1.
The UFC will be donating $1 million to a victims’ relief fund while dedicating the entirety of UFC 216 to the memories of the departed. This is undoubtedly spiriting. Nonetheless, it can only serve to bitter the sweetness of whatever may come, be it Ferguson’s overdue moment in the championship sun, Lee’s rapid ascent to greatness, Johnson setting yet another historic benchmark or Borg improbably authoring what could be the biggest upset in MMA history.
With that said, we set about our odds and analysis with clear minds and undeniably heavy hearts.
UFC Interim Lightweight ChampionshipTony Ferguson (22-3) vs. Kevin Lee (16-2)
ODDS: Ferguson (-220), Lee (+180)
ANALYSIS: This fight has absolutely everything, save for McGregor and the one million pay-per-view buys that would go along with his presence. However, the crown prince of MMA has boxing spectacles to tackle and raging parties to throw, so in his place we get a trinket title fight between two men more than deserving of a shot at the real gold.
Ferguson’s run over the last five years and change has been thrilling to watch and considerable in its accomplishment. His back-to-back, give-and-take wars with Edson Barboza and Lando Vannata were exciting enough, but he was positively incredible in his five-round decision over former UFC lightweight champion and current top-10 welterweight Rafael dos Anjos in November. In the infamous altitude and polluted air of Mexico City, “El Cucuy” turned up the heat round after round, tuckering out dos Anjos with his tireless striking attack. The 33-year-old’s style is predicated on high-volume, stance-switching combinations, flowing effortlessly from punches and elbows to kicks and knees while scrambling for submissions, most notably his trademark brabo choke from the front headlock; and he wears sunglasses indoors.
Lee is not the most deserving man for this role. Obviously, that distinction still belongs to the perpetually infirmed Khabib Nurmagomedov, who has already been scheduled to fight Ferguson on 14 separate occasions before various withdrawals. Nonetheless, “The Motown Phenom” is anything but a bad choice. He is 9-1 in his last 10 fights; he is 5-0 in the last 18 months alone; he just turned 25 years old a month ago; and he is one of the most brazen trash talkers in the sport. Yes, the June 25 win over Michael Chiesa that put him in this position -- that, along with McGregor’s bank account and Nurmagomedov’s health -- was aided in unconscionable fashion by referee Mario Yamasaki’s idiotic premature stoppage. Still, do not forget that Lee needed less than five minutes to slam Chiesa to the mat, take his back and lock in a rear-naked choke on one of MMA’s rear-naked choke masters.
In order to beat Ferguson, Lee is going to need to exploit “The Ultimate Fighter 13” winner’s go-go-go mentality and either find a way to counter with his powerful right hand or dominate with his power double-leg takedowns before finding a way to take Ferguson’s back. Despite the massive gains Lee has made in his overall game, including those in his standup under coach Dewey Cooper, his distance striking is very much a work in progress. Lee will often land a volley of strikes, look impressed with his work and then stand around inactive for stretches of time which simply will not play against Ferguson. More than that, Lee will find some success on the feet and, emboldened, promptly launch an ill-advised attack. This is how the Detroit native suffered the lone loss in this 10-fight stretch: He grew overconfident after a few solid strikes, threw an unprotected right uppercut with no setup whatsoever and wound up getting knocked silly by a right hand from Leonardo Santos of all people.
Yes, Lee has made those aforementioned improvements, but more than anything else, he made improvements where he already excelled. Lee has shown a phenomenal sense of timing while charging opponents for that blast double and tackling them to the mat; now, he is even better at baiting his foes and changing levels. Lee has always been adroit at taking the back and threatening with chokes; now, he does so with regularity and for extended periods of time against other strong grapplers. There is nothing wrong with this approach. After all, slamming Ferguson, sinking his hooks and fishing for that rear-naked choke represents his best path to victory. Still, Lee’s particular weaknesses play to Ferguson’s greatest strengths.
When Santos decked Lee, he did not knock him out cold; he dropped him and pounced. Lee did not protect himself at all, relying purely on instinct as he turtled and feebly looked for a takedown. If Ferguson stuns him and this is his reaction, a stoppage by punches or brabo choke is dead certain. Lee has also historically slowed in bouts that have gone past the 10-minute mark, and while he has not had to do so recently, Ferguson is liable to drag him into those unfamiliar waters and drown him -- waters where Ferguson became even more of a bloodthirsty shark against dos Anjos. Somewhere in the middle of the bout, Lee will tire or his focus will wander for a moment, allowing Ferguson to hit him, hurt him and then pounce for the fight-ending sequence, whether it comes via a torrent of punches or a squeeze of the neck. Ferguson will leave Las Vegas with a slice of the lightweight crown. Whether he can summon McGregor to defend his throne remains to be seen.
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