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UFC President Dana White this week announced that the Ultimate Ultimate Fighting Championship would promote an interim lightweight title fight between the second-ranked Tony Ferguson and seventh-ranked Kevin Lee at UFC 216 on Oct. 7 in Las Vegas. There was some immediate backlash from people who wondered how Lee, whose only win against ranked competition came against Michael Chiesa, ended up in the title picture at 155 pounds.
Well, here’s how this happened.
Khabib Nurmagomedov was the most glaring omission as it relates to this title fight. The UFC ranks the undefeated Dagestani grappler as the No. 1 contender in the lightweight division and the No. 12 pound-for-pound fighter in the world. Nurmagomedov should be in the title picture, right? Not really. His 24-0 record clearly warrants an opportunity, but he has struggled with the scale in the past and was forced to withdraw from his scheduled showdown with Ferguson at UFC 209 less than 24 hours before the event due to a failed weight cut. White had a difficult decision to make and evidently does not trust “The Eagle.”
While some claim White could have waited to see if Nurmagomedov was ready, the show needed to go on and a fight had to get made for Ferguson. Plus, if Conor McGregor returns to defend his lightweight championship at the end of the year -- he has suggested he would do so post-Floyd Mayweather Jr. -- the UFC would want to settle on a No. 1 contender as soon as possible. Yes, the concept of an interim championship often comes off as totally ridiculous, but this is where we are with this situation.
Why Lee? Actually, it’s fairly simple. If you examine the UFC’s official rankings for the lightweight division, you can see how this shakes out. With Nurmagomedov on promotional ice and Ferguson sitting at No. 2, you can move on to former champion Eddie Alvarez. McGregor defeated him at UFC 205 in December, which effectively puts the Philadelphia native at the back of the line. Edson Barboza and his three-fight winning streak are perched at No. 4. However, the Brazilian submitted to Ferguson at “The Ultimate Fighter 22” Finale in December 2015. Barboza has not put enough distance between himself and that loss to justify a rematch.
That brings us to the fifth-ranked Justin Gaethje, an undefeated former World Series of Fighting champion. A fight between Ferguson and Gaethje would have made perfect sense, as it almost certainly would have been a crowd-pleaser between two action fighters. However, the UFC painted itself into a corner by naming Gaethje and Alvarez as coaches on Season 26 of “The Ultimate Fighter.” Moreover, Gaethje only arrived in the UFC a little more than a month ago. It seems likely that he will get a shot at the lightweight crown at some point, just not right now.
At No. 6, we find Nate Daiz, who doesn’t seem to be particularly interested in fighting in the UFC. A trilogy bout with McGregor appears to be the only thing that would bring him back to the Octagon. While an interim title sounds good, it does not carry much weight with Diaz. For him, it’s McGregor or bust.
That leaves us with Lee. He owns an 8-2 record -- he lost to Al Iaquinta and Leonardo Santos -- in the UFC, can sell a fight and has the tools to be a top contender. Everyone behind him in the rankings is either coming off of a loss, like Chiesa and Michael Johnson, or attempting to work their way back up the ladder, like Dustin Poirier and Anthony Pettis. Outside of Nurmagomedov, Lee is the only fighter in the division that makes sense. Let’s be honest: While the idea of another interim title fight has people up in arms, Ferguson-Lee is an intriguing matchup. This isn’t the first time, nor will it be the last, where we see a budding prospect pushed into the championship picture without beating a top-three fighter.
Ultimately, we’ll see what the interim title means for either fighter considering that McGregor holds all of the cards when it comes to his next fight. He could decide to face another welterweight or box again; or he could ask for Nurmagomedov. Nobody knows. Until then, we will have something of a clearer picture of the lightweight division after UFC 216.