It’s been almost a year since Conor McGregor won the UFC lightweight title. Not only are we not sure if he will actually defend his title after making millions upon millions of dollars from boxing Floyd Mayweather, we’re still not sure who would face McGregor for his title.
However, at least one of those questions will be answered after this weekend. Tony Ferguson will face Kevin Lee for the interim lightweight title at UFC 216 on Saturday, Oct. 7. Ferguson is on a 9-fight win streak and has all the tools to become a champion. Lee has won five fights in a row himself, including four straight finishes. These are two fighters on the rise who look to lead the next wave of dominant competitors in the UFC’s deepest division.
Strengths: Ferguson has all the tools to become a dominant champion. He’s finished 17 of his 22 overall victories, with nine wins and eight submissions. So he is equally as capable of finishing you on the feet as he is on the ground. He’s already soundly beaten some of the most well-known fighters around, including a former champion in Rafael dos Anjos, Edson Barboza, Josh Thomson and Gleison Tibau. His hands are fast and strong. Every shot he throws has the potential to knock his opponent cold, and he is equally just as likely to slap on a submission and choke you out.
It really is hard to find any flaws in Ferguson’s game right now. He seems to be peaking at the exact right time and it only seems a matter of when, not if, he has gold around his waist. I don’t know if the “perfect” fighter exists. But right now, Ferguson appears to be as close as it gets.
Weaknesses: As I just finished saying, it’s hard to spot any weaknesses in Ferguson’s game. His last loss came in 2012, and his previous loss was three years before that. So he’s lost twice in eight years. The only thing I can think of that might trip Ferguson up is overconfidence. It’s been pretty clear in the build-up to his fight with Lee that Ferguson doesn’t fear his opponent, and may not take him seriously. If Ferguson doesn’t come into the Octagon on Saturday with the same focus as his previous nine fights, he might be susceptible to an upset. Ferguson’s weaknesses, if there are any, may come mentally, not physically.
Strengths: Similar to his opponent on Saturday, Lee seems to be approaching his peak. He’s won his last four fights via finish, coming against some tough fighters in their own right like Michael Chiesa, Francisco Trinaldo, Jake Matthews and Efrain Escudero. Lee has finished half of his 16 overall victories via submission, so he’s very dangerous in the ground game and may decide to try his luck there if he wants to become interim lightweight champion.
Lee is still young (25) as well, so he still has quite a bit of room to grow. He has all the attributes that you associate with younger fighters – speed, quickness and athleticism. It’s possible if he uses all of those to his maximum ability, he can present unique challenges and problems for Ferguson. He can use his striking defense and parlay that into taking the fight to the mat, where Lee seems to be most comfortable.
Weaknesses: But unlike his opponent this weekend, Lee does seem to give up some ground on the feet. Lee only has one knockout win on his resume, and that came only last year against Matthews. Lee was also knocked out two years ago by Leandro Santos, and Ferguson is one of the best strikes in the entire UFC. Lee would be wise not to try and match Ferguson punch-for-punch, which I’m sure is what Ferguson will try to do. Ferguson is also a very smart fighter, and I’m sure he notices Lee’s lack of knockouts as well. If Ferguson pushes the pace and forces Lee to engage, can “The Motown Phenom” keep up?
Ferguson is also a clear step up in competition for Lee from his previous opponents. Did Lee bite off a little more than he can chew by seemingly talking his way into this fight?
Do I think Lee has a chance in this fight? Absolutely. Any fighter has a chance to win when he or she steps into the Octagon. But do I think Lee’s chances are very good? No, not really. I just don’t think Ferguson is to be denied. He is destined to be a champion and has bided his time. He’s never looked better and never fought better. If Lee can grab Ferguson early, before sweat takes over, he could slap on an unexpected submission. But I don’t expect that to happen, while I do expect Ferguson to get another finish and finally taste gold.
Winner: Ferguson by TKO
Photo Credit: Zuffa LLC/Getty