No fighter should be bigger than their sport, agreed, but if there’s one man for whom this might be the case it’s Conor McGregor, the current UFC lightweight champion and former UFC featherweight champion.
He is the only fighter currently on the roster, the only fighter in the sport, who can hold up weight divisions, have his pick of challengers, and momentarily leave the sport altogether in order to pursue a blockbuster ‘money fight’ with a professional boxer. He is the one whose brand, you could argue, shines even brighter than that of the UFC in 2017.
Certainly, as a result of that gargantuan Mayweather ‘fight’, McGregor is in a wonderful and enviable position. If he choose to never fight again, it matters not, for he is set for life. But, if he does choose to fight again, and does so in the UFC’s Octagon, he stands to break many of his own records, both in terms of attendance and pay-per-view figures, and will use his newfound power and leverage to make others dance to his beat and play roles in his own narrative. (It is, ultimately, the position all fighters want to find themselves in at some point during their career. It is the apex. The goal.)
Thirty-three-year-old Tony Ferguson, the UFC’s new interim lightweight champion, has yet to reach this point, nor do many expect him to ever get there. But he is, at this stage, a 155lb belt-holder, a rival of McGregor’s and, by virtue of this, a reluctant pawn in the Irishman’s game.
On Saturday night (October 7), after impressively dismantling Kevin Lee in three rounds, Ferguson took the microphone and used his moment in the spotlight to goad and call out McGregor. While not his style, nor something that comes naturally to him, Ferguson realised the importance of grasping his moment. So he went for it. He called McGregor ‘McNuggets’ and he told the undisputed champion he was ready to fight him in order to find out whose belt was the real deal. It was over-the-top, it was tongue-in-cheek. It was also entirely necessary.
The Lee performance, in an ideal world, would be enough to secure Ferguson the McGregor fight. Exceptional from the second round on, Ferguson showed exactly why he’d be a threat to McGregor in the way he was able to weather Lee’s early storm, stay relaxed, stay composed, and gradually walk his opponent down before submitting him in round three. There’s a very real chance he could do something similar to the man he now calls ‘McNuggets’. But he also knows a potential fight with McGregor hinges on more than just a tremendous win over Kevin Lee and a UFC interim belt. In this realm, this world of McGregor, you have to be worth his time. You have to do numbers. You have to make him – and you both – money. And lots of it.
That’s why Ferguson, 23-3, knows he has to do more than just destroy the likes of Kevin Lee. And it’s why he immediately made a point of mentioning and disparaging McGregor’s name.
There’s a sense, too, that Ferguson’s plan may well have worked. At the UFC 216 post-fight press conference, Dana White, to the surprise of many, rubbished talk of a fight between McGregor and Nate Diaz, long believed to be McGregor’s favoured matchup, and instead talked up Ferguson getting his chance.
“Nobody’s talked about Diaz. Diaz has never been talked about. That’s internet bulls**t,” White said. “Tony’s the interim champion, Conor’s the champion, that’s the fight that makes sense. It’s the fight that has to happen.”
That would have been music to the ears of Tony Ferguson, who, in winning twelve fights in a row, has completed the groundwork and earned his life-changing payday. Should he get it, and should he do enough to motivate McGregor to play his part in yet another grudge match, the thing becomes a fight and Ferguson, as he showed again on Saturday night, becomes a formidable test of McGregor’s credentials.
“Tony’s a busy guy,” White said. “He keeps coming forward, he keeps throwing all kinds of different things at you. And Conor’s awesome. There’s no way that’s not a great fight. Impossible.”
Conor McGregor has done the ‘money fight’. He was allowed to do it.
Now it’s time for a great one.