The winner takes it all?

In the case of Saturday’s (October 7) UFC interim lightweight title fight between Tony Ferguson and Kevin Lee, this old adage might not necessarily ring true. The win is valuable, no doubt, and will lead to a title of some description being wrapped around the victor’s waist, but the real reward, whether they like it or not, is a ticket to The Conor McGregor Show and, with it, a shot at the undisputed UFC lightweight title.

They will try to deny it. They will try to focus on the immediate task at hand. But it’s the truth. The shadow of Conor McGregor looms large ahead of what, on paper, is one of the very best fights of the year. Without him, it remains a great fight. With the carrot of a McGregor date for the winner, though, it becomes so much more. Ferguson knows it. Lee knows it. Certainly McGregor, the puppet master pulling the strings from on high, knows it.

“Look, I’ve got the UFC title to defend and that means something to me. I will defend that world title,” the Irishman said at ‘An Evening with Conor McGregor’ in Glasgow.

“Nathan (Nate Diaz) is there. He’s trying to make all of these demands. If he starts pricing himself out of an event, I probably will defend against the person who wins this interim belt… or someone along that line to legitimize it again.

“I’ve already gone from the highest of the highs in terms of a money fight. Now the question I always get is about defending the belt and legitimizing the sport and the rankings.

“Maybe now it would be a good time for me to go and do that and shut that side up.”

Shutting that side up is not only important for McGregor, it’s also important for the UFC and the organization’s authenticity; for if McGregor is allowed to call the shots and neglect a belt left on the shelf since he defeated Eddie Alvarez in November the very idea of titles and rankings becomes a little pointless. The division needs McGregor to get a hold of it and do what’s right (which means facing the winner of Saturday’s fight between Ferguson and Lee). If he doesn’t, if he chooses to do something else (God forbid, have another boxing match), what does any of it mean? What does the UFC’s interim lightweight title mean? What does Ferguson vs. Lee at UFC 216 mean?

“Again, we’ll see what happens in the fight next week (between Lee and Ferguson),” said McGregor. “I hope they make the walk. I’ve seen it so many times where they slip on the bleedin’ soap getting out of the bath.

“I’ve done the money fight. I’ve done the pinnacle of a money fight – I fought for the money belt. In my head now, I’m very interested in seeing this fight this weekend and seeing how the lightweight title picture pans out and then going in and correcting that whole situation. That’s where my thoughts are.”

You suspect it will take something special from either Ferguson or Lee to really turn McGregor’s head and get him interested in a fight. At this stage, it’s probably a requirement; he’s just boxed Floyd Mayweather; he’s been everywhere; he’s leaking money.

Which is why Ferguson and Lee have to do more than just win to warrant a slice of McGregor’s loot. They have to win and look spectacular doing so. Earn it.

If they can’t, all roads, it would seem, lead to Nate Diaz, a man with whom McGregor already has history and a ready-made story.

“I also have history with Nate. It’s 1-1 and that has to happen. It will happen.

“Now, to legitimize a title, I could potentially bring it back. That’s a little bit exciting for me. I’ll see how this whole title picture plays out and go from there.”

Bigger than the UFC? Not yet. But you figure Conor McGregor isn’t too far away.