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The stakes for Tony Ferguson and Kevin Lee at UFC 216 are strictly hypothetical

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UFC 205 Weigh-in Photos Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Next week’s UFC 216 pay-per-view is a hopeful son-of-a-bourgie, in that the main event — an interim lightweight title fight between Kevin Lee and Tony Ferguson — leads to some place actual. That is, a conflict with Conor McGregor, who has a featherweight title stored on a hard drive somewhere, and an active 155-pound belt out there cruising the seven seas on a (rented) yacht. Otherwise, UFC 216 — like so many other PPVs in the year of WME-IMG — is just a game of charades.

Not that there won’t be a legitimate record on the line when Demetrious Johnson defends his flyweight title for the 11th time in the co-main. That part of the ledger is fairly cemented in fact; if Ray Borg makes it to the Octagon next Saturday, history can play out the way it should have last month in Edmonton.

But let’s face it — Lee vs. Ferguson is a candidacy debate with taped hands, a contest for one of those two principals to make the kind of deft, endearing statement that will convince McGregor that a trilogy with Nate Diaz can wait. That a title defense must happen, against an unmistakable ascendant of the established pecking order. That some semblance of order must be restored, if only McGregor sees that order is worthy.

That’s where we are in today’s UFC — on the carousel of Conor’s druthers. He’s a fun-loving dictator that chews gum. And so long as he’s on top, the UFC’s matchmakers are in a strange place. He’s the money-raker, and the business is money — belts are “promotional tools” by contractual language, not necessarily deposit slips. McGregor, as the last sublime money draw, has all the leverage. The rest of the lightweights (as well as the feathers for that matter, and every other weight class that McGregor glances at) are at the mercy of McGregor’s whims. For the time being, it’s his sport to dictate.

And McGregor’s movement is the sport within the sport.

Of course, everyone knows he wants that Diaz trilogy fight, but doesn’t want to talk about it too much until after UFC 216 goes down. The UFC wants that Diaz trilogy fight too. The fans, who spoke with dollars at UFC 202 when the rematch occurred (breaking PPV records) aren’t going to not watch the rubber fight, that’s for sure. The trilogy will happen, it’s just a matter of when. And whether or not it will be for a title.

And, you know…whether a title…like, even matters?

Because a funny thing has happened since McGregor won his belts and made his way to a nine-digit payday in the boxing ring against Floyd Mayweather — the titles themselves have lost some value. Even the ones McGregor had little or nothing have become loose-fitting vortices. Germaine de Randamie had a belt, but by the time she resurfaced from Holland she didn’t; Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino won a belt, then said she wanted to try out boxing; Stipe Miocic tied the heavyweight record for title defenses, yet now he’s in limbo; Michael Bisping is defending his title against Georges St-Pierre, which is…full of spirited opinions; Daniel Cormier retained his title via the self-sabotage of his rival.

In other words, a good many of the belts have gotten a little insincere. They don’t hold the same sheen in 2017. They’re smudgy.

And of course, there’s McGregor, who has collected titles only to scuttle off to other places. Because he has conquered and roamed, the lightweight title is being portioned at UFC 216, duplicated so that the symbol remains in play. Yet sometimes traditional logic comes crowding back over McGregor’s lark. What does an interim title mean if he doesn’t care to unify the belts? If McGregor ends up fighting Diaz in the first quarter of 2018, does the winner of Lee-Ferguson then defend the interim title to keep it rolling? And if the Diaz trilogy fight is for McGregor’s actual title, which title holds more import between the parallels — the digressive real one, or the meritful knock off?

The easiest thing in the world would be for McGregor to accept the challenge of either Lee or Ferguson and to get the division back on course. After all, they are fighting to essentially to build a path to him, and the PPV is being sold on that pretty linear idea. Yet at a press event in Glasgow a couple of days ago, McGregor said he’s looking at multiple scenarios — panning the entire landscape for his next challenge. Lee and Ferguson are among the candidates; yet so is Diaz, and Mayweather (ha!) and GSP, and Justin Gaethje, and Paulie freaking Malignaggi. He did mention he was interested in “legitimizing the title,” which sounds orderly enough, but he’s also looking at one scale of pay versus another versus another, and he’s seeing a lot of bums.

Two fighters that hold such a distinction in his mind are Ferguson and Lee, who will trade punches in Las Vegas on the hunch that Irish whiskers may soon be a target.

UFC 216 has a damn good main event. Lee is a breakout star, and Ferguson is perhaps the most unsung action fighter going. Whoever wins will have a belt. What does that mean exactly? Who knows, man. Belts are shiny things that even Nate Diaz can see his reflection in. So long as McGregor is on top, there are no guarantees. There’s just bright lights and best intentions and a whole lot of jostling for position.