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UFC 216 main event breakdown: Tony Ferguson vs. Kevin Lee

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Winner inserts themselves in the Conor McGregor sweepstakes

Tony Ferguson
Tony Ferguson

After nine straight wins and a near one-year break for reasons out of his control, Tony Ferguson finally gets an opportunity to wear UFC gold. The occasion comes with an asterisk, of course, as it’s an interim lightweight belt that will be at stake when he faces off with Kevin Lee in the UFC 216 main event.

This is the rare case where the interim belt’s inevitable shadow is not a bad thing; it means that current champion Conor McGregor may be in play for the winner. The Irishman acknowledged as much in a recent interview.

“I’m just going to put a few options out there and see what bounces back,” he said. “It’s got to excite me, let me see what these two fools do this weekend. We’ll see what the energy is like.”

To be sure, Ferguson and Lee face an uphill climb in electrifying the T-Mobile Arena, if only because Las Vegas is still reeling from the horrific events of last week. But with such a prize hanging in the distance, the motivation to win and set themselves up for the biggest fight in their lives will run deep.

By virtue of his winning streak and his more accomplished resume, Ferguson is the favorite, with odds approaching -250 in some sports books. He is a good example of a measured rise up the divisional hierarchy. Along the way, each step came with an increasing level of difficulty and opponent (with perhaps the exception of late-notice replacement Lando Vannata).

His progression—from Danny Castillo to Abel Trujillo to Gleison Tibau to Josh Thomson to Edson Barboza (with a Vannata pit stop) and finally Rafael dos Anjos shows increased levels of both challenge and success.

Along the way, his growth has been difficult to miss. Most of his success is predicated upon pressure. Ferguson (22-3) is always moving, feinting, faking or throwing something, effectively placing his opponent on the defensive for long stretches. While his punches can seem loopy, and his combinations can be head-scratchingly unorthodox, he has a knack for accuracy, landing at a 43 percent clip throughout his UFC career, per FightMetric.

While that number does not rank among the divisional leaders, he’s saved his best work for his toughest opponents. Against the former lightweight champion dos Anjos, he landed 49.8%. Against the sublime striker Edson Barboza, the number hit 52.6%. Against Josh Thomson, it was 55.7%.

Because of his approach to fighting, accuracy isn’t necessarily paramount to his success, but his improving performance in that facet has been a key driver in his current unbeaten streak. Perhaps more important is his pure activity; Ferguson lands 5.23 strikes per minute, giving himself every opportunity to both land a fight-changer and win rounds on points. His boxing comes from unusual angles, and he’s excellent at improvising in the heat of the moment, with designed punches turning into short elbows when an opponent breaches the distance. He's also strong in positions that are traditionally underutilized in MMA, like the clinch and the scramble.

In the former, he loves to set up a front headlock and threaten either with his favored choke, the D’Arce, to snap an opponent down to the mat, or to punish the body with knees. In the latter, Ferguson is liable to do nearly anything. He’ll roll to his back, forward roll, he’ll switch or spin out, or do such unexpected things he has caused opponents to freeze in mid-action.

His bag of tricks is deep, and that uniqueness serves as an ongoing X-factor. Ferguson will do things that are “technically” wrong, like leading with an uppercut or voluntarily taking the bottom position. That kind of style is risky, but it serves his personality and makes opponents wary of him. While they hesitate, he’s scoring points. And as fights progress over the course of 15 or 25 minutes, it usually only gets worst, as the 33-year-old never seems to tire.

So Lee will certainly have plenty to think about prepare for as he faces who is far and away his best opponent.

Having debuted in the UFC in February 2014, Lee has been exceedingly active, going 9-2 in 11 fights since then, including a five-fight win streak that propelled him near the top of the division. Still, despite that lengthy resume, Lee didn’t seem as though he was nearing a title shot until earlier this summer, when he vaulted himself through a heated feud with Michael Chiesa, followed by a first-round rear naked choke win.

That victory presents the first and only one over a UFC top 10 opponent at the time of the matchup. In comparison to Ferguson’s resume, well, there is no comparison.

So in order to pick Lee in this matchup, you have to make certain projections about his potential and whether his tools will translate against the best opponent he has faced.

In at least one area, we can predict the answer is yes. Lee has been fantastic on the ground, including three straight submission wins by rear naked choke. According to Fightnomics’ Reed Kuhn, Lee has spent 10.3% of his fights controlling opponents by back mount, which is fifth best among active UFC fighters.

And that’s where Ferguson’s wild style comes into play. Remember, he’s a guy that will turn and spin, and do other things that give up his back at least momentarily. Lee is a fighter that can and must fully capitalize on it.

His wrestling is powerful, with a deep shot that has led to takedowns in every fight but his surprising loss to Leonardo Santos at UFC 194. Ferguson often defends takedowns with a simple sprawl, but if he doesn’t fully commit to his defense, Lee has a good chance of taking him down, especially early.

This comes with a caveat though. Lee has shown a propensity to shoot long takedowns out of the corner instead of using his footwork to escape or his hands to set it up. Often, those attempts appear to emerge out of nervousness. That amounts to wasted energy, and in a 25-minute match, can be a devastating mistake. In fact, Lee has struggled at times against forward pressure, backpedaling instead of escaping laterally or finding a counter. That part of his game has been the slowest to come along.

Coming forward he appears much more confident. He has a snapping jab, a sharp right and heavy kicks from distance, the last of which is probably his strongest and most effective weapon.

In truth though, there’s just not enough striking tape on him to really know how he will fare against someone so diverse as Ferguson. Most of his fights have simply been too short, and too heavy on wrestling and groundwork to draw the necessary conclusions.

At just 25, there is a big future ahead of him. There is still much development too, but it’s hard to assume that he’s ready for this big step. The Chiesa win was meaningful, but Ferguson is a different animal. He’s active and innovative, powerful and complete; moreover, his engine never stops. I think Lee can make a fight of it in the first two rounds, but if he’s going to spring an upset, it has to be early. From the third round on, Ferguson’s stamina will be the difference-maker. If he doesn’t finish late, he wins a unanimous decision and puts himself in the McGregor sweepstakes.