Any fight fans who watched last week’s introductory UFC 223 press conference likely walked away a little confused about the stakes involved between the event’s two headliners. In a perplexing bit of mental gymnastics, UFC president Dana White simultaneously claimed Tony Ferguson vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov would be for the UFC’s official lightweight title while also refusing to say the UFC’s absentee lightweight champion, Conor McGregor, would be stripped of the belt he hasn’t defended once since assuming the throne in Nov. 2016.
The UFC has done nothing to clarify that confusion in the days since, and for Ferguson — the promotion’s current interim lightweight champion — that means the lead-up to UFC 223 will inevitably be filled with endless queries about McGregor and the nebulous state of the 155-pound division. And that’s a frustrating situation to be in for the man who has won 10 consecutive fights.
“Yeah, it bothers me. It bothers the sh*t out of me, dude,” Ferguson admitted Monday on The MMA Hour. “Straight up. I’m the f*cking champ and we don’t know if we’re fighting for the real belt or not. What the f*ck is that? Dana White is telling us one thing on one [side] of the curtain and on the other side he’s saying, ‘No, Conor McGregor is the champion. Go and do your homework.’ And I love Dana, man, but I’m like, ‘What the f*ck, dude? Am I not the champ or am I the champ? Do you want to hype me up or do you not want to hype me up for this fight?’”
Ferguson, 33, has been caught in the limbo created by McGregor’s absence for some time now. His entire 2017 campaign revolved around securing the UFC’s interim lightweight strap, a feat he finally accomplished in October with a third-round submission over Kevin Lee at UFC 216. After that, with interim gold in tow, a date with McGregor appeared to be a foregone conclusion. But the matchup has failed to come to fruition, with White now saying publicly that McGregor may not even compete until September, if he does return at all.
That reality has left Ferguson will little choice but to look elsewhere for a fight, which is why he finds himself potentially defending his interim title against Nurmagomedov while a healthy McGregor remains on the sidelines holding the real title, even though Ferguson says a contract was already written up for McGregor vs. Ferguson.
“As far as what they told me in the contract, that’s what they were telling me. They were saying, ‘Look, you guys are fighting for the undisputed title,’” Ferguson said. “That was right before they told me that I was going to fight Conor McGregor. And then just a whole bunch of sh*t just went down, and I was like, ‘You know what, I have a manager to help me deal with this.’ But in speculation, what happened was they offered me a fighter that didn’t want to fight. I don’t know if it was a contract issue or what it was, but the dude didn’t seem interested. He doesn’t seem interested, to the public and to anybody else, to defend his belt.
“Management presented me with the opportunity and the contract, and they told me the benefits and the negatives if I was going to sign up for it, and then I was like, ‘Well sh*t man, is this b*tch going to even sign up?’ They were like, ‘Probably not. Nope. He’s too busy,’ or some bullsh*t, whatever. Not even in their words.”
Ferguson said the indecision surrounding McGregor’s title was palpable at last Friday’s press conference when, even backstage, it was hard to get a real answer from UFC officials regarding the belt Ferguson and Nurmagomedov are set to vie for on April 7.
“It was almost like they were kind of embarrassed to ask or to be questioned,” Ferguson said “They didn’t know what the f*ck was going on. It was kind of like, ‘Well sh*t, what’s going on?’
“Look, I understand that there’s business, and there’s probably big business to have to do with McGregor, but that has nothing to do with myself or my family. He does not make our world go around, that’s what I’m trying to say. I have 10 fights in a row that I have won via my coaches and my teammates and my family, not even in that order. Even before that, I knocked out everybody at 170 pounds. I’m a fight finisher. I’m a fan pleaser. And I go out there and I make people bloody. I’m the worst nightmare for anybody that steps inside that Octagon, and I am the f*cking champ.”
Ultimately, Ferguson knows he is still an important cog in the machine when it comes to the bizarre situation at lightweight. “El Cucuy” has won an unprecedented, division-best 10 consecutive fights, dispatching a litany of highly-ranked names in violent, entertaining fashion. So rather than sitting things out like his Irish rival, Ferguson elected to stay active and accept the long-awaited matchup against Nurmagomedov — even if he still isn’t quite sure what they are fighting for at UFC 223.
“Trust me, this whole situation … it kinda sucks,” Ferguson said. “But I’ve been excited about this fight for a very long time. I don’t want to fight against somebody that doesn’t want to fight, as I’ve said before. But once the fight was decided and my opponent was given, my main focus is on the guy in front of me. To me, this is the real fight, this is for the real belt. I’m the current champ. I might not always be given the respect that I should have, but it’s what fuels me. I can’t be ignored forever, and I’m going to derail this hype train. I’m going to clip that eagle’s wings.”