By Mark Drumheller
UFC 216 went off without a hitch Saturday night as Dana White looked to give the epicenter of MMA an entertaining night of fights. Las Vegas may be the only city where two warriors physically pounding each other into submission can give a crowd of 10,000 screaming fans the comfort of normalcy. Vegas Strong was embroidered in each fighters shorts in a night where history was made inside the T-Mobile Arena. One champion would cement a record for most title defenses while the other would capture UFC gold in hopes of flipping it into a life-changing payday.
In the main event, Tony Ferguson submitted the division’s rising star, Kevin Lee, for the interim lightweight championship. Ferguson’s road to gold was a little more challenging than his opponents. His resume includes wars with the division’s elite, and a winning streak which dates back to 2012, including signature victories over Edison Barboza and ex-lightweight champion, Rafael Dos Anjos. The veteran’s foxhole fitness came into play as Lee had the TUF 13 season winner in deep waters early on with a heavy dose of ground and pound. Lee had Ferguson in full mount and continued raining down a barrage of powerful shots from top position until the bell ending round one came to Ferguson’s rescue.
El Cucuy’s caginess ultimately prevailed as Lee seemed to gas in Round 2. Lee entered the bout off a horrible weight cut and brought to the cage what appeared to be a staph infection on his chest. Unable to keep Ferguson on the mat, Lee finally fell victim to a deadly armbar to triangle transition in round 3 that secured gold for Ferguson.
What’s next for Ferguson is even more critical the 10th straight victory he secured Saturday night. Most fighters are bullish on interim championship belts, but this one has a whole different meaning. The lightweight division’s interim title can change your life. Why? It’s a one-way ticket to Conor McGregor and Conor McGregor will change your life forever. Coming off a five-hundred thousand dollar payday for his work Saturday night, a title fight with the Notorious can make Ferguson a millionaire based on the notoriety alone. El Cucuy was poised to cash in immediately swiping Joe Rogan’s mic and calling out the Irish ATM to “Defend or Vacate”.
Conventionally, the UFC would always pit interim champ to take on the division’s title holder in his next matchup, but there is one problem with thinking conventionally in the UFC these days. Conor McGregor makes the rules. Coming off a huge payday in his boxing debut, many analysts questioned if Dana White could ever lure the Notorious back to the octagon. Stylistically, Tony Ferguson is a threat to Conor McGregor. He brings a dangerous blend of unorthodox striking and high-level grappling. What he fails to bring is something that Conor covets, drawing power. Dana White tried to squash any whispers of a trilogy fight with Nate Diaz being next on McGregor’s agenda. It’s fair to wonder if Tony Ferguson has what it takes to get the Notorious to sign on the dotted line. Being a UFC Champion is a game changer, but a prize fight with the UFC’s mega-star is a life changer. Ferguson will pull out all the stops to coax Conor into the cage. He knows full well his next defense is the only one that matters.
Demetrious Johnson, MMA’s version of Rodney Dangerfield, entered UFC 216’s co-main event poised to become a part of UFC history. Yes, you heard that correctly. “Co-Main Event”. Those keywords give you a glimpse into the challenges “Mighty Mouse” has dealt with during his impeccable reign as king of the UFC’s 125 lb. division. The flyweight champion, on the cusp of breaking Anderson Silva’s record for most title defenses in history, takes a back seat to an interim title fight featuring two fighters with limited drawing power and not one UFC title fight on their resume.
Johnson did not disappoint, tapping a game Ray Borg with a highlight reel submission that many in the MMA community are dubbing the “The Mouse Trap”. After dominating Borg for the previous four rounds, Johnson tossed Borg to the mat in the fifth and appeared to flawlessly transition mid-air into an armbar. Borg had no option but to tap and become part of the wrong side of history.
Johnson’s dismantling of Borg gives fans a window into the minds of the detractors of the undisputed flyweight king. There is literally no competition. Sergio Pettis is high on may fans wishlist to challenge Might Mouse next, but it feels like sending the young talent to the meat grinder. The UFC proposed bantamweight TJ Dillashaw as a ratings-driven opponent when Ray Borg was scrapped from their first scheduled encounter. Although, Johnson scoffed at taking on the former bantamweight champion. He may have no choice if Dillashaw is serious at coming down to flyweight and giving Johnson the level of competition he lacked during his historic run.
Dillashaw is scheduled to fight for the bantamweight title in November. A loss there against Garbrant could convince Dillashaw the time is right to dive down to flyweight. Dominick Cruz is another bantamweight who could be looking to drop down for a chance at Johnson’s gold. Cruz handed Johnson his last loss back in 2011 in a dominant unanimous decision for the bantamweight title. A rematch against the popular Cruz could be the ratings push Demetrious desires to bring more legitimacy to the discussion of him being the UFC’s pound for pound king. Whether it’s Dillashaw or Cruz, Johnson is going to have to be more open in the future to looking outside of the division for competition. The UFC has publicly entertained the idea of shutting the division down completely after only five years due limited interest and ratings. As champion, it’s on Johnson’s lap to try and get the flyweights the respect they deserve. After 11 successful title defenses, his next defense could be the only one that matters to the future of the flyweight division.
*Photo courtesy of bloodyelbow.com*