With a slick triangle choke at the end of a back and forth affair typical of his title run, Tony Ferguson has set the stage for what may be the greatest lightweight MMA fight of all time. Conor McGregor has agreed (or been coerced) to make his next fight a unification fight to defend his lightweight belt.
A worthy opponent
Whether you’re a fan or not, it is a fact that Conor McGregor’s title wins and reign were carefully guided. Both Frankie Edgar and Cub Swanson were on great win streaks that would’ve merited a title shot on their own, but they were set against each other to clear Conor’s path to the belt. He received a boon when Rafael Dos Anjos lost via fluke knockout to Eddie Alvarez, allowing him to take the lightweight belt against a better style match up.
There’s a reason that his two toughest fights have been against Nate Diaz.
Nate Diaz’s length and height forced Conor to step in and punch upwards for the first time in his UFC career, removing his one-shot knockout power. Diaz’s shoulder lean and forearm guard nullified a large number of left crosses, forcing Conor to resort to hooks and kicks at which he was still excellent but not other-worldly. He found someone who could consistently hit him from a distance, forcing him to deal with mounting damage.
In that respect, Ferguson is Nate 2.0. He’s faster on the feet, carries more power in his hands and is a more dynamic grappler. His chin is easier to find, but he’s taken clean, heavy shots before and emerged unharmed.
The legacy builder
Conor McGregor’s greatest fight is not his knockout of Jose Aldo but his five-round rematch with Nate. Scoring controversy aside, it gave us a glimpse as to what Conor could do when his matchups aren’t chosen with tender care like a homecoming corsage.
Realizing that Nate checks leg kicks as often as his spam folder, Conor chopped down the younger Diaz brother with heavy leg kicks uncharacteristic to his style. This saved Conor a few times in later rounds when he was able to escape from a lot of Nate’s punches because the latter man’s mobility was compromised. Conor timed his left to catch Nate circling and penetrate his guard which led to two knockdowns and a heap of damage. His clinch defense was good enough that he could escape with minimal damage, opposed to the first fight in which Nate manhandled him.
It wasn’t a nice, compact blip that could be played endlessly on ESPN but it showed how good Conor has the potential to be. It opened up the possibility that Conor McGregor might not just be the greatest crossover star in the company’s history, but the best fighter in its most talented division.
Most fans understand the mind-boggling depth of the UFC lightweight division, but they don’t realize how quickly the division has evolved.
It started with BJ Penn, the division’s most storied champion. He was the best BJJ practitioner of his day and probably the best boxer as well. He defended the belt three times against great competition and won the welterweight title from Matt Hughes.
In turn, he was dethroned by Frankie Edgar. To this day, Frankie Edgar is the most celebrated boxer-wrestler in the history of the UFC. By today’s standards, Edgar could cut down to bantamweight if he really wanted to. Yet he beat BJ Penn at lightweight twice and, upon cutting to featherweight, made every opponent not named Jose Aldo look like a fool.
His lightweight reign was ended by Benson Henderson, an explosive wrestler with bottomless cardio who was the WEC’s greatest lightweight champion. A questionable decision loss to Donald Cerrone aside, the only people to beat him in the UFC as a lightweight were future champions. Heck, the guy who stopped his lightweight run was the first MMA fighter to appear on the Wheaties Box.
That would be Anthony Pettis, the guy who threw the kick seen around the world to take Henderson’s belt in the WEC’s final event. After getting grounded by Clay Guida, Pettis would put together a UFC run which culminated in a rematch with Henderson for the UFC lightweight belt. He smashed Henderson’s ribs with several kicks before pulling off a lightning-quick armbar for a first-round finish. He’s one of those fighters whose kicks are so effective that a single connection can set up countless finishes, putting him shoulder to shoulder with men like Edson Barboza and Mirko Cro Cop.
He was shockingly upset by Rafael Dos Anjos, whose time at Kings MMA had turned him into the best pressure fighter to date. Dos Anjos could really do it all; he had knockout power, beautiful striking offense and defense, wrestling and submission prowess. He was smart enough to vary his attack between the head, body, and legs. He could cut a ring when many fighters today cannot.
Dos Anjos was then upset by Eddie Alvarez, who won a favor from God off a scratch lottery.
And now we have Conor McGregor, who’s proven to be the best counter fighter since Anderson Silva and probably the best boxer in the UFC right now.
His battle with Diaz proved he can overcome a bad style match-up with strategy. Across from him would be Tony Ferguson, a man who made the aforementioned Rafael Dos Anjos look amateur as part of a ten fight win streak that culminated this past weekend with the interim belt. A man who has found indirect solutions to gaping holes in his game, making him a terrifying offensive force.
The winner of this fight doesn’t just unite the lightweight belts, but will likely be the best lightweight to date.
Dana White seems to be feeling the pressure and is hinting that Conor’s next fight has to be a title unification. Conor has said he wishes to legitimize the belt as well, so hopefully his coach’s hints at a Diaz trilogy will be ignored. Fantasy matchups fall apart or get delayed till one fighter leaves their prime all too often. But two of the UFC’s best fighters are in the same division and hold belts, leaving the fight all but inevitable.
The UFC could get its first super fight.