UFC 216 preview: Kevin Lee hoping to upset the odds against Tony Ferguson to set up Conor McGregor showdown
UFC welterweight and commentator Dan Hardy looks ahead to this weekend’s event in Las Vegas, with the interim UFC lightweight and UFC flyweight titles on the line
The lightweight division has been restless in Conor McGregor's absence. Many standout fighters are within one or two wins of a title shot but two of them have the opportunity this weekend, at UFC 216 in Las Vegas, to take hold of the interim title.
They will sit on the lightweight throne until Conor returns to challenge their legitimacy, headlining what will likely be one of the biggest pay-per-view events in UFC history.
The interim belt is certainly the golden ticket for one of these two fighters, but the other will be thrown back into the mix at lightweight and will have to carve out a second attempt at the title. Trash talk has been intense and personal.
Tony Ferguson has been poised for a title shot for some time. Riding a nine-fight streak, he is the clear favourite for a title contender. His foe is a little further down the rankings but is climbing the roster in leaps. Slamming and strangling people left, right and centre, Kevin Lee looks like the ideal B-side for Conor's return.
Flash, brash and effective, Lee has emerged quickly with a few impressive wins. His first round stoppage of Jake Matthews during last year’s International Fight Week saw Lee show his wrestling skills, his control on the mat, and how physically imposing he can be over another strong athlete.
Against Francisco Trinaldo in March he showed an ability to regroup after a rough first round and adapt to a new challenges; all lessons he may have to draw upon when facing Tony Ferguson, who is a fast starter and notoriously unorthodox.
Representing 10th Planet Jiu Jitsu, led by Eddie Bravo, Ferguson has a vast array of skills and is creative enough to find the finish in some unusual circumstances. His flare in the grappling range permeates his whole game.
Comfortable switching stances, he flows from one power strike to another, making the most of his lengthy reach. Strafing his opponent, the unusual angles at which he throws his punches tend to catch them through their guard. If he doesn't stop them with strikes he will wrap them up in a D'arce choke and force them to tap.
Ferguson has been visibly riled at every encounter with Lee. It seems as if Tony identified Lee as a potential threat to his title aspirations, and now Kevin has talked up a storm and created this opportunity, Tony has to beat another top contender before getting his hands on a belt.
What he really wants is the McGregor fight - belt or no belt, that's the life-changing fight. This fight with Kevin Lee for the interim title could prove to be an unnecessary risk.
Lee has all the ingredients needed to shut Ferguson down but to do that he has to stay away from danger. Tony Ferguson brings a unique chaos to the Octagon and in that chaos is all kinds of danger: accurate and heavy punches, slicing and smashing elbows and one of the most innovative submission games in the sport.
There are few fights as difficult to pick a winner as this one. Either man could win impressively and either man can drag a fight out of the other. It could be a quick finish or a back and forth war. No matter what happens, it will be electric while it lasts.
In the co-main event UFC flyweight champion, Demetrious Johnson, will finally get the chance to defend his title for the eleventh time, in a fight that was originally scheduled for UFC 215. Illness forced Ray Borg to withdraw from the match-up, but this young, aggressive fighter is determined to make the walk to the Octagon this weekend and return to his locker room with the world title.
Borg is coming off two wins over top 10 ranked Louis Smolka and Jussier Formiga. If he is to upset Johnson then the record for consecutive title defences will be left tied at 10 with Anderson Silva, but the first and only UFC flyweight champion will be the heavy favourite going into this fight.
After becoming the UFC's first ever flyweight champion, Johnson went about clearing out the division in the most impressive of ways. During his reign he has submitted John Moraga, Chris Cariaso, Kyoji Horiguchi and Wilson Reis, picking up the record for latest finish in an MMA fight, at 4.59 of the fifth round.
He has also knocked out Joe Benavidez and Henry Cejudo in the first round and has collected seven performance bonuses. Add six further decision victories to his resume and what you have is the most dominant champion in UFC history.
If he can shut out Ray Borg it may be time to look outside of his division for ‘Superfights’ to get some big pay-per-view opportunities, until a worthy contender emerges from the flyweight pack.
Ray Borg had just started his amateur career when Demetrious stepped down to flyweight and began his unbeaten run.
Borg’s entire career has taken place during the championship reign of Johnson, just like Chris Weidman’s during Anderson Silva’s supremacy. Nobody gave Weidman a shot in that fight, not even Anderson. There is a danger of complacency when you have shut down a division for several years and all of the top contenders have already been vanquished. The other danger is the power of a man with nothing to lose. That is the situation Ray Borg finds himself.
Borg is still a developing fighter, improving from one fight to another, especially now he’s moved to the Jackson-Wink camp in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The expert eyes of Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn will look at Borg’s raw talent and skill-set and know where to improve it and which gaps to fill in his game. They will also be able to develop a game plan to beat Johnson.
The question is whether they can prepare Borg well enough to carry out that game plan. Demetrious Johnson’s relationship with his long-time coach, Matt Hume, is quite amazing. Their understanding has been a major factor is the champion’s success.
They will look at Borg and identify the same things that I have in our recent episode of Inside the Octagon. He is strong and chaotic, with good wrestling skills and an instinct for strangulation. He strikes in fast and somewhat reckless flurries until he gets his hands on his opponent. Then he slams them to the mat in the most dramatic way possible and as they scramble back to their feet, he jumps on their back and chokes them.
Having once myself been the title contender against seemingly insurmountable odds, facing Georges St Pierre, I understand where Borg is in this moment.
He has to enter the Octagon prepared to roll the dice and take some chances. I look back on my fight and feel like I spent all of my time waiting to defend, when in actuality I should have just attacked the man, like I would have normally. The aura around a longstanding champion can sometimes defeat the contender before the fight has even started.
Borg needs to go after this man. He must realise that he is going to have to adapt quickly as it will likely be a crash-course in championship MMA, but ultimately, every man in vulnerable. As perfect as DJ seems, in the chaos of combat a punch can land or a neck can be grabbed and things change in a second.
Watch UFC 216: Ferguson vs. Lee live on BT Sport 2 from 1am BST on the morning of Sunday, October 8 or catch the Early Prelims exclusively on UFC Fight Pass from 11:15pm BST on Saturday
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