LAS VEGAS — Tony Ferguson is the UFC’s interim lightweight champion as of Saturday night.
And if Conor McGregor isn’t willing to face him next, Ferguson believes the “interim” tag in his title needs to be dropped.
Ferguson (23-3) claimed the interim 155-pound championship at UFC 216 at T-Mobile Arena, submitting Kevin Lee via triangle at 4:02 of the third round. It is his 10th consecutive win in the division.
The undisputed belt still belongs to McGregor (21-3), who won it last November. McGregor hasn’t fought in MMA this year because of his August boxing match against Floyd Mayweather. He has mentioned several options for his next opponent, but Ferguson demanded to be next if McGregor wants to keep his title.
Ferguson used some colorful language in challenging McGregor, yelling, “Where you at, McNuggets?” immediately after the win. “I’ll kick your ass. Defend or vacate.”
UFC president Dana White said a lightweight title unification bout between McGregor and Ferguson should be next for the Irish star.
“Conor McGregor has never turned down a fight,” White said. “Conor doesn’t turn down fights, so it’s not a matter of ‘Conor wouldn’t want to fight Ferguson,’ or this or that. Obviously, Conor had an opportunity to make a lot of money [against Mayweather], and I felt it was my duty to try and make that fight happen. And we did. I’d like to get back to business and see some title defenses.”
It was a statement win by Ferguson, who was actually supposed to fight for an interim title in March. He was robbed of the opportunity, however, when his planned opponent, Khabib Nurmagomedov, pulled out.
The California native was dropped by a Lee right hand in the opening round but immediately bounced back to his feet. He allowed Lee (16-3) to mount him later in the round but survived to see the next frame.
In the second round, Lee, who fights out of Las Vegas, started to tire. Any strike he landed was significant, but the energy used to throw the hard shots took a toll on the 24-year-old. Ferguson, who is known for his endurance, said afterward that was part of the plan.
“This went exactly the way I wanted,” Ferguson said. “I wanted him to come at me and use all that aggression, and leave no energy for the submission.”
Ferguson went to work with the jab and leg kicks in the second round. In the third, he surrendered a takedown to Lee but didn’t seem to mind. He threw slicing elbows off his back and wrapped the right leg around Lee’s neck to set up the submission.
After the fight, Lee said he’d suffered from a staph infection on his chest during fight preparations. He also struggled to make weight for the title bout, and was forced to get on the scale twice during Friday’s official weigh-in. Lee said he gave full credit to Ferguson, however, for the win.
White told ESPN on Friday he remains optimistic McGregor could fight by the end of the year. The UFC has a pay-per-view scheduled on Dec. 30 in Las Vegas. McGregor’s coach, John Kavanagh, has said he prefers a later date, possibly in March 2018.
A trilogy fight with Nate Diaz is another potential option for McGregor’s next fight.
“This is chess, and you’re in check,” Ferguson said, aiming the remark toward McGregor. “You need to defend. Don’t vacate the thing. This isn’t about a money fight. It’s about pride. You don’t want to see me wearing your real belt, buddy. So you better defend it.
“I know Conor, and Conor is a gamer. He’s an athlete. As much s— as I talk, it would be the most impressive, game fight in the world.”