The Size Up: UFC 216 – Ferguson vs. Lee

Photo: SevereMMA/Andy Cowan

Interim Lightweight Title – Tony Ferguson vs. Kevin Lee
Ferguson Notable Fights: Rafael Dos Anjos (W), Edson Barboza (W), Lando Vannata (W), Michael Johnson (L)

Lee Notable Fights: Michael Chiesa (W), Al Iaquinta (L), Francisco Trinaldo (W), Jake Matthews (W)

Ferguson Stat: He has won his last nine fights in a row.

Lee Stat: His last three wins all came via rear naked choke.

The Match Up

With 155 lbs UFC champion Conor McGregor still out of the lightweight picture for the time being, it’s the interim version of the title he won against Eddie Alvarez that is up for grabs this Saturday night in Las Vegas’ T-mobile Arena as Tony Ferguson takes on Kevin Lee over five rounds. Initially, Ferguson was scheduled to fight Khabib Nurmagomedov for the interim strap in March at UFC 209 but after the Russian fell ill on the eve of the event the fight was canceled.

With Khabib still out of action because of health reasons, it gives a huge opportunity to Lee who headlines a card for just the second time. Currently ranked at number 7 in the often terrible official UFC rankings, many suggested this was the wrong fight to make at this time, and there’s definitely an argument for that. Lee has only one win against fellow current top-15 lightweights, and that was a controversial victory in his last outing as Michael Chiesa was stopped by referee Mario Yamasaki before tapping when caught in a rear naked choke. Nevertheless, Lee has won five in a row and looks like a fighter who has plenty of improvements still left in him.

On the other side of the Octagon, Tony Ferguson is almost over-qualified for a title shot. Now on the back of a nine-fight winning streak, the season 13 champion of “The Ultimate Fighter” has become not only one of the most skilled fighters in the UFC but one of the most exciting too. Wins over Lando Vanatta and Edson Barboza were extremely entertaining but his last outing, against former champion Rafael Dos Anjos, was arguably his most impressive display yet and sends him into his first UFC title fight looking at the very top of his game.

The Fight

I probably say this far too often here, but styles make fights. And this is a very interesting match-up of styles.

In Lee, you have a real fantastic wrestler with supreme athleticism who is improving all of the time. While with Ferguson you get an extremely unusual style of wild striking and jiu-jitsu mixed with unrelenting pressure. On paper, they are basically polar opposites. But in practice, this sees a real-life experiment to find out which style of fighting will win out. And sure, you could say that about every fight. But for this one, you have two top-level guys going at it where both of their strengths play direct opposite roles to their opponent. Let me explain how.

First, if you look at the ground game it is very obvious. At his core, Kevin Lee is a wrestler. He has made great improvements in other parts of his game but a very high percentage of things he does are on the way to getting his foe to the floor. But if he does that on Saturday night, he could be in trouble.

That’s because his opponent is extremely good off of his back. Ferguson, a 10th planet jiu-jitsu disciple, has one of the best ground games in the UFC and he is exceptional off of his back with both submissions and sweeps. And even before he gets there, Lee has to worry about Ferguson’s sturdy takedown defense and guillotines when he gets in close. That makes winning in that manner a very tough prospect for Lee despite his elite wrestling.

It’s fight week! #ufc216 #tonyferguson #elcucuy #kevinlee #motownphenom #ufc #mma

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Then, on the feet, there is even more of a juxtaposition. Over the last few fights, Lee has morphed from someone who was often forced to stand in the pocket to a set up his wrestling to a twinkle-toed out-fighter who is light on his feet and uses his athleticism to burst into range. It’s a change which was bound to come for the sort of fighter he is under good training and it has greatly improved him as a mixed martial artist. He still has an issue with not throwing enough combinations but his kicking to the legs and body, as well as his ability to land hands inside while being very hard to find at the long-range has moved his game to the next level.

Ferguson, conversely, is allergic to low-output and long-range fighting. His game is all about forward motion, extreme pressure and throwing a gargantuan number of strikes. Although he fights mostly out of the orthodox stance, Ferguson’s ability to switch regularly between that and southpaw has become a big part of his game. It helps him close the distance and get inside while also bamboozling his opponents who simply don’t know what’s coming next. That makes him more open and easier to hit if you’re brave and good enough but it also helps him to get into a firefight which he loves.

All-in-all, I find myself leaning heavily towards Ferguson here. For Lee to win, I think he has to either wrestle him for five rounds, play an extremely defensive Condit vs. Diaz type outside game or knock him out on the inside. Ferguson’s ground game and ability to close the distance should take care of the first two of those, while with only one career knockout I don’t think a Lee KO is too likely either. Although Lee definitely has more scope to improve, I’m not sure those improvements will even be enough here.

When picturing this fight, I see both men having their moments. Ferguson’s pressure will almost certainly give Lee trouble after he chases him around for while but equally, I see Lee getting takedowns here. The x-factor for me is Ferguson’s ability to escape from Lee’s wrestling which will cause Lee to have to deal with prolonged segments of Ferguson pressure. I could see Ferguson catching a guillotine here, or maybe even a triangle or gogoplata, but overall I think the most likely outcome is El Cucuy via late stoppage or decision mostly due to his insane pace and superb chin.

Photo: SevereMMA/Andy Cowan.

Flyweight Title – Demetrious Johnson vs. Ray Borg

Johnson Notable Fights: Wilson Reis (W), Joseph Benavidez (2W), Dominick Cruz (L), Henry Cejudo (W)

Borg Notable Fights: Jussier Formiga (W), Louis Smolka (W), Justin Scoggins (L), Dustin Ortiz (L).

Johnson Stat: He is even with Anderson Silva on most UFC title defences ever.

Borg Stat: He had never lost by submission or KO.

The Match Up

After falling off the last pay-per-view event at UFC 215 in Edmonton, Canada last month when the challenger became sick on fight week, the UFC’s flyweight title will be on the line in the co-main event on Saturday might as champion Demetrious Johnson takes on Ray Borg.

Photo: SevereMMA/Andy Cowan

On the face of it this may seem like another low-profile defence for “DJ”, but what raises the importance of this one is the fact that Demetrious Johnson will have more title defences than anyone ever if he wins. And, with Jon Jones currently in the midst of another legacy threatening crisis, this fight could strengthen Johnson’s claim of not only being the pound-for-pound King, but also the most skilled cage fighter to ever velcro up a pair of 4oz gloves.

Ray Borg, won’t be doing that. Instead, he will be fighting for just the 14th time and looking to pull off a huge shock against arguably the most dominant champion in the history of the UFC. That may seem like a less important venture, but to him it is more important than anything.

The Fight

As a fight this one is about as interesting as can be when a champion who has proven to be far superior to all challengers takes on the next one in line.

Borg is a very good fighter. He hits hard for the weight, he is lightening quick when he needs to be and he is extremely intelligent in the heat of battle. He is also really good at picking his shots and defending well during exchanges which will be all important on Saturday. His set-ups to wrestle are fantastic while his transitions on the floor are some of the best in the UFC and help to put his wonderful jiu-jitsu to good use.

Unfortunately for him, Mighty Mouse can do all of those things too; only better. He hits hard, he is maybe the fastest fighter ever in the UFC, his cardio is unrelenting, his jiu-jitsu is brilliant, his transitions are magnificent and he can finish fights after all of that.

Ray Borg is one of the most well-rounded fighters in the division, but Mighty Mouse is the most well-rounded fighter of all time in any division or promotion.

Photo: SevereMMA/Andy Cowan

With that said, I think Borg will fight hard here and will have his moments, especially if it goes to the ground. On the feet I expect Mighty Mouse to use his speed and awkward angles to get through to his opponent but Borg’s ability to remain defensive and counter won’t be easy to break down. But when you play that game it’s very difficult to make any offensive inroads.

For that reason I think Johnson wins a decision here. If Borg decides to go all out attack late on I could see Johnson getting the finish but I expect this one to see the final bell.

Additional Picks

Heavyweight: Fabrício Werdum vs. Derrick Lewis – Werdum

Women’s Flyweight: Mara Romero Borella vs. Kalindra Faria – Faria

Lightweight: Beneil Dariush vs. Evan Dunham – Dariush

Bantamweight: Tom Duquesnoy vs. Cody Stamann – Duquesnoy

Lightweight: Will Brooks vs. Nik Lentz – Brooks

Lightweight: Bobby Green vs. Lando Vannata – Vannata

Women’s Strawweight: Pearl Gonzalez vs. Poliana Botelho – Gonzalez

Heavyweight: Walt Harris vs. Mark Godbeer – Harris

Flyweight: John Moraga vs. Magomed Bibulatov – Bibulatov

Middleweight: Thales Leites vs. Brad Tavares – Leites

Flyweight: Matt Schnell vs. Marco Beltrán – Schnell

BET OF THE WEEK

l’m going for an even money treble of Brooks, Vannata and Johnson.

START TIMES

Early Prelims – 11.15pm on Fight Pass

Prelims – 1am on Fight Pass & BT Sport

Main Card – 3am on BT Sport

Lead MMA writer and analyst for SevereMMA. Co-host of the SevereMMA podcast, out every Tuesday. Economics and Mathematics graduate from UCC. Previously of hov-mma and fightbooth. As heard on 2FM, Red FM, Today FM and more. Follow me on twitter for updates @SeanSheehanBA and on Facebook Facebook.com/seansheehanmma