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UFC 216: Tony Ferguson vs. Kevin Lee Toe to Toe Preview - A complete breakdown

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Phil and David break down everything you need to know about Ferguson vs. Lee for UFC 216, and everything you don’t about

UFC 213: Nunes vs Shevchenko Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

Tony Ferguson vs. Kevin Lee headlines UFC 216 this October 7, 2017 at the T-Mobile Arena in Paradise, Nevada, U.S.

One sentence summary


David: No more Ellen DeGeneres questions, please.


Record: Tony Ferguson 22-3 Kevin Lee 16-49657745 (no really, that’s what Wikipedia has listed)

Odds: Tony Ferguson -245 Kevin Lee +225

History / Introduction to both fighters

David: Ferguson has always been an interesting character. He came out of TUF as the dudebroest with the mostest. His style seemed good for longevity but nothing gamebreaking. 13 fights into the UFC, and he’s only been bested once. Ferguson is playing all parts of the game - rocking wit and talking shit. It’s a mix that works in its own way for certain fighters, but in the hands and head of Ferguson, it’s just a quixotic mix of mumblecore machismo or something. If Jared Leto was a certified asskicker, Tony Ferguson is who would be hatched. Next question.

Phil: From the first time we saw him on TUF turning up to weigh-ins in a suit, it was clear there was something a bit different to this guy, and in the time since he's turned that something up to eleven. Tony Ferguson is a man who is living the life of being Tony Ferguson, and there isn't really any room to be much else. He is simply carried along on a tidal wave of commitment to being... whatever he is. A kind of weird, badass bartender, eternally somewhere between douchey and totally rad, mixing up cocktails of blood and elbows and darce chokes, with his sunglasses on indoors.

David: Lee is the perfect opponent for Ferguson. I’m kind of surprised there weren’t more fireworks between them. Just look at the exchanges between Lee and Michael Chiesa. How does Chiesa beat Ferguson in the “I can’t wait to see whose manufactured outrage turns into physical outrage” sweepstakes? Lee is similar to Ferguson in a lot of ways ; an athletically gifted fighter who stumbled early in his career, but is riding the wave of his second wind at a young age (okay, Ferguson is 33, but still). Whereas Ferguson has turned his rough around the edges performance art into strategy, Lee is still approximating his own profile. The Chiesa win was modest progression revealed in a brilliant but brief victory. Is it a sign of who he’s becoming?

Phil: Much like Borg, who we discussed in the co-main, Lee raised eyebrows by performing decently well in a debut that most people thought he had close to zero chance of winning. You could see a young, very talented fighter who had clearly been thinking about how he was going to improve his game, and that his first option (a weird, Mayweather-esque boxing style which he tried against Iaquinta) failed and he immediately changed it the next time out. His UFC career has basically been a case of those small adjustments, which have sometimes worked out, and sometimes haven't. Like Ferguson, I think he's enjoying coming into his own. A lot of people find him extremely abrasive and, well, I can't really blame them, but I've always enjoyed how blunt he is.

What’s at stake?

David: With Khabib injured, not injured, or hanging out with verified shitbirds, I don’t even know that Khabib is much of a factor at this point. Does this set up a potential fight with Conor McGregor and the winner, or does Conor want to test his disruptive innovation against the winner of Golovkin/Canelo 2, wherein he’ll have to deal with power punchers in their prime rather than a counter puncher in his 40’s not known walking fighters down? Who knows such things. Whatever the case, lightweight’s hierarchy is in something of a mess, since two guys on a combined 14 fight winning streak is not enough to move the golden needle.

Phil: This is for the interim belt, so in a sane world the winner would indeed get McGregor, but he's going to be out for a while and I think most are expecting Nate to get next, as silly as that is. So what's at stake isn't so much *who* wins, but how. Basically, can the winner pull off something meme-worthy? Something that gets the masses clamoring that this here is the guy that everyone absolutely has to see fight Conor?

Where do they want it?

David: Ferguson is good(ish) example of what “good angles” actually are. In a vacuum, we see this at work in his game. From an orthodox stance against an orthodox fighter, scoring a power leg kick to the body is difficult. However, from the southpaw stance, this is easier - more exposed surface area, and if you want go high you don’t have to take the scenic route like you would from the opposite stance. He did this against Abel Trujillo, switching stances to maximize the angles of his attack. He has a gifted, sweeping left hook, and when he’s committed makes great use of the jab. Against Lando Vannata, he didn’t really begin to mount effective strikes until he began the jab the shit out of Lando. After that, he had his way with him. He’s really good at coming underneath with punches.

This is something that frankly, MMA just doesn’t have. I realize it’s a function of opening yourself up to knees and kicks, but if you can get a punch to travel downward instead of straight, you lessen the impact, and MMA fighters are conditioned to simply move their head away from the centerline, and not much else. Great boxers, on the other hand, develops habits of using vertical movements to their advantage. Mike Tyson was brilliant at this - finding ways to travel underneath defensively in order to open up his offense. Ferguson doesn’t really do any of this, mind you, but he does enough of it offensively to be effective even though his technique can look like a half finished Pollock painting (sunglasses on).

Phil: Ferguson is an exceptionally intelligent fighter. I know that smarts are not tranditionally something which is attributed to him often, What With The Way That He Tends To Communicate On Social Media. Creative, inexhaustible, nuts- he's all of these things. But smart? I think that one of his best attributes is his mind.

He is one of those people who is absolutely obsessed with fighting; who runs through scenarios in his head, constantly fiending on new ways to choke, bludgeon and slice. Some people are like that, but few have Ferguson's preternatural command of distance, and his ability to tune it for different opponents. He understood exactly the right range and toolset to fight Edson Barboza with (marching strikes, coming forward, endless pressure), but then he also understood how to fence and roll and come in and out of range against Josh Thomson. Either of these gameplans might have come apart against Rafael dos Anjos' relentless pressure, but Ferguson found a tiny, perfect slice of range where RDA's punches were robbed of their power but his own were not, allowing him to pour volume on the ex-champ. His striking is increasingly excellent, but he's also a unique and deadly grappler, attacking with granby rolls from below and snap-downs and d'arce chokes from above.

David: Lee is somewhere between a work in progress, and an elite talent. He’s still figuring out what works best for him. Early on, he was a kind of wrestle-boxer knockoff in a championship meat shirt (copyright, Mel Gibson in the Expendables 3, 2014). He didn’t make the most of his movement, but he knew how to use his power to dictate the pace. Slowly, be became more comfortable incorporating strikes (particularly a quick, brutal, chopping right high kick), which allowed him to tap into his base strength - turning control into capitulation. With his death grip, back control, and patience, he’s won his last three fights by rear naked choke by no accident. He uses punches on the ground well to act as a positional shortcut when identifying opportunities. His striking is still awkward - he has strong punches, and one strong kick, but they don’t really blend into his overall game. They act more like markers for the clock, biding time in case his opponent isn’t giving him the space he needs. As good as the win over Chiesa is, it only served to remind fans how dangerous he is in backpack mode. That’ll serve him well here, but only if he gets it there in the first place.

Phil: There are a lot of ways that the grappler-learning-striking transition can go. Some get zeroed in on mixing up the big right hand with the double leg. Others try to run before they can walk, and try to become slick distance strikers. Lee has tried both, with mixed success. However, he's never gotten too far away from his core competency, which remains his wrestling. In many ways he reminds me of Phil Davis, in that he's something of a natural submission grappler, and took to scrambling, subs and ground and pound like a duck to water, and it's rare at lightweight to get someone who blends slickness with power in the way that Lee does when he gets his hands on an opponent. His shot takedowns are good, but he does his best work from bodylock chains, and focuses primarily on half-guard ground and pound, and taking the back. However, as you said, and again a bit like Phil Davis, while you can see that he's working on a more technical striking game, it's not quite there yet. He still looks rote on the feet, but his sheer physicality can make it work, as it did against Trinaldo.

Insight from past fights

David: Ferguson has improved his head movement. By a lot if the dos Anjos fight is any indication. But his stance is still a mess. Because he’s always switching stances, firing offense, and moving forward, he’s caught a lot by being either too squared up, too straight, or too wide. This means he can’t really counter as effectively as he’s capable of (Trujillo), close the distance without telegraphing movements (Johnson), or keep opponents from countering him with regularity (Vannata). He’s easily one of the most flawed fighters in the division, but his pace and toughness carry him where other fighters simply wouldn’t manage. Plus he’s really good in the scrambles, fishing out chokes, and timing offense against his opponent’s lag.

Phil: Unless he's made phenomenal (no pun intended) strides in his technical striking, Lee has next to no chance if this stays on the feet, unless Ferguson weaves into a headkick or something. The last time Ferguson fought a near-pure wrestler was Danny Castillo, and it was not a pretty fight, where Ferguson spent a huge amount of time on bottom. I don't take too much from it, to be honest. It genuinely looked like he was just trying out a new approach, and there has been no trace of that kind of deficiency since. In particular, the distance which Ferguson carefully maintained against RDA was perfect for killing shots.


David: Nothing to dwell over. Maybe they saw Blade Runner 2049, and have since remained in a state of disappointment the first film helped generate (for the record, I liked both movies, but don’t really consider either one top tier sci-fi).

Phil: Lee's weight cut looked utterly dreadful. He's a consummate pro, but they practically had to dump him onto the scale. Ferguson is not the guy that will give you a rest if you're compromised in any way.


David: I’ve been criticizing Ferguson more than praising him, and that’s a tad unfair - he’s an exceptional talent, gifted in ways as much mental as physical, which is rare combination. His defense is where I’m most concerned, but Lee isn’t especially dangerous in this regard, and Ferguson has cheater chin backup in case his CPU is overloaded with knuckles. Mainly I just don’t see Lee winning enough exchanges on the feet to offset Ferguson’s pressure, and the scrambles don’t even favor Lee as they would in other cases. Plus I really appreciated Ferguson’s performance against RDJ. Tony Ferguson by D’Arce, round 4.

Phil: Lee has greatly improved, and has a bright future in the sport, particularly if he continues developing as he already has. However, Ferguson is a style nightmare- someone almost custom-built to test him in exactly the areas he's weakest. Nurmagomedov, even McGregor would be easier style matchups. I think Ferguson keeps Lee at range and pieces him up in a surprisingly dominant performance. Tony Ferguson by TKO, round 2.