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Opinion: Big win won’t be enough for Ferguson’s title hopes

Tony Ferguson celebrates after defeating Edson Barboza in a lightweight bout during The Ultimate Fighter finale Friday, Dec. 11, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
(AP Photo/John Locher)

When Tony Ferguson returns to action Saturday night, he’ll bring an impressive eight-fight win streak with him. The bout, against former UFC lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos, will mark the biggest fight of “El Cucuy’s” career. It’s the main event against a former champ, and a chance to pull even with featherweight Max Holloway for the longest active winning streak in the UFC.

Yet even should Ferguson win in the main event Saturday, it won’t be enough to earn him a title shot.

Such is the reality of the modern UFC. Welcome to the entertainment era.

A week after Ferguson and dos Anjos throw down, Conor McGregor will challenge Eddie Alvarez for the UFC’s lightweight championship. That bout, at UFC 205 in New York, represents what the UFC is today: a spectacle. That the contest is also, frankly, a great fight on paper isn’t necessarily relevant, at least not to Ferguson. The Ultimate Fighter 13 vet has won eight straight fights, five of which earned him bonuses. McGregor? He’s 1-1 at welterweight, and has yet to fight at lightweight in the UFC.

Yet he sits ahead of Ferguson, because the Irish star breaks box office records. That’s no surprise; new UFC owners WME-IMG need to justify a $4 billion purchase of the promotion. That requires maximizing profitability, synergizing efficiencies, and probably some other corporate buzz words.

In any case, it means McGregor is in. If he wins, next in line could be another fight with Diaz, or in short, someone with name value.

Should Alvarez retain? Well, Ferguson’s prospects aren’t much better. A rematch for Alvarez with Donald Cerrone might be the big fight then. Or a second fight with McGregor, because, well, he’s money.

Sorry, Tony: Sporting merit is the lowest priority around these parts.

The worse news? Even if it were, Khabib Nurmagomedov has long been considered the next “legitimate” challenger to the lightweight title. Inactivity due to injury be damned.

It might be a hard pill to swallow for many fighters, but Ferguson seems to be taking it in stride. Sort of. On the one hand, he has recently said he’s in a good place in life, happy to focus on receiving his jiu-jitsu black belt from Eddie Bravo. Yet in the same interview, with Yahoo’s Kevin Iole, he says the lightweight championship is tarnished.

While his reasoning is that the belt has changed hands frequently of late (from Anthony Pettis, to dos Anjos, to Alvarez), there’s another problem. Title shots in the UFC, and frankly titles, no longer necessarily matter. Not when two of the three biggest UFC cards to date featured McGregor vs. Diaz in what were frankly meaningless fights. Or at least fights where the only meaning was the names involved.

So the end result: Ferguson may need a few more fights, or at least some luck, on his side. Timing is everything in MMA, so the right win at the right time could earn him the shot. Yet with Nurmagomedov and possibly other, better known names ahead of him, timing is not on his side. A late injury could see him get the nod, but that’s banking on the misfortune of others. Never a good idea.

Which is a shame. Ferguson is a finisher, a guy who puts on exciting fights, consistently. Sometimes to his own detriment. His tendency to stand and bang, rather than follow a tight game plan, has resulted in some close calls. However, that makes him a favorite of hardcore fans. A fighter’s fighter. A can’t-miss athlete, which is why he’s now main eventing opposite a former champion. It would be a thrill to watch him battle for the belt.

With a win, he’d have every right to demand a title shot. Every right to believe he was on the cusp of greatness and a chance for UFC gold. Only, again, that’s not the new reality. The fact that it’s out of his control is the most bitter pill to swallow.

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