UFC 216: Conor McGregor's shadow looms large over Tony Ferguson-Kevin Lee

Thousands of miles and an ocean away from the main event of Saturday's UFC 216 card in Las Vegas, Conor McGregor casts an incredibly large shadow over the 155-pound division. 

It makes sense, of course, considering McGregor is the UFC lightweight champion and the biggest star in the sport. But because of his history of holding divisions hostage -- he has yet to attempt a single defense of either UFC title he has won -- it's impossible to talk about Saturday's interim championship bout between Tony Ferguson and Kevin Lee without mentioning "The Notorious." 

Both fighters can't get his name out of their respective mouths. And McGregor, through his moonlighting as a professional boxer in recent months and uncertain return, is certainly to blame in this case for UFC floating yet another interim title into the market as a transparent attempt to sell pay-per-views. 

The end result is a decent fight on paper inside T-Mobile Arena between the red-hot Ferguson (22-3), currently riding a nine-fight win streak, and the brash newcomer Lee (16-2), who has used his mouth to help boost his profile. But how much both this fight -- and interim belt attached to it --- will end up meaning in the long run is ultimately dependent upon McGregor (21-3). 

It may be safe to say that after earning an estimated $100 million (after all PPV receipts are accounted for) from his boxing escapade with Floyd Mayweather in August, the 29-year-old McGregor has more leverage at the current moment than any fighter in UFC history. 

Because of that, Saturday's Ferguson-Lee fight could end up being anything from a de facto No. 1 contender's match, and the opportunity for either fighter to boldly entice McGregor, to the crowning of the division's new (and eventually full) champion if McGregor walks away to chase super fights or boxing paydays. 

Just as easily, the fight could also end up being fairly meaningless if McGregor decides to stay at lightweight and instead pursues a marketable third fight with Nate Diaz while continuing to avoid the UFC rankings system altogether. 

The fact that the talented, yet still unproven Lee doesn't quite deserve the opportunity hasn't helped the legitimacy of the fight. "The Motown Phenom" looked great in tapping out Michael Chiesa in April and in some circles made his name by attacking Chiesa months earlier during their news conference melee. 

But Lee, 24, would never have been in this spot had a perfect storm of events not created an opening. Top contender Khabib Nurmagomedov, who pulled out of an interim title fight against Ferguson in March after being hospitalized due to a hard weight cut, told UFC he wouldn't be ready for October coming off of fasting from Ramadan. 

Meanwhile, Eddie Alvarez and Justin Gaethje were previously tied up with coaching this season of "The Ultimate Fighter" and Diaz was, well, being Nate Diaz by turning down any opponent not named McGregor (or an equivalent fight purse). 

Yet Lee's opportunistic persona just might make him perfect for the challenge. And while he's the rightful underdog against Ferguson, he has already shown the swagger needed to challenge McGregor in the kind of mental warfare that has become the Irish star's calling card. 

"As far as I'm concerned, [McGregor] has lost three of his last four fights," Lee said during Monday's UFC 216 media session in Las Vegas. "I don't even think beat Nate Diaz the second time. I like a big challenge, so he's gotta show me a little bit. He's a small dude, too, he's 145. He was getting out-wrestled by a dude [Mayweather] who's 40 years old and a boxer. He was getting him in the clinches and out-wrestling him.

"So after this one, maybe I might give him a shot at the title. Maybe, I don't know. We'll see how he kind of reacts. Maybe he should fight Nate again and prove that he can fight me."

Confident he will defeat Ferguson, Lee closed by saying he would only fight McGregor on his own terms and timetable. 

"I'm doing the hard work, I'm doing the heavy lifting," Lee said. "I'm fighting Tony. Nobody wanted to fight Tony. Conor didn't want to fight Tony. It will be on my timetable, I'll tell him when we gonna fight. If we fight on St. Patrick's Day? Maybe. That might make some good business so I don't know, I'll see."

Ferguson, 33, just might be the most deserving fighter of a real title shot that UFC employs at the moment. And he filled reporters' notebooks during last week's media conference call with plenty of comments about where his anger level will be if UFC books McGregor-Diaz III next. 

"The next fight for Conor should be whoever wins this interim lightweight title," Ferguson said. "Regardless of winning or losing this, myself or if it's Kevin Lee, that bitch [McGregor] needs to defend or vacate and he needs to unify that belt. Anything else, with as far as him trying to fight Nate and everything else, that's the b---s--- rankings and everything else that the UFC stands for just [going] out the window, man.

"Money talks, b---s--- walks, man. So obviously they're going to protect their pocket and they're going to keep McNuggets away from a real contender."

McGregor was asked about Ferguson-Lee on Friday during a public appearance in Glascow, Scotland.

"I'm happy they're fighting," said McGregor. "This is what I wanted, because they're all bums at the end of the day. Make no mistake about that. I'm just happy they're fighting. I want to see them compete. Too many of them pull out right at the wire, and we're still not at this fight yet. So, I'm just going to pray that this one goes ahead. Of course, Nate is still there waiting, but he'll be left waiting until we figure something out."

Neither Ferguson nor Lee know for sure whether making a large statement on Saturday will attract a McGregor unification bout or give him more reason to chase big-money fights regardless of weight class. Either way, interim title or not, both have a platform to announce themselves as what's next at 155 pounds. 

CBS Sports Insider

Brian Campbell covers MMA, boxing and WWE. The Connecticut native joined CBS Sports in 2017 and has covered combat sports since 2010. He has written and hosted various podcasts and digital shows for ESPN... Full Bio

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