By Greg Beacham, Associated Press
LAS VEGAS (AP) — Tony Ferguson and Kevin Lee don't consider it a betrayal of their profession to say Conor McGregor will probably lose his boxing match with Floyd Mayweather.
"I've got to be honest," said Ferguson, the UFC's No. 2-ranked lightweight. "It's going to go past four rounds, but it's going to be Mayweather."
Ferguson and Lee will fight for the UFC's interim lightweight belt in Las Vegas in six weeks, but they'll both spend this weekend in the same arena watching McGregor, who holds the UFC's regular lightweight title. The contenders both respect McGregor's abilities, but they also understand the scope of the task he's facing Saturday night.
"I don't see it," Lee said. "That's a big hill to climb. You're talking about 20 years of experience against six weeks of boxing training? You can't do much with that."
Ferguson and Lee share the viewpoint held by most UFC fighters heading into the boxing spectacle of the summer: While they don't think McGregor will win, they hope a reputable performance by the Irishman will raise their sport's credibility and exposure while opening up new financial opportunities to anybody with a stiff punch.
Even if McGregor gets embarrassed, UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson will respect him for trying.
"He's about to make about $100 million," Johnson said. "While (fans) spend the rest of their days doubting him, he'll spend the rest of his days eating lobster. Why not go for it? He's going to make the most money he's ever going to make. He's representing our sport and himself, and showing that mixed martial artists, we have the skills to hang with the best."
The fighters feel that a lopsided loss might belittle MMA slightly among casual fight fans, but it wouldn't be a surprise to anybody who understands both sports. In fact, Lee thinks McGregor would be more damaged than MMA.
"It's going to hurt this," Lee said while pointing at his head. "It's going to hurt his confidence more than anything. He's messing with these Michigan boys now. He's messing with Floyd, and after that he's got to mess with me. He's going to have some millions to fall back on, but it's going to hurt him."
If McGregor hadn't talked his way into this improbable boxing match, his next opponent easily could have been Ferguson (22-3), the gritty lightweight contender. Ferguson is overdue for a title shot, but the division has been frozen since McGregor beat Eddie Alvarez late last year to claim his second belt.
Ferguson already had a bout wiped out earlier this year when No. 1 contender Khabib Nurmagomedov couldn't fight. He has grown weary of waiting for the chance to move up, and McGregor's dalliance with boxing has delayed him even more.
"Defend or vacate," Ferguson said, addressing McGregor. "This is where we're at. The (lightweight) belt belongs in the UFC. It's not a boxing belt. You need to come back. You need to defend, or you need to vacate. You're out there making money, that's fine, that's perfect. But I like to fight. I like to compete. You said the same thing. So when you're sitting on the sidelines, you should come back and get in the octagon and compete with me, or you need to move on."
Ferguson and Lee also wouldn't be surprised if McGregor never returns to the octagon.
"What would he be coming back for?" Lee said. "I think he should retire. He's already a champion. He's already got enough money."
While most MMA fighters realize the unique alchemy of this particular matchup, they would love it if crossover fights became a thing. McGregor and UFC President Dana White both believe the Money Fight will lead to more boxing opportunities for MMA stars.
"I think it's a win-win for combat sports," White said. "I always like when these types of fights come together, and you can see where the bar is on what's possible."
Johnson has reigned atop the flyweight division for five years, but his low-profile weight class — and maybe the UFC's marketing efforts around him — have limited his ability to earn top dollar.
If the opportunity to box a top 125-pounder ever arose, Johnson would have to consider the possibility.
"For me, it's about the maximum compensation," Johnson said. "Can I capitalize on the money? If someone says, 'Hey, dude, why don't you come fight in boxing? We're going to pay you $5 million.' I'm going to take that whether I get knocked out or not. I'll fight to the best of my ability, because I'll tell you what, it'll take a long time for me to make $5 million here (in the UFC)."
Ferguson is an impressive striker with a mean streak and a growing affinity for the bombast of fight promotion. He would entertain a boxing match as well.
"I don't have to worry about getting kicked or kneed or taken down?" Ferguson asked with a grin. "All I've got to worry about is your hands and my footwork? Sign me up for that."
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