Written by Kieran Green (@kierlfc12)
For years, Tony Ferguson has been a top contender within the UFC’s lightweight division, however his future has never looked more bleak.
Last week, the former interim champion was thoroughly outclassed across three rounds by Brazilian lightweight contender Charles Olivera, in the co-main event of UFC 256. Ferguson was adamant after the fight that he had been anything but dominated, and was frustrating his opponent in the latter stages of the fight, however the stats tell an utterly different story.
Olivera doubled Ferguson’s number of significant strikes landed across the duration of the bout, dominated in the jiu-jitsu exchanges, and was successful in all three of his takedown attempts – all of which would culminate in a submission effort as a result. It was these that had Ferguson looking beaten in the first round alone, as he defied the odds and refused to tap out after finding himself entangled in a vicious Olivera armbar. A vast majority of mixed martial artists would surely submit when being caught in such a dangerous position – which is a testament to Ferguson’s toughness, however a torrid evening for El Cucuy saw him lose 30-26 across the board on the judges’ cards.
You do have to begin to question the damage that he has taken throughout his career in the UFC, and whether it has begun to finally catch up to the former interim champion. Many forget that Ferguson has been prominent on the scene ever since he emerged victorious on the Ultimate Fighter 13, which was nearly a decade ago now. In the time since the series aired, El Cucuy has fought 17 times, beating the likes of Edson Barboza and Kevin Lee along the way. However his loss to Justin Gaethje earlier this year saw him badly hurt, and the most damage-inflicted he has ever been. Despite the fact that Ferguson has always been considered as one of the most durable mixed martial artists on the roster over the years, he has looked a mere shadow of himself since – with it looking very likely that the fight pushed him a step too far. Gaethje absolutely dismantled him across the four rounds, subjecting him to new levels of pain before Herb Dean was forced to intervene. Following that loss, many claimed that he would never be the same after, with even Khabib himself notably making this exact prediction on Twitter shortly afterwards. Others boldly disagreed, claiming the loss was down to the severe weight cutting he had subjected himself to as he prepared for the cancelled title fight with Nurmagomedov, and then the interim bout with Gaethje. Sadly, this prophecy seems to be fulfilling itself, with Ferguson showing not even a glimmer of his previous form as he went to war with Olivera.
The most recent defeat puts Ferguson on the first losing streak of his career, with experts tabling the argument that he is now totally out of contention for another shot at the lightweight belt. If true, this brings a sad and somewhat unfair end to the contender status of Tony Ferguson, who has been more deserving of a title than most on the UFC roster. Since the retirement of Khabib, many UFC fans have been left wondering what could have been if he had fought Ferguson, and whether the unorthodox American could have done something about the perfect record held by the ‘retired’ champion. However fight fans must let the prospect of a matchup between the two die, and start to converse on who we might see El Cucuy face next.
As Olivera moves up the rankings, it is difficult to try and determine who is next in line, with all eyes now fixated on the upcoming second meeting between Dustin Poirier and Conor McGregor. As the hawks in the division circle the vacant belt, we must assume that Ferguson will not be in line to capture the prize, and will instead fight an outsider later next year. An exciting prospect would be a meeting with Dan Hooker, who is fresh off the back of a loss to Dustin Poirier in what was a thrilling fight of the year contender last June. The New Zealand native would surely appreciate a chance to return to winning ways against a big name such as Ferguson, with victory in this potential matchup enough to propel both men into lightweight contention. Another decent 2021 matchup for Ferguson would be with Dagestani native, and Khabib teammate Islam Makhachev. The prolific wrestler will certainly be keen for some action inside the cage following the cancellation of his fight with Rafael Dos Anjos, with the prospect of some high level exchanges on the canvas enough to make fans worldwide tune in for this if it were to happen.
Whilst the future may appear cloudy for Tony Ferguson, it is still uncertain as to whether his time as a top lightweight contender is up. Will he mount a 2021 comeback, or will he slowly become a gatekeeper of the division? Only time will tell.