The sport of mixed martial arts takes an immense physical toll, and few are able to compete at the highest level for an extended period of time. This rings especially true in the UFC’s Lightweight division, which many agree is the most competitive weight class within the entire organization. Longtime veteran and former interim champion Tony Ferguson, once one of the most feared fighters in the entire sport, has now lost three consecutive fights in an incredibly one-sided fashion.
The mixed martial arts community has speculated several reasons for this abrupt downfall, including the damage he suffered during his devastating loss against Justin Gaethje and his questionable training methods. Ultimately, however, Ferguson’s style has always relied on his naturally high athleticism and physical attributes, and as his body continues to decline with age, many of his long-present stylistic weaknesses have become too severe for him to overcome.
Ever since his impressive victory on Season 13 of “The Ultimate Fighter” in 2011, Ferguson has been one of the most dynamic fighters in the sport. With his combination of knockout power, submission skills, seemingly infinite cardio and unmatched durability, he tore through the UFC’s Lightweight division. He established an impressive 12-fight winning streak, which included an impressive win over rising contender Kevin Lee to win the UFC Interim Lightweight championship in 2017.
Ferguson’s mental toughness and ability to persevere in the face of adversity stand out from the other fighters on the roster. In 2018, he was sidelined for an extended period of time after tearing the fibular collateral ligament in his knee. Much to everyone’s surprise, he returned to action after only six months at UFC 229, where he defeated former lightweight champion Anthony Pettis in a back-and-forth brawl, recovering from an early knockdown and eventually finishing the fight by doctor’s stoppage after the second round.
For many years, Ferguson seemed to be on a collision course with who many consider the greatest lightweight of all time, Khabib Nurmagomedov. Originally booked to fight at UFC 205, the fight would repeatedly fall out due to a series of highly unfortunate circumstances, including medical complications from Nurmagomedov and injuries from Ferguson. After Ferguson’s impressive win over a revitalized Donald Cerrone at UFC 238 and Khabib’s dominant title defense against Dustin Porier at UFC 242, the UFC tried for a fifth time to put together a highly anticipated fight between Ferguson and Nurmagomedov.
Unfortunately, this time the entire world was taken by surprise due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and Nurmagomedov found himself unable to enter the United States in time for the bout. The UFC offered Ferguson a short notice replacement in Justin Gaethje for UFC 249. Despite the heavy risks that came with this decision, Ferguson, as always, accepted the fight. Unfortunately, Gaethje’s improved striking was simply too much for Ferguson to handle, and Gaethje eventually scored a standing TKO in the fifth round. With his 12-fight winning streak finally snapped, fans wondered how the former interim champion would rebound from the devastating setback.
At UFC 256, Ferguson sought to bounce back against a surging contender in Charles Oliviera. However, despite Ferguson’s reputation for submissions, Oliviera shocked the world and dominated Ferguson for three full rounds on the ground, at one point catching Ferguson in a nasty armbar that the veteran stubbornly refused to tap to. Unable to defend any of Oliviera’s takedowns, Ferguson lost a one-sided decision. Although many began to wonder if Tony’s best years were behind him, some simply credited Oliviera for his improvements and held out hope for a miraculous Ferguson title run.
Unfortunately, Ferguson faced even more adversity at UFC 263, where he took on another rising force in Beneil Dariush. In eerily similar fashion to the Oliviera fight, Dariush controlled and smothered Ferguson on the ground, comprehensively out wrestling him and catching the former interim champion in a gruesome heel hook that Ferguson again endured, to the amazement of the world. His toughness and courage were simply not enough, however, and Ferguson went on to lose his third straight fight, again in a completely one-sided fashion. For the vast majority of the community, this proved to be the final nail in the coffin for the slim hopes that Ferguson could return to form and challenge for a world title once again. It now remains dubious whether the veteran can even hold his spot within the rankings among a division full of young, hungry talents.
Even though Ferguson’s loss streak seems abrupt, he has always used an unorthodox, risky style even during his prime years. He was always relatively hittable, and would often get dropped in his fights, memorably against Lando Vanatta, Kevin Lee and Anthony Pettis. Furthermore, despite his wrestling background, he was always fairly susceptible to takedowns, seen in his fights against Danny Castillo and Lee.
However, Ferguson made up for these shortcomings with his relentless pace and pressure. His offensive striking was creative and devastating, as he would frequently supplement traditional kickboxing techniques with wild spinning elbows. Even if he got taken down, he had several crafty tricks off of his back, including submissions, rolls and elbows from the bottom. In his most recent performances, however, he has not shown the same explosiveness and speed that he had several years ago, which has rendered many of these advantages relatively ineffective. Furthermore, in his fight against Dariush, even his once renowned endurance seems to have left him, as he appeared noticeably fatigued relatively early in the fight.
Ultimately, Ferguson’s basic skills and fundamentals are not polished enough to allow him to continue winning against the very best fighters in the world. After all the injuries he has suffered within the octagon and outside of it, his body simply cannot perform the way it used to, and as a result, the style he used to become a fan favorite will no longer be effective against top-level competition. Even though he has now teamed up with legendary boxing coach Freddie Roach, Ferguson now finds himself at a crossroads in which his deeply entrenched habits will continue to limit his ability to grow and evolve at this late stage in his career. That said, Ferguson’s legacy remains set in stone, even though his streak of misfortunes took away his opportunity to compete for the undisputed title. He may no longer be the feared boogeyman of the division, but he is undoubtedly a true warrior and one of the toughest, most determined human beings on the planet.