This is a story we’ve seen repeatedly in combat sports, going back not just years, not just decades, not just generations, but over centuries.
A fighter can only take so many hits in a career before the body essentially has had enough. Fights that once would have been easy wins turn into bloodbaths. Losses begin to pile up. Calls for retirement mount.
That’s where Tony Ferguson, one of the great fighters of the last 10+ years in mixed martial arts, finds himself as he heads into an important bout on Saturday (10 p.m. ET, ESPN+ PPV) with Beneil Dariush in the co-main event of UFC 262 at the Toyota Center in Houston.
Ferguson is an underdog in the three-round lightweight fight. Dariush, who is on a six-bout winning streak, is a -180 favorite at BetMGM. Ferguson, who is on a two-bout losing skid, is +150.
A year ago, before Ferguson had dropped fights to Justin Gaethje and Charles Oliveira, Ferguson would have been a solid favorite to defeat Dariush. Two things happened in that time: Dariush had dramatic knockouts of Drakkar Klose and Scott Holtzman, and a win over Carlos Diego Ferreira. Ferguson was stopped by Gaethje and beaten by Oliveira.
Ferguson has been one of the sport’s most compelling figures, both in and out of the cage, since winning "The Ultimate Fighter" and joining the UFC in 2011.
He opened his UFC career by going 15-1, with only a unanimous decision loss to Michael Johnson in 2012 marring his record. But he was also a highlight reel unto himself.
He not only delivered an extraordinary amount of punishment, he also absorbed the same. During his 15-1 run, he racked up five Fight of the Night bonuses, three Performance of the Night bonuses, a Submission of the Night and a Knockout of the Night. He and his opponents would routinely leave the Octagon looking like professional wrestlers who just had fought one hour in a steel cage match, blood flowing as freely as their sweat.
History tells us that fighters who fight that kind of style rarely have longevity. And that’s why many are pointing to Ferguson’s back-to-back losses as a sign of his inevitable decline.
He’s been in MMA for more than 13 years and in the UFC for 10, and it’s a reasonable point of view.
It’s just not right yet.
Ferguson is a unique fighter, motivated by things most of us can’t understand. And he took some kind of a perverse pride in the slugfests he won, even though the real goal of a fight is to hit and not get hit.
Ferguson is a good enough offensive fighter that he doesn’t need to take risks, as he’s done so often in his career. If he fights defensively and starts with the premise that he doesn’t want to leave the cage looking like he just had gotten worked over by Abdullah the Butcher, he can still be highly effective.
He knows that he needs to respect Dariush’s ability to put him to sleep. Dariush has shown repeatedly that he has the ability to capitalize on an opponent’s mistakes and deliver fight-ending blows.
The fact that Ferguson spent time during his training camp working with Hall of Fame boxing trainer Freddie Roach is a signal that Ferguson understands the necessity to avoid high-contact fights if at all possible.
If Roach has helped him to tighten his boxing and causes Ferguson to think defensively, it will be a significant moment for him.
If it’s the same old Ferguson with the same old style who walks into the cage on Saturday, it could be big trouble for him and we could be witnessing the final days of a legendary career.
But if Ferguson proves that he learned his lesson, he still has the ability to be a factor in the Khabib-less lightweight division and win a lot of significant fights.
The fight hasn’t been beaten out of Tony Ferguson just yet; it’s on him now to make sure things remain that way.
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