Tony Ferguson (Mike Sloan/Sherdog)

Will an Improved Tony Ferguson Show Up at UFC 262?

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Haran Naresh Staff Writer

The co-main event of Saturday’s UFC 262 card pits former interim lightweight champion Tony Ferguson against the rising Beneil Dariush. Ferguson aims to put an end to his two-fight skid and climb back to the top of the division. The question is whether he can succeed.

After amassing a 12-fight winning streak, Ferguson had an abysmal 2020 that has now put his career at a crossroads. He started 2020 as the man widely considered to be the biggest threat to the undefeated Khabib Nurmagomedov’s throne. His unrelenting cardio, logic-defying durability, diverse striking arsenal, and elite jiu-jitsu were thought to be the perfect antithesis to the Russian.

Amazingly, Ferguson has had five scheduled bouts with Nurmagomedov cancelled, the first of which was due to take place in 2015. Each fighter was forced to pull out on two occasions due to injury or illness.


The last time they were due to face each other was when they had an undisputed lightweight title fight set for UFC 249 in April 2020. The contest was scrapped after Nurmagomedov was unable to leave Russia amid lockdown restrictions following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The UFC subsequently announced that Justin Gaethje would step in to face Ferguson in an interim title bout. However, the April event was cancelled altogether after the UFC came under pressure from broadcaster ESPN and parent company Disney to stand down from its attempt to continue hosting live events against health guidelines. The fight was promptly rescheduled for the following month.

Entering the fight with Gaethje, Ferguson was a -220 betting favorite. From the opening bell, though, it became clear that Gaethje was going to pose a tough test for Ferguson. The 37-year-old pressed forward like he had always done, but he was countered repeatedly by Gaethje’s vicious hooks. Gaethje had built a reputation as the hardest leg kicker in the division, yet Ferguson failed to check kicks throughout the fight. This noticeably inhibited his movement and stopped him from exerting his renowned suffocating forward pressure. Gaethje diligently adhered to a game plan, curbing his natural instincts and picking Ferguson apart as a counter striker.

Unlike many of the world’s elite fighters, Ferguson has run his own training camps throughout his career, bringing in training partners and coaches. He developed his unique brand of jiu-jitsu under the tutelage of Eddie Bravo, the founder of the 10th Planet Jiu-Jitsu system.

The likes of Stipe Miocic and Max Holloway have shown that success in MMA can be achieved at the highest level while training at small gyms with unheralded, lesser-known coaches. However, Ferguson’s vague coaching setup caught up with him in the Gaethje contest.

The disparity in the level of coaching of the two fighters was most evident following the end of the second round, when Gaethje got overzealous and attempted an uppercut and ended up getting dropped by Ferguson’s own uppercut. In between rounds, Gaethje’s coach, Trevor Wittman, chastised him and urged his fighter to not load up too much. Instead, Wittman instructed Gaethje to look to land clean shots when the opportunity presented itself.

Gaethje listened and proceeded to deliver a flawless performance from then on. Ferguson, on the other hand, received little help from his corner to stem the tide and allow him to take control of the fight.

The fact that Gaethje continued to punish Ferguson on the feet with almost the exact same combinations highlighted the problems with Ferguson’s corner. The California native’s boxing coach, Rashad Holloway, would later claim that his fighter had deviated from the game plan of staying on the outside and instead chose to fight in the pocket. Meanwhile, Bravo received criticism from many fans for his instructions to Ferguson, which made him seem oblivious to the fact that Ferguson was handily losing the bout. Bravo later did point out that he is not a striking coach, nor a head MMA coach, but just happened to be the cornerman who was chosen by the UFC production team to be on the mic.

Gaethje had a head coach in his corner who conveyed sound technical feedback in a candid and direct manner. This was in stark contrast to Ferguson’s corner, where there was a visible lack of direction and a general atmosphere of helplessness.

By the third round, Gaethje’s power punches had bloodied Ferguson’s face and the damage started to pile up. Ferguson was badly disfigured and ironically resembled many of his own previous opponents after they had faced him. Ferguson was rocked and staggered multiple times, and by the time the fight came to a close, he had been on the receiving end of one of the most brutal beatdowns in recent UFC title-fight history.

Referee Herb Dean called a stop to the bout in the fifth frame after Ferguson absorbed yet another ferocious blow that worryingly caused him to shake his head and drift back toward the cage. It is a testament to the former The Ultimate Fighter winner’s durability that he was somehow never dropped despite suffering many potentially fight-ending blows.

Ferguson’s preparations for the Gaethje contest were negatively impacted by the aforementioned factors that were out of his control, but he also damaged his chances of winning with a decision he made weeks away from the fight. He inexplicably decided to make weight for the April date following the cancellation of the event. This is not the sole reason for the loss to Gaethje, but making two weight cuts in the space of a few weeks is likely to have hurt his physical condition to a certain extent. This act was a sign that Ferguson urgently needed a cohesive coaching structure around him to help him succeed at this juncture of his career.

Following the Gaethje fight, Ferguson was matched up with emerging contender Charles Oliveira. The former interim champ made drastic changes to his corner for this contest. He decided to part ways with Bravo and Holloway. In their place, he brought in former UFC fighter Francisco Rivera Jr., former Legacy Fighting Alliance fighter Tommy Aaron, and Anthony Murataya Gonzalez.

Much to his frustration, Ferguson’s coaching changes did not have the desired effect. As badly as he fared on the feet against Gaethje, he struggled a comparable amount on the ground against Oliveira. The Brazilian took Ferguson down with ease in the opening round and set the tone for the rest of the fight. He smothered the American, leaving him very little space to attempt his trademark submissions off his back.

With seconds remaining in the first round, Oliveira locked in a perfectly executed armbar, hyper-extending Ferguson’s arm. Ferguson once again displayed his incredible resolve to survive until the final bell, but he was now severely compromised. With only one fully functioning arm, he had almost no resistance to stop Oliveira’s takedowns.

Oliveira replicated his dominance on the ground in the second and third stanzas to secure a unanimous decision, with 30-26 scores from all three judges.

In the aftermath of his loss to Oliveira, Ferguson delivered a tirade on social media, accusing one of his cornermen of lying about the importance of his role to the others and for supposedly failing to discuss the correct game plan in between rounds, amongst many other complaints.

Now, at UFC 262, Ferguson takes on the ninth-ranked Dariush. On paper, Dariush represents another difficult task for Ferguson to overcome. The Iranian-born fighter is on a six-fight winning streak. He has elite black-belt Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and knockout power in his hands. At 32, Dariush is in the prime of his career and has the attributes to expose the weaknesses that have been so visible in Ferguson’s last two performances.

Ferguson has revealed that he has based his camp for this fight at Wildcard Boxing gym in Los Angeles, where he is enlisting the help of legendary boxing trainer Freddie Roach. At this stage in Ferguson’s career, it will be difficult for him to completely overhaul his striking style, but working with Roach should enable him to improve his boxing fundamentals and make him less of a stationary target. His poor footwork and head movement were ruthlessly exploited by Gaethje, who landed an astonishing 72 percent of his significant strikes. Remedying this will be imperative against someone with the power of Dariush. An added focus on technique, coupled with the physical and mental strength he already possesses, should help make Ferguson a formidable contender once again.

Ferguson has acknowledged the need to change aspects of his fight preparation and has talked about wanting more structure in his camp. This introspection is a marked change for the notoriously stubborn fighter and an encouraging sign for his supporters. The 37-year-old has found so much success while ignoring the conventions of modern MMA training, so it will be intriguing to see how he fares with this new-found coaching structure.

Ferguson would be justified in saying that he had no reason to change his approach when he went on the 12-fight winning streak that propelled him to the top of the division. This free-flowing style helped him carve out one of the best runs in the history of the sport and was undoubtedly a factor in his ascension to the interim UFC lightweight championship. He has garnered praise from many of his peers and others within the sport for his entertaining style, creative striking, and fighting spirit. The Mexican-American has attracted a legion of loyal fans who were captivated by his numerous action-packed “Fight of the Night” bouts and ability to thrive in chaos. A more structured camp with a designated “head coach” in the midst of this run may have resulted in his best attributes being neutralized. It should also be considered that Ferguson’s single-mindedness and desire for control could have caused him to clash with a traditional MMA head coach.

Now, however, it has become apparent that for many years Ferguson’s technical deficiencies were masked by his ability to weaponize his cardio and overwhelm his opponents with volume striking. He relied so heavily on his physical attributes, which have seemingly waned in recent years. It is not a surprise to see a recent downturn in results. In hindsight, it is actually remarkable that Ferguson was able to achieve so much for so long with the rudimentary coaching setup that he had in place.

Ferguson cannot account for the misfortune that caused the Nurmagomedov fights to fall through and which took so much time out of his career. However, he has hurt himself in recent years with his poor decision-making during his preparations for fights. This weekend at UFC 262, the MMA world will find out whether “El Cucuy” has made the requisite changes to be able to compete at the elite level or whether the sport has simply left him behind.