Former interim Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Lightweight strap-hanger, Tony Ferguson, will again fight for the interim title opposite power puncher, Justin Gaethje, this Saturday (May 9, 2020) at UFC 249 inside VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida.
Tony Ferguson’s path to the undisputed title appears to be a circle, or an ouroboros, or perhaps simply a dead end. Ferguson keeps winning, yet from circumstances ranging from sudden injury during fight week to global pandemic have kept the undisputed title shot from his reach. As such, Ferguson must once again settle for an interim title shot, the same strap he won in 2017. Of course, he was never able to parlay that belt into a real title shot anyway, so really, this is about adding another excellent name to Ferguson’s already massive win streak.
Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:
Give it a few years, and I think Tony Ferguson will be looked at as a serious innovator. He has so many unique tricks and tactics, some of which have grown in popularity and others that remain underutilized. Above all else, Ferguson’s focus is damage. Much like Jon Jones once did, Ferguson is able to batter his opponents from the outside kicking range, boxing distance, and in-tight exchanges. Over time, he breaks them down and leaves them slow and hesitant.
There are several physical factors that allow Ferguson to focus so much on hurting his opponent while putting less attention to his own defense. For one, he has a long frame for Lightweight, which definitely helps both his range and clinch offense. Aside from his frame, the most important factor that allows this style to work is Ferguson’s physical and mental toughness and conditioning. In numerous bouts, Ferguson is competitive with opponents in the first round, before his absurd pace and offense wears his opponent to nothing in the second.
When Ferguson absorbs punishment, there is rarely visibly effect. Ferguson does not begin to hesitate, stop pressuring or really adjust in any significant way. That sounds like a bad thing on paper, but the result was that Ferguson slowly establishes himself as the pressuring fighter and takes control of the fight.
Starting from the furthest distance and working in, Ferguson’s kicks are a devastating part of his arsenal. Ferguson wastes little time at the start of the bout to boldly step toward his foe, and even experienced distance fighters have a tough time avoiding all of his strikes.
Since Ferguson is so aggressive and long, he’s almost always at range to land kicks. He has a bad habit of throwing kicks that aren’t full speed without any setup, which has gotten them caught and countered numerous times. Nonetheless, Ferguson’s disregard for the consequences allows him to land a ton of kicks.
Ferguson’s front kicks are particularly punishing. “El Cucuy” will walk his man down and jam snap kicks into his opponent’s mid-section, mixing his technique. By attacking with the lead and rear leg from both the Orthodox and Southpaw stances, Ferguson makes this kicks more difficult to block or parry. Ferguson will also raise one knee and fire off the other kick, similar to a crane kick (GIF).
These kicks are miserable. A well-placed snap kick is quite painful and saps energy, enabling Ferguson’s swarming game plan to play out more smoothly as his opponent covers up.
In addition, Ferguson has punishing round kicks. He can kick powerful at all heights and mixes head/body kicks into his combinations well, but Ferguson really commits to his slamming low kicks, often to the inside of his foe’s leg. Between the low kick and snap kick, Ferguson’s strategy of breaking his opponent down starts from far out. Additionally, Ferguson digs to the calf often enough, further causing his opponent pain and limiting their mobility.
Once the threat of Ferguson’s kicks are establish, he plays with it so much. Ferguson loves to obviously raise his knee and gauge reactions. He can check a kick, stab out his front leg, use the step to switch stances, and more. Recently, he’s been using the right hook a lot after a step into Southpaw (GIF).
Another major weapon as Ferguson steps and shifts stances into the boxing range is the spinning elbow. Frankly, Ferguson’s last fight with Donald Cerrone was really a masterclass performance on the spinning elbow. Ferguson pulled off so many unique setups. For example, at one point from Southpaw, Ferguson tossed out a darting jab, ducked the right hand counter he knew would come, and spun into an elbow (GIF).
At other points, Ferguson simply stuck his elbow out as Cerrone tried to circle towards his back (GIF), clacking him in the jaw similar to a dirty street basketball maneuver.
One of Ferguson’s stronger habits is aggressively catching and countering kicks. He’s thrown spinning elbows off caught kicks in the past, but my personal favorite also came against Cerrone. After catching his straight kick, Ferguson tossed the leg aside to open up the thigh before literally running multiple steps into a low kick.
In the boxing range, Ferguson’s straight punches from both stances are dangerous, and he’ll pull back to set up powerful counters (GIF). His jab is quite powerful and has dropped opponents in the past. Ferguson will switch up how he jabs, sometimes flicking opponents and other times squatting down and stepping forward with real power. While Ferguson may be unconcerned about getting hit, he does move his head in the pocket and look for opportunities to pull strikes and counter with his cross (GIF).
Ferguson does a really nice job of mixing it up in the pocket. He switches stances very frequently and will flash out sudden punches from either stance. Ferguson will mix powerful hooks and looping punches into his offense as well, but this is where he tends to get a bit sloppy. Ferguson often leans into these blows hard, which leaves him vulnerable to counter punches and can leave him off-balance.
Ferguson gets away with it by being absurdly tough and comfortable in odd positions, but it’s still an opening.
Opponents must also be wary of intercepting elbows when trying to fire back opposite “El Cucuy.” As his opponent steps forward with a punch, Ferguson will attempt to time an upward or hook elbow. Maybe Ferguson slips the punch and maybe both men land, but Ferguson tends to win those exchanges dramatically (GIF).
As Ferguson moves another step closer to his opponent, elbows really take over. In his wins over both Josh Thomson, for example, elbows played a major part in his strategy. Opposite Thomson, Ferguson was out-landing his opponent, but having a difficult time really hurting the veteran. That all changed when Ferguson swung his elbow like a wrench into Thomson’s temple, rocking “Punk” badly (GIF). Throughout the rest of the fight, Ferguson looked for his elbows more often, controlling his opponent’s hand before collapsing his arm into an elbow strike.
Ferguson wrestled throughout high school and college, but he’s much more of a counter wrestler than anything else. He’s willing to shoot for takedowns largely in an attempt to mix it up and remain unpredictable, but Ferguson’s defense is the most impressive aspect of his wrestling.
For the most part, Ferguson is an opportunist. If he’s able to catch one of his opponent’s kicks, he’ll quickly yank up the foot and look to drop his foe on his back. He’ll also occasionally level change into a single leg, looking to catch his foe off-guard and run the pipe.
Defensively, Ferguson is a difficult man to take down and even harder to control. His sprawl and defensive clinch work are solid, meaning that even strong shots are likely to fail unless set up very well. That said, Ferguson’s occasionally wild stand up can leave openings for reactive takedowns. In the situation where Ferguson’s initial line of defense is beaten — i.e. his opponent has gotten in on the hips or slipped to his back in the clinch — Ferguson relies on his scrambling abilities to escape.
The main key to scrambling and escaping bottom position is movement, which creates space. To that end, Ferguson is more than willing to forward and shoulder roll away from his opponent (GIF). This doesn’t always allow him to escape immediately, but it forces his opponent to expend energy and transition with the lanky grappler.
A Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, Ferguson has scored nine submission victories. “El Cucuy” is an aggressive submission fighter with a wide array of techniques, and his opportunistic nature is especially visible here.
As mentioned, Ferguson is a very nasty counter wrestler. To that end, his most effective technique is the d’arce. When his opponent shoots toward his hips, Ferguson is often able to sprawl and smash their head into the mat. By breaking his opponent’s posture, the d’arce suddenly becomes available, as a ducked head is an opening for a front choke.
In addition, Ferguson will look to snap his opponent down from the clinch. If his opponent drops his head too low, Ferguson will hang his weight on the back of the head, allowing him to begin swimming his arm deep and threaten the choke from the standing position (GIF). Once his hands are locked, Ferguson can force his foe to the mat (GIF).
In addition, Ferguson is very aggressive with his leg locks. He’ll attack with knee bars by rolling into them from standing or by going inverted from his back. From there, he can switch to heel hooks, foot locks, or more commonly look to sweep. On the whole, leg locks are his most effective bottom technique.
While on his back, Ferguson is truly excellent at damaging his opponent with ground strikes. He landed an upkick knockout on The Ultimate Fighter, but his game goes even further than that. While occupying his opponent with grappling, Ferguson finds small opportunities to whack his foe with hard punches and elbows. It’s a painful strategy that makes controlling him from top position an unpleasant task.
In general, Ferguson’s bottom game has improved so much over the years, even if he was pulling off upkick knockouts in 2010. Whereas someone like Danny Castillo found success in containing Ferguson on the mat in 2014, Ferguson’s guard game eviscerated and submitted Kevin Lee in 2017.
Once more, Ferguson’s work in the third round from his back was masterful. Lee expended a ton of energy to force the takedown, and he already was running on fumes. Ferguson immediately starting chopping him with elbows, forcing Lee to extend his arms to defend. Ferguson nearly secured an armbar as a result. When Lee escaped, it was back to elbows, and this time Ferguson was able to post and secure a fight-ending triangle.
The exact sequence is all queued up below:
Lastly, Ferguson’s back control is quite dangerous. His length allows him to apply lots of hip pressure, and he does a very nice job of controlling his opponent’s wrist while punching or hunting for the choke. He will also switch things up by looking to trap an arm, often hunting for the crucifix and slamming home elbows.
Either way, Ferguson is crafty from that position, and his rear naked choke is a definite threat (GIF).
Tony Ferguson has carved out a legacy for himself even without winning the undisputed title as a Lightweight great. A victory over Gaethje is another huge win to add to an unbelievable streak, further cementing how much he deserves the “champion” label.
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Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport’s most elite fighters.