I would consider myself a pretty diehard Tony Ferguson fan. At least, as big a fan as one can be without crossing into the realm of the delusional. I understand that “El Cucuy” is a bizarre man who probably wouldn’t be a ton of fun to play cards with — sounds intense. No, I’ve greatly admired Ferguson for his fighting style.
From early on, Ferguson has been an innovator. When Tony Ferguson won The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) and two other UFC fights in 2011, he was shifting stances and running into low kicks — two strategies at least five years away from being in vogue. Years later, he began his eventually record-setting win streak by countering a takedown with a d’arce roll, an uncommon technique even today.
A bigger example: Ferguson was kicking calves before it was cool. More specifically, he was smacking his shin into steel pipes to prepare himself for bone-on-bone contact. I still don’t know that anyone has quite caught up to him there, as most fighters still fear such clanging clashes in the desperate hope to avoid being Weidman’d.
Is there a more perfect symbol for Ferguson’s fighting style and mentality? Rather than, I don’t know, learning different ways to set up his thudding low kicks, Ferguson invented his own strategy of simply destroying his body until it couldn’t be broken accidentally.
On the feet and the mat, Ferguson moved like few others, and it led him to one of the greatest win streaks in UFC history.
It was never going to last forever, though. Kicking steel pipes — literally and metaphorically — is unhealthy. Hell, so is tripping on wires and shredding knees! Ferguson has an established reputation for getting knocked down and tanking damage on the road to victory, but that’s an interesting case. It’s much more true for the latter half of his win streak, as the first six or so fights were mostly damage-free.
The great Josh Thomson, for example, hardly landed a strike. Once those dominos started falling though, they didn’t stop. Over the years, punches absorbed turn to knockdowns, knockdowns turned into the Justin Gaethje fight, and everything since then has been s—t.
Ferguson’s reactions are largely gone. He cannot get out of the way of strikes, even when that was very clearly the focus of his last camp. Nor can he really defend takedowns, because his opponent is on his hips by the time Ferguson notices the level change. Do not mistake this version of Ferguson for the man who would have been a real challenge to Khabib in his prime.
All that’s left for Ferguson is a weird mix of tricky d’arce chokes (viable against opponents other than elite jiu-jitsu black belts), elbows from bottom, and sheer determination. As his athleticism and thus his skills have failed him, Ferguson has been forced to rely solely on toughness.
In three losses, Ferguson has been savagely beaten pillar-to-post, seen his arm snapped, and now heard his knee ligaments pop like a violin string. He should have quit three times. I can seldom think of losses more demoralizing or painful individually, let alone grouped together. Fans like to commiserate over Tyron Woodley’s recent struggles, but he at least spent lots his losing streak merely getting smushed into the fence or on the canvas.
Ferguson’s defeats have been another level of brutal ... and they should break him. Instead, he wears them easily, shielded by his own strangeness that led him down this great, painful path in the first place. “El Cucuy” may definitely be done, but he doesn’t know it, not in how he carries himself out of the cage or how hard he fights once inside it.
Definitely odd, but intensely admirable all the same.
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