Fighting anyone in the UFC can be cause for sleepless nights. Having a date on the calendar but not knowing who will be standing across from you in the Octagon that night can be even worse.
Welcome to the world of Tony Ferguson, at least for a few days, when it seemed like no one at 155 pounds was going to stay healthy long enough to meet “El Cucuy” this Saturday in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
“The easiest way I can explain it is that when I was little, I used to go up and look at the tournament brackets and wonder who I was gonna wrestle next, and my dad says ‘why are you gonna do that? You’re gonna take yourself out of the game. Instead of worrying about what everybody else is doing, worry about what you’re doing.’ So that’s what I did,” recalled Ferguson. “I talked to my coach Joseph Janik, and we basically kept to the gameplan.”
That gameplan, in short, is to win, to keep a three fight UFC winning streak going in one of the sport’s most competitive division. That, strangely enough, could be the easy part this time around. The hard part was getting someone to fight him.
First Dennis Hallman was forced out due to injury. Then replacement foe Thiago Tavares hurt himself and withdrew from the bout. Finally, Ferguson got paired up with another Ultimate Fighter alumnus in Michael Johnson. And so far, so good, as Johnson and Ferguson both made it to Jersey intact for this weekend’s fight.
“I’m glad it’s stayed with Michael Johnson, I’m glad nobody’s gotten hurt, I’ve said a prayer for my other opponents, and it’s not really a big deal,” said Ferguson, who has gotten quite the education in his fight career thus far, whether it’s been the perks and perils of reality television, top level coaching from the TUF14 staff led by Marty Morgan, boxing trainer Janik, and jiu-jitsu ace Ricardo “Franjinha” Miller, or the simple act of being in the public eye on mixed martial arts’ biggest stage.
But when it comes down to it, nothing taught the 28-year old Oxnard native more than 20 minutes in the Octagon with veterans Aaron Riley and Yves Edwards, especially Edwards, who engaged in an exciting three round scrap with Ferguson last December.
“I thought it was awesome,” said Ferguson of the Edwards bout, which he won via unanimous decision. “I couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity to learn. Before the fight, Yves told me ‘let’s go in there and have some fun,’ and that’s what I took from it because I knew that was gonna be the best opportunity I would have to get the best standup work, and it brought the best out of me. That fight hurt. (Laughs) It wasn’t like we had pads on, but we went in there and fought like we did, and I had a blast in that fight.”
Only a pro fighter can appreciate three rounds of punishing back and forth action and say that he had a blast, but Ferguson appears to enjoy the grind of the sport and the pain necessary to learn and take things to the next level. Yet despite holding a 3-0 record in the Octagon thus far (he also stopped both Ramsey Nijem and Riley in a single round each), he hasn’t received the never-ending hype and attention afforded to some previous Ultimate Fighter winners. Maybe it’s that newer fans of the sport aren’t aware of what beating battle-tested vets like Riley or Edwards means, but whatever the reason, Ferguson is cool with taking the slower road to the top if it means that when he gets there, he’s the best he could possibly be.
“Everyone wants to see (Anthony) Pettis and they want to see the Diazes and all the familiar names like (Gray) Maynard and (Frankie) Edgar,” he said. “When I first started watching the fights, it was (Royce) Gracie, and then I stopped watching for a very long time and I came back and I was like ‘well, who are all these guys?’ So anyone who’s picking up the sport now is focusing on what they see on TV right now. But I think it’s a good time for me. I don’t want to come right out and be something and then not something. Gradually, step by step, brick by brick, a castle gets made, and I want to make sure that I leave my mark here. Whatever opponents (UFC president) Dana White and (UFC matchmaker) Joe Silva give me, they’re doing it for a reason. The best thing I can do is make sure I train my ass off and give them a performance, and I’m gonna give 150% inside that cage.”
He’s doing just as much outside of it too, with a good portion of his time spent in Janik’s Knuckleheadz gym in Ventura, California. Janik has worked with plenty of boxing standouts, including former world champ Victor Ortiz, women’s titleholder Maureen Shea, and California prospect David Rodela, and Ferguson soaks in whatever he can from whoever has the gloves on at a particular moment.
“I’m a visual learner, so when the younger guys come in or the pros come in, and they’re shadowboxing and moving around with their other coaches, I get that visual and I’m learning,” he said. “I look at their footwork and I look at their head placement, because my style’s really unorthodox, and when I see them and the way they’re throwing their punches and how they’re hitting the corner and slipping and moving and throwing punches off different angles, it’s much more interesting to me. Not one boxer shadowboxes the same and that’s what I’ve learned out here. You might be able to pick up a couple things from here and there, but they make it their own, and that’s what our gym is. We’re a big family like that.”
That family has made its way across the country for Ferguson’s bout with Johnson, one that could be a sleeper Fight of the Night pick. “El Cucuy” plans on doing his part to make that post-fight bonus a reality.
“A fight is a fight and I’m gonna bring it every single time, and that’s how it was since I was little,” he said. “I bring a certain intensity, and what I try to do is be a technical and smart fighter inside there and I try to adapt really well. Everybody’s always looking for the evolution of the mixed martial arts fighter; well, with my game, I keep stepping it up, and I just hope that with this fight, I can show that I’m not a one-dimensional fighter and that people see the 3-D artist that I am when I paint my picture on that canvas.”
Brick by Brick - Building Tony Ferguson
"A fight is a fight and I’m gonna bring it every single time, and that’s how it was since I was little." - Tony Ferguson