Since winning the 13th season of The Ultimate Fighter in 2011, Tony Ferguson’s UFC slate stands at 9-1. That record includes six consecutive victories, three submissions and three knockouts.
Impressive to say the least, and those efforts have placed him at No. 7 in the lightweight rankings heading into his Friday bout against Edson Barboza. Yet for all the emphatic finishes and the statements those knockouts and submissions make, Ferguson’s most spectacular win came via decision in July, when he completely dismantled perennial lightweight contender and former Strikeforce champion Josh Thomson.
The outcome was so notable, it was the rare decision that earned a Performance of the Night award. Ferguson wasn’t so much a fighter that night but a jazz soloist, expressing himself not with an instrument, but with his limbs for 15 inspiring minutes. It was the essence of mixed martial arts that Ferguson displayed that night, but as he admits, it was a display prompted by a weigh-in incident with “The Punk” the day before.
“I wanted to finish him and I was aiming for it, but at the weigh-in, he did something,” Ferguson recalled. “He got right in my face, and subconsciously, I'm the "Cucuy," I'm the boogeyman. He pissed me off, so when we went inside the cage, it wasn't about finishing him; it was about punishing him. It was about dealing damage to this dude that took this thing as a joke at the weigh-in.
“He didn't take me serious, he wanted to get in my face and I thought that was a disrespectful type of thing because I try to be a sportsman. I try to give it my all and go shake the coaches' hand afterwards, even before I shake my own coaches' hand. That's just how I was in wrestling back in the day. So it wasn't about finishing. It was about dealing as much damage as I could and working on the techniques that I really needed to work on, which were elbows, a lot of different transitions in my jits, and more than anything, it was me checking him. It was like a 15-point spread in wrestling that I knew that I beat him and there were no ifs, ands or buts. He had no way of contesting it.”
The win made a statement, as Thomson has long been considered one of the top lightweights in the game, and if someone beat him it was close. In fact, Thomson’s previous three losses against Bobby Green, Benson Henderson and Gilbert Melendez were all via split decision. Ferguson got a decision win, but it was a blowout.
And while he was fired up to send a message to his opponent, inside, he was calm and at peace.
“I fight better when I'm loose,” he said. “If I'm in there uptight, all of my movements are going to be crap. But if I'm in there and I'm loose and I'm having fun, they tell me to smile. You'll hear them in the corner saying 'Hey Tony, smile.' And I'll smile, because it's hard to have an angry muscle in your body that's uptight when you're smiling. When you're smiling, everything has to be loose. When I'm relaxed, it allows my thought process to be clearer. So I just beat him from all different angles. I watched so much film and I knew where he was going to be at every moment.”
The win was pivotal because it earned him another big fight on the UFC’s biggest weekend, and it was originally supposed to be against third-ranked Khabib Nurmagomedov. A win there, and it’s likely a move into the title fight conversation. But when the oft-injured Nurmagomedov got hurt and pulled out of the bout, Ferguson instead got Barboza, who presents a totally different challenge, both stylistically and in terms of readjusted goals for the 31-year-old Californian.
“In my mindset, it wasn't a letdown,” Ferguson said. “I don't want to say I thought that it was gonna happen, but I kept in mind that if anything were to happen, that I was going to stay focused, talk to my training team and make the necessary adjustments. With Khabib, I was ready for anything. It was No. 3 against No. 7, and I would, of course, rather take a No. 3. But Edson Barboza was a gamer, (UFC matchmaker) Joe Silva said he was ready, I'm a gamer, and I never turn down a fight. If they want to present me with a fight, that's awesome. I'm going to thank you for the job opportunity, I'm gonna go in there and kick some ass. But I guess I was a little hurt. I really was training hard, I was doing powerlifting and really focused on exploring a different avenue, rather than somebody just wanting to stand there and bang.
“I think it was going to bring a different animal out of me, but I know Edson Barboza is going to do the same. He's a tough fighter, he's very tricky, he's got a lot of techniques, but I'm a little bit more intense than him.”
In talking with Ferguson, “intense” probably would be the right word to describe him. His life revolves around training and fighting, but in recent months he’s had to adjust that all or nothing approach since his wife is pregnant with their first child – a boy. Not surprisingly, that adjustment is making Ferguson even more intense – and intent – when it comes to one day putting UFC gold around his waist.
“It's a big maturing process,” he said. “I've had to mature as a person and a fighter, getting better, mentally exploring different avenues, setting my future up and not losing focus on what's at hand.”
Barboza is the next task at hand, and a win makes it seven in a row in what is arguably the sport’s toughest division. Is it time for him to take the microphone after the fight and demand his shot at the belt?
“I don't have soundbites written up and I'm not trying to sell the fight because the fight's gonna sell itself,” Ferguson said. “But they don't want me to have that belt yet. They have other people they want to try and have that belt first. A little more marketable, a little more other things, but I don't care. Because the more they keep me away from that belt, when I get it, I'm gonna keep it.
“There ain't gonna be a changing of the guard. It's going to be me retiring with that belt. I may not be undefeated, but I'm sure gonna act like it.”