Tony Ferguson’s journey to UFC 209 started long before he first graced the Octagon. It predates his time on The Ultimate Fighter and his professional debut as a mixed martial artist.
If you’re charting the path that led the 33-year-old lightweight to this weekend’s interim title clash with Khabib Nurmagomedov, you have to start in Muskegon, Michigan, where the man known as “El Cucuy” first started putting in the hard work that has carried him to the precipice of greatness on the biggest stage in the sport.
“I was born on the West Coast and I’ve got that West Coast savvy with the Midwest toughness, so when I was there in the basement, shooting my hundred shots back-and-forth for wrestling, that’s what got me to this point,” explained Ferguson, who was born in Oxnard, California, but grew up on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. “In high school, I didn’t really have too many people to help me in terms of the wrestling. We didn’t have a great wrestling team, but I still won state because what we had is what I worked with and we had greatness inside that room and I still believe in that to this day.
“Nobody got me to this point,” he said. “It was myself and that hard work and the mentality of searching for greatness by looking up to my mentors and having them speak to me like, ‘Tony, you’re not the next so-and-so; you’re the first Tony Ferguson.’ I keep reiterating that hard work, but you guys never see the hard work and I’m glad you never see the hard work because champions are made in the dark. Champions aren’t made in the spotlight.”
Ferguson’s arrival at this point has been a mix of spotlight and shadows.
After winning the welterweight competition on Season 13 of The Ultimate Fighter, the rangy Californian dropped to lightweight and raced out to three straight victories before a loss to fellow TUF product Michael Johnson halted his ascent and the broken arm he suffered in the bout forced him to the sidelines.
When he returned 17 months later, Ferguson was left playing catch up in the always-deep 155-pound ranks and found himself stationed on the early prelims against Mike Rio. Less than two minutes into the contest, Ferguson was back in the win column and he hasn’t looked back since, graduating to become a main card fixture two fights later and blossoming into a can’t-miss attraction while amassing victory after victory.
Currently riding a nine-fight winning streak that includes six postfight bonuses in his last five fights and wins over Edson Barboza and former champ Rafael Dos Anjos, Ferguson remains proud of his Ultimate Fighter win and relishes the opportunity to affix a brand new championship belt on the wall alongside the glass block trophy that commemorates his triumph on the long-running reality TV competition.
“It’s a brand new belt,” said Ferguson of the interim title at stake in Saturday’s co-main event. “It has never been in Conor (McGregor)’s hands or anybody else’s hands. This belt that I will get after I beat and finish Khabib is going to be mine. It’s going to be something that is going to be amazing to put on my wall alongside my Ultimate Fighter trophy. I can see it and I can envision it because I put in my time, I put in my work; I’ve run my miles and I’ve paid my dues.
“There’s guys like Khabib Nurmagomedov – he doesn’t know what that house was like,” Ferguson said of his TUF experience. “He doesn’t know what it’s like to live with your friends and your enemies at the same time and if you’re hurt, you’ve got to hide it and you’ve got cameras all over you.
“Trust me, the pressure won’t be as great as it was inside that house.”
And for Ferguson, dealing with that pressure and excelling all traces back to the same hard work that was started in high school, forged at Grand Valley State University and galvanized following his loss to Johnson, when he moved back to California and began working with the crew that has helped deliver him to the brink of winning championship gold.
“When I broke my arm against Michael Johnson, it was tough, man. It was hard. I had a year-and-a-half to sit back and think about exactly what I wanted to do – whether it was quit or ‘poor me’ or cry my eyes out. I didn’t do that. I made the location switch because I knew that my coaches couldn’t get me to the next level and I wanted to be closer to my wife’s family, so that she could be happy when I’m training.
“I don’t go to big gyms,” he added. “I have the fundamentals and I have the back-to-basics mentality that I have from Grand Valley State University and I do it with pride. My team believes in me and I put together teams that are f****** phenomenal. This is my squad. We’re the Monster Squad. We’re dealing with these guys and they don’t know how to come at me.
“I’m hashtag ‘Mentally Tough.’ That means ice baths instead of the cryo chamber and getting up in the morning when your opponent is sleeping or running at night when it’s freezing cold, doing your extra credit – watching film, taking notes, digging deep, pursuing greatness. I call it Snap Jitsu and it’s completely different.
“Don’t make me snap into it because if you don’t have it, you’re not going to want it.”