The energy levels of the two sets of championship combatants set to close out UFC 209 next weekend at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas couldn’t have been more different as the quartet of fighters took part in Thursday’s media conference call.
Welterweight rivals Tyron Woodley and Stephen Thompson occupied one end of the spectrum, keeping their answers short, sweet and on message, speaking only when they were called upon as reporters probed for insights and opinions about their impending title rematch.
“I think the rematch is happening because the last fight was a draw,” said Woodley. “Obviously the fight was a draw according to the judges, it was Fight of the Night on the biggest card in UFC history, so everyone wants to see it again and I’m ready to roll.”
Standing in the way of that quest for greatness at the moment is Thompson, an inventive, unorthodox striker who got away from his creative ways somewhat in their first encounter at UFC 205 and promises not to make the same mistakes when they run things back next weekend in Las Vegas.
“Being ready at every point, every step of the way during all five rounds, if it even goes to that; throwing my kicks and making sure I get back in position,” said Thompson when asked what he’s focused on since their initial meeting in New York City. “Being on point every step of the way and being mindful of his power.
“He’s a powerful guy – he knocks dudes out; you saw what he did to Robbie and he smoked me in the head in the fourth round, so I’ve just got to be on point. Hit and move, baby.”
The duo that will do battle for the interim lightweight title before Woodley and “Wonderboy” run things back to close out the first UFC event in Nevada this year –Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson – took up residence at the other end of the spectrum.
Where their welterweight contemporaries kept things light and limited, the lightweight standouts showed no interest in Robert’s Rules of Order, bickering and interrupting each time the other offered up an answer.
Ferguson tried to keep things civil and under wraps initially, suggesting that despite the interim title being on the line and Nurmagomedov entering with a perfect 24-0 record, next Saturday’s co-main event is just another fight to him, but those comments opened the door for the top-ranked Dagestani grappler to start egging on the former Ultimate Fighter winner and Ferguson was happy to take the bait.
“March 4 I’m going to make history. I’m going to break this guy,” Nurmagomedov said. “He thinks he’s tough, but I’m going to break this guy.”
The comment drew a retort from Ferguson – “You ain’t breaking s***!” – but Nurmagomedov continued.
"I'm going to break this guy." @TeamKhabib
“He thinks he’s tough, but when the cage closes and me and him alone inside the cage, I’m going to break this guy. He doesn’t understand how strong I am; he doesn’t understand this. All the time when he fights with wrestling guys, he has a problem, but he never fought with a wrestling guy like me.”
A lengthy back-and-forth between the two ensued, with each man referencing previous fights where the other struggled – Ferguson saying Nurmagomedov should have lost his bout with Gleison Tibau; “The Eagle” counterpunching with Ferguson’s loss to Michael Johnson, the man he beat at UFC 205 to set up this matchup.
It was the kind of verbal sparring match usually reserved for Conor McGregor and whomever he’s fighting or able to goad into trying to go shot-for-shot with him on the microphone and it even ventured into Hollywood territory, with Ferguson declaring himself “The New John Wick” and referencing “Baba Yega,” a Slavic variant on his own “Boogeyman” nickname that was used in the first of the two explosive Keanu Reeves action flicks.
The two continued to go back-and-forth each time a question was asked to the other, with Nurmagomedov frequently pivoting to direct his own questions to the man he’ll face next weekend and each time, an irritated Ferguson was quick to respond.
As much as they disagreed on just about every point the other raised during the call, the one thing both men agreed on is that everything will be settled at UFC 209 in Las Vegas.
“March 4, I’m going to break your career and I’m going to break your face,” Nurmagomedov said at the end of one lengthy exchange.
“You’re just the next person in line for me, dude,” countered Ferguson. “So you can either step aside and miss this a**-beating or you can step inside that Octagon at UFC 209 at the T-Mobile Arena and get your a** kicked by myself.
“You’re going to really find out what ‘El Cucuy’ means.”
E. Spencer Kyte is a freelance MMA journalist who covers the sport for The Province newspaper in Vancouver. Follow his work on Twitter @spencerkyte