After four months of rehabilitation for a torn LCL, Tony Ferguson is set to make his homecoming, with the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s most eccentric lightweight confirming earlier this week on Twitter that he has been “Clear[ed] For Combat.”
In any other division, at any other point in time in MMA’s short history, Ferguson’s return would be cause for celebration. Most recently seen sporting UFC gold, riding a 10-fight win streak and having never participated in a dull bout, he has a better claim than most to a championship fight on his return. But as has become the norm through “El Cucuy’s” career, his path to the top is riddled with landmines.
More specifically, a trifecta of larger storylines threaten to consign his bid to reclaim UFC gold something of an afterthought: the long awaited return of Conor McGregor, who meets lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 229 in a grudge match for the ages; the surprise re-emergence of Nate Diaz, who will attempt to derail Dustin Poirier’s title aspirations at UFC 230; and the even more baffling -- though depressingly plausible -- possibility of former welterweight and middleweight champion Georges St. Pierre invading the 155-pound division to become the UFC’s first ever “champ-champ-champ.”
In a sport with countless shades of injustice and misfortune, the fact that Ferguson may genuinely be crowded out of the lightweight title picture is uniquely tragic in light of his history with the company.
The winner of Season 13 of "The Ultimate Fighter," the Grand Valley State alum debuted with the organization in 2011, putting together a mind-boggling record of 12 wins with only one defeat before his title aspirations translated into tangible opportunity last year. Given the way “T-Ferg” was wrecking his opponents -- two-thirds of them never made it to the final siren -- he probably deserved a shot sooner. And owing to his Mexican heritage, one suspects he would have gotten one if he hadn’t adopted his stepfather’s name of “Ferguson” in place of “Padilla” when he was a child.
But patience is a virtue in the fight game, and Ferguson seemed perfectly happy to do things the hard way. After outclassing recently deposed lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos in Mexico City in November 2016, his claim became undeniable. The opponent was the undefeated Nurmagomedov, the stage was UFC 209 and the prize was the interim lightweight title and a life-changing unification bout with the absentee undisputed champion in McGregor. With this being the third time the bout had been booked, Ferguson radiated intensity -- almost exasperation -- in the build-up to the contest. He was agitated in interviews, begrudged his underdog status and seemed over-eager to settler the score in the Octagon.
But it wasn’t to be. Nurmagomedov fell victim to a mishandled weight cut and Ferguson left Vegas with a check that he estimated barely covered his expenses. Back to the drawing board he went; off to sharpen his elbows.
An excruciating seven months later, Ferguson once more got the opportunity to claim UFC gold, arriving in Sin City to fight No. 7-ranked Kevin Lee for the interim title; once more, his moment in the spotlight was hijacked by events entirely outside of his control.
Just days before he marched into the T-Mobile Arena to submit a game Lee with a third-round triangle choke, the deadliest mass shooting in United States history took place a mile up the road from the venue, with 58 people losing their lives and another 800 nursing injuries. The shadow of that massacre loomed large over UFC 216 -- many speculated that the promotion would pull the card -- and the narrative emerging from event was less “Ferguson lays claim to McGregor bout in thriller” than “Mourning city finds solace in MMA event.”
Controversy involving Lee -- who competed with an undisclosed staph infection after a weight cut that had “nearly killed him” -- also threatened to delegitimize his victory; whilst Demetrius Johnson’s physics-defying victory over Ray Borg via suplex armbar led the MMA headlines. A Ferguson-McGregor scrap may have been “the only fight to make” according to UFC President Dana White, but the Irishman showed only a passing interest. Talk of a unification bout quickly dissipated after “The Notorious” stormed a Bellator event and assaulted referee Marc Goddard, and Ferguson’s sights were set back on “The Eagle.”
Another training camp; another round of media; another cruel twist of fate. If ever there was a match-up that was legitimately cursed, it’s Ferguson-Nurmagomedov, as the event was cancelled a fourth time courtesy of a freak accident involving a UFC-arranged media appearance, a dark TV studio and an obtrusive cable. A week later, it was “Khabib-time”, with the Dagestan native running through 11th-hour replacement Al Iaquinta to claim the undisputed title whilst Ferguson’s championship disappeared before our eyes.
The rest, as they say, is history. While Ferguson rehabilitated his knee, McGregor’s hiatus from the sport was prolonged thanks to his criminal antics in the lead-up to UFC 223. The division remained on ice -- just long enough for the UFC to turn “the most disgusting thing that has ever happened in [its] history” into a compelling video package -- and now Ireland and Russia are set to collide on Oct. 7 in what’s being billed as the biggest fight in the company’s history.
Once again, through no fault of his own, Ferguson finds himself as the odd man out. Whilst a fighter in his position five or 10 years ago could count on facing the winner of UFC 229’s main event, the UFC of the present has never been less interested in fighters who win consistently but don’t draw big numbers. Only marks expect the UFC to pass on a Diaz brother fighting for a title, or a money fight involving “GSP,” if those opportunities materialize -- and if Poirier emerges the victor at UFC 230 he’s arguably more deserving of a title shot based on recency-bias more than anything else.
That leaves Ferguson… stuck. Again. Even if he wants to keep busy while the division shakes out, there’s hardly a surplus of worthy dance partners to keep him warm. Of the top-10 lightweights in the promotion, four are spoken for, two are past conquests and three are coming off losses. That leaves No. 8-ranked Anthony Pettis, just 3-5 in his last eight bouts, as the most appropriate matchup -- and that’s not exactly a bout that would increase his visibility or stock price.
If history is any guide, Ferguson won’t let any of the above keep him down. His modus operandi is to keep on keeping on in the face of adversity, and even if he has to pick a fight with an unheralded opponent, we’ll probably see him in action sooner or later.
But it’ll be hard to feel good about seeing him action.
How could it?