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Editorial: Tony Ferguson and the legacy that wasn’t

Tony Ferguson may not have a championship legacy to leave behind, but that doesn’t mean he’s left us nothing.

Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

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What type of guy is Tony Ferguson, dear Bloody Elbow reader? Is he the type of guy to hand out report cards to his teachers? Is Tony the type of guy to clone himself just so he could beat Kevin Lee again? I’m just lifting comments from YouTube that consist entirely of “Tony is the type of guy to [insert meme humor here]”.

You can find those comments on every Ferguson video there is, whether it’s one about every time he got rocked, or every time his own training appeared to threaten him. Ferguson is that rare fighter driven as much by fight prowess as an aloof desire to hurt people for money. Words like ‘eccentric’ and ‘singular’ don’t go together, but Tony is the type of guy to make it all work.

‘Paradox’ is a fitting word here. Can a fighter be great, yet leave no legacy, and vice versa? I don’t know. And honestly, I don’t care. I’ve said my piece about legacies. It’s like the Die Hard, Christmas movie debate. None of it matters. Die Hard is such a great movie it gets to be whatever it wants to be, while An American Carol does not.

That’s neither here nor there. It was clear at UFC 256 that if Ferguson had anything left, it was no longer enough against the elite. Charles Oliveira, a flawed but talented offensive fighter, had his way with Ferguson. Oliveira was able to bully him to the ground, lock in submissions, and never had to worry too much about whether Ferguson could fall into his unusual rhythm of brawling and boxing. I’ve never seen a ghost put up a fight, but that’s probably what it’d look like.

UFC 256: Ferguson v Oliveira Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

Of course, like a lot of us, I picked Ferguson to beat Oliveira because a) I think Ferguson would have won handily five years ago and b) I didn’t find much credence to the idea that Ferguson couldn’t maintain his fight pace after the Justin Gaethje fight. After all, if Ferguson were truly getting less durable, no way he should’ve eaten the shots he did, right?

Then there’s who Ferguson has always been as a fighter. He’s an information gatherer of sorts. The last three and half minutes of his fight against Lando Vannata (jab, jab, punch) were vastly different than the first three and a half — rolling out of trouble, half-unconscious. Even in the Gaethje fight, you saw a concerted effort to land straight up the middle from both stances early on give way to a concerted effort to attack low with more kicks as the fight stretched into the championship rounds. Now, how that information becomes part of his strategy and tactics was always a little muddled. It worked well against Rafael dos Anjos, but not as well against Danny Castillo. But for seven years, it was enough to keep him unbeaten.

UFC Fight Night: Dos Anjos v Ferguson Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

So how does a fighter go unbeaten for seven years, and not have a proper title to show for it? If you’re Ferguson, the answer is simple: luck of the draw or lack thereof.

Was there anything more logically coherent to having Khabib Nurmagomedov fight for the official title in 2018 versus Tony Ferguson fighting for it in 2017? Even if you were a purist, and believed in proper succession or whatever, Conor McGregor had been one foot out of the division for awhile.

And so naturally, following UFC 256, we’re seeing all the “Khabib would have destroyed Ferguson” takes. Which is fine. You can see why people would feel compelled to talk about the matchup in hindsight. Deep down, we’re fundamentally suckers for reconciliation. Seeing Ferguson get out-grappled by Oliveira provides a little closure to that five year ‘What If’ that bothered us so.

But does it provide closure? Khabib and Tony were supposed to fight five years ago. In a five round fight. Whatever your criticisms of Oliviera as a fighter, his grappling is vastly different than Khabib’s. We can point out specific traits, and consider how those traits would interact in a championship fight, but as we’ve seen with Ferguson’s search for the belt, timing is everything. Just look at Deiveson Figueiredo vs. Brandon Moreno. Is that the same classic if their previous fights weren’t separated but just a few weeks? It’s all about timing.

UFC 249 Khabib v Ferguson: Press Conference Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

“It’s like everybody’s fucking attention span is only as quick as the last next slide. That’s why I call everybody scrollers, man. Like, unplug, fucking catch a breath. Air is up,” Ferguson told Shaheen Al-Shatti at The Athletic.

I’m highlighting this completely contextless quote because like his fighting, Ferguson is talking about everything at once. He’s talking about how he’s had to earn his way to the top. He’s talking about the paradox of (his words) “being brown with the last name Ferguson.” He’s talking about the information age. He’s talking about being positive, and looking upwards, hence the expression ‘air is up.’ And in a way, he’s talking about his legacy too.

Whatever your opinions about Ferguson, his weirdness, his ‘understanding’ of the Earth’s atmosphere, and whatnot — I think his seven-year unbeaten streak is more interesting than whether he once won the belt, defended it, and then lost it: if legacies can be whatever we want them to be in MMA, maybe Ferguson is king to the first secret legacy.

It sounds strange. Maybe it is. You can’t hand over what you keep to yourself. We’ll never know what ‘could have been.’ But maybe it’s OK. Closure doesn’t always give us perspective, and Ferguson’s perspective of unflinching attitude, and brawling skill is plenty for us to remember, and cherish.

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