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There was a lot at stake when the Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday touched down in Jacksonville, Florida, for UFC 249. For one, the promotion was planting a flag as the first major sporting organization to resume live events during the COVID-19 pandemic—a controversial move which only became more contentious after it was revealed that event participants, including members of the media, were required to sign waivers preventing them from criticizing the company’s health protocols under threat of financial penalties.
One half of the headliner, the enigmatic Tony Ferguson, was also doing his share of gambling by putting his shot at the undisputed lightweight title and his eight-year undefeated streak on the line against a short-notice replacement opponent in Justin Gaethje. It was an opportunity that Ferguson had risked before many times over in his landmine-riddled career, having first earned an undisputed title shot more than two and a half years ago when he derailed Kevin Lee at UFC 216 to pick up the interim championship. A freak accident several months later in the buildup to UFC 223, where “El Cucuy” was set to meet Khabib Nurmagomedov to decide who would be crowned the undisputed champion, saw him jettisoned back into the queue of contenders. It forced him into dangerous fights with former champion Anthony Pettis and the then-surging Donald Cerrone for the sake of preserving his No. 1 spot.
Ferguson went through Pettis and Cerrone like a buzz saw, making his slated fight with Nurmagomedov for the title even more urgent and desperately anticipated by the MMA community. However, when the COVID-19 pandemic and quarantine orders conspired to maroon “The Eagle” in Russia, Ferguson was offered Gaethje as a backup dance partner. Ferguson scoffed at suggestions he was playing with fire by stepping into the Octagon with the former World Series of Fighting champion. He embraced the opportunity to provide a relief to fans who wanted to regain a sense of normalcy by watching live sports and told anyone who would listen that this was actually the third defense of the undisputed title he won back in October 2017, making the opponent of secondary importance. Two phrases that were never far from his lips during the pre-fight media were “f--- Khabib” and “teamwork makes the dream work”—the latter being a reference to his loyalty and commitment to the UFC brand.
To say Ferguson’s luck ran out when Gaethje bludgeoned the 36-year-old for 20-plus minutes on route to a fifth-round stoppage would be a gross misrepresentation of the journey “El Cucuy” has been on. In many regards, he has has thrived in the most competitive division in UFC history in spite of a long list of misfortunes. This was the fifth time he’d been offered a shot at Nurmagomedov and the fifth time it was taken from him. Injuries, weight-cutting mishaps, UFC favoritism towards a certain Irish former champion and allegedly shoddy management conspired in the most wicked ways to deny him an opportunity he has earned at least four times over. On the wrong side of 35, there’s no telling whether he’s capable of climbing the mountain all over again. In an industry defined by unfairness, Ferguson’s career is especially cruel reminder of the fickleness of the fight game, standing as a conspicuous reminder of the no-win situation into which the UFC is capable of forcing its athletes.
Ferguson was a longtime sideshow to the long-running and mega-profitable rivalry between Nurmagomedov and Conor McGregor, meaning he was frequently an afterthought to a promotion singularly motivated by ticket sales and pay-per-views. He was a champion on a double-digit winning streak being paid like an unproven contender. He did things according to the script— winner of “The Ultimate Fighter,” he demonstrated commitment to the “anyone, anywhere, anytime” ethos with an action-heavy style—but he was a guy who could be consigned to the undercard at the drop of the hat. Even Chael Sonnen, a shill for promoters if there ever was one, was sounding the alarm in the buildup to UFC 249, warning that even if he ran through Gaethje, there was still every chance that the UFC would pull the rug out from under Ferguson for the sake of a Nurmagomedov-McGregor rematch in early winter, such was the organization’s lack of regard for the Mexican boogeyman.
So Nurmagomedov-Ferguson, easily the most anticipated fight in a generation, has once again disappeared from view, and “El Cucuy” is back in limbo. There’s an outside chance he gets to cash in on a McGregor bout if the Irishman’s goading of Gaethje comes to nothing, but it seems more likely we’ll see him against the likes of Dustin Poirier or Dan Hooker—bouts with a similar imbalance of risk (high) and reward (low) to those against Cerrone, Pettis and Gaethje.
It’s the same old script, repurposed for an ageing veteran whose competitive prime may well have ended with Gaethje’s clubbing right cross—Tony Ferguson, MMA’s Sisyphus, forever needing at least one big victory to vault him back into the title picture.
Jacob Debets is a lawyer and writer from Melbourne, Australia. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.