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Sometimes a fighter is in the right places at the right times, and his career blossoms as a result. Take, for example, Wanderlei Silva. Silva was emerging as a feared and devastating middleweight—90 kilograms in Japan—just as Kazushi Sakuraba had established himself as a Pride Fighting Championships superstar with his victories over the Gracies. Silva got a great style matchup against the undersized Sakuraba and his subsequent wins over the Japanese legend catapulted him to stardom while creating an aura that lasted for the rest of his career.
Other times, fate conspires against a fighter and his career doesn’t play out quite as one would hope. That unfortunately appears to be the case with Tony Ferguson. He strung together 12 straight wins over the course of several years, beating former champions and top contenders with violent panache. In spite of that, he never got to compete for the status of undisputed champion of the Ultimate Fighting Championship lightweight division. Now approaching 37 years old and having been battered standing and dominated on the ground in consecutive fights, it appears his prime has passed without having the defining fight, win or lose, for his career.
That sort of situation has become unfamiliar with the UFC having such a lock on the best fighters in the world. We are accustomed to seeing the best fight the best in each division. Occasionally, it takes a little bit longer, but it is not standard to be waiting for the equivalent of Terence Crawford-Errol Spence Jr. for years on end. So how did we reach this point, with Ferguson reaching the tail end of his career after a long prime spent as 1B in his division? It comes down to two primary factors, one uncontrollable and the other controllable and with a lesson for the future.
The first reason Ferguson spent his prime circling the best in his division was plain bad luck. There was a significant period when Ferguson and Khabib Nurmagomedov were the clear top two fighters at lightweight. Nurmagomedov wanted to fight Ferguson, and Ferguson wanted to fight Nurmagomedov. The UFC wanted the fight, as well, so it booked the fight; and it booked it again; and it kept booking it. Five times booked and five times cancelled, it’s bound to go down as one of the most snakebitten fights in the sport’s history.
Oftentimes when a fight continually falls through, there’s a general sense that one fighter doesn’t want the bout. Injuries, time conflicts and money are cited, but there are widespread doubts about the reasons given. That isn’t really the case with Ferguson and Nurmagomedov. Sure, there has been some finger pointing about who is more to blame for the many issues that have come up, but there is widespread agreement that both parties were sincere in wanting the fight to come to fruition. That it didn’t is likely even more frustrating to the fighters than to waiting fans.
However, that doesn’t entirely cover what happened with Ferguson. For many of the early attempts to book Nurmagomedov-Ferguson, it wouldn’t have provided full clarity in the division. That’s because Conor McGregor was hanging over the division. It’s understandable why the UFC gave McGregor such leverage (hint: $$$$$$$), but letting him vacate both the featherweight and lightweight titles without defending them was an unprecedented acquiescence to the interests of one fighter at the expense of all others in two of the sport’s deepest divisions.
Without McGregor fighting, there was no clear path for Ferguson to prove he was the best lightweight in the world. Nurmagomedov was his best shot, but no individual fight could get the job done. He fought for interim titles twice, but alpha status was always an additional fight away. McGregor punished the entire lightweight division, but he punished no fighter more than Ferguson. At least Nurmagomedov eventually got to fight the Irishman. McGregor created a shadow over Ferguson’s career and there was nothing he could do about it, no matter how many wins he accumulated.
It was inevitable that eventually the wars would catch up with Ferguson. He fought with as gritty of a style as anyone in the sport, and the way he worked through major injuries put even more mileage on the body. He also was working with a time deficit compared to his peers. His top four rivals at lightweight were Nurmagomedov, McGregor, Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje. Those four were all born within six months of each other. Ferguson, meanwhile, was over four years older than all of them. He had limited time, and it appears that time has run out.
It would be one thing if Ferguson got his shot at becoming the undisputed champion of his division and fell short. That happens to plenty of fighters. What makes Ferguson’s predicament uniquely frustrating is that at his ferocious best, he never got to prove how he would do against peak Nurmagomedov or peak McGregor. It’s just an open question that will linger.