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Part 1: Rat Race
After a handful of fights each in the UFC, Tony Ferguson and Khabib Nurmagomedov both had impressive win streaks on the outskirts of the lightweight division. But in a division as deep 155lbs, such feats are merely seen as decent starts.
When the UFC started tracking rankings in 2013, Khabib Nurmagomedov was ranked #10 after winning by rear-naked choke in his debut, a unanimous decision over Gleison Tibau, and a vicious TKO over Thiago Tavares. By the end of 2013, after unanimous decision wins over Abel Trujillo and Pat Healy, Khabib had moved to #7 in the rankings. He amazed fans and pundits with his relentless takedown ability, setting the record for takedowns landed in a single UFC fight by taking down Trujillo 21 times over the course of 15 minutes. The record still stands to this day, even when compared to 25-minute fights.
Ferguson had yet to crack the rankings at all, after his loss to Michael “The Menace” Johnson in May 2012 forced him to take over a year off to heal a broken arm which required surgery. Halfway into the late-notice fight Ferguson blocked a kick from Johnson, which he managed to keep from hitting it intended target but not from shattering the ulna in his left forearm. He continued to punch with the broken arm for the rest of the fight, but was unable to defend many more strikes and persevered to his only UFC loss by unanimous decision.
Oct. 19th 2013 – Ferguson was able to return from arm surgery just before the end of 2013 at UFC 166. Winning his comeback fight over Mike Rio by submitting him in the first round, Tony earned himself a Submission of the Night bonus.
April 19th 2014 – After having matches with both Gilbert Melendez and Nate Diaz fall through, Khabib faced then #6th ranked Raphael Dos Anjos and completely dominated the future champion to win a unanimous decision.
Soon after in May, Ferguson had his own surge of success when he knocked out Katsunori Kikuno at UFC 173. Being able to bounce back quickly after scoring an early knockout, he had a hard-fought war with Danny Castillo at the end of August, which Ferguson was able to snatch by split decision. It was still not, however, enough to push him into the top 10.
Khabib was scheduled to fight Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone on September 27th, but had to pull out of the fight due to a knee injury. He would end up sitting out until the end of the year, and even though the fight with “Cowboy” would be re-booked for May of 2015, this injury would continue to sideline Nurmagomedov for the next 2 years – just as Ferguson hits the ground running coming back from his own career-altering ailment.
In Khabib’s time off, Ferguson was able to put a streak together which called Nurmagomedov’s undefeated claim to title contention into question. An impressive task considering Khabib ended 2014 ranked #2 while Ferguson was not even on the list, and Khabib held a dominant victory over Raphael Dos Anjos, who was the lightweight champion upon Khabib’s return.
Ferguson continued to blaze through the 155lb division while Khabib was away. In December he tapped Abel Trujillo with a rear-naked choke in the 2nd round, and in February of 2015, he gave Gleison Tibau the same treatment by snatching his neck in the 1st round. Ferguson was now sitting at #11, knocking on the door of the lightweight elite.
In April 2015 Khabib re-injured his knee and had to pull out of his re-scheduled bout with “Cowboy.” Meanwhile, Tony had signed up for his highest-profile fight to date against the #7 ranked, and teammate of Khabib, Josh Thompson. Ferguson went on to win the hectic battle by unanimous decision, launching him into the top 10 at lightweight.
By late 2015 Ferguson had successfully disputed Khabib’s #1 contender spot despite the Russian having a win over then-champion Rafael Dos Anjos, and with a spotless record having never lost a single round. A date was set for The Ultimate Fighter 22 Finale in December to sort out the pecking order, but Nurmagomedov would be injured again and need to pull out in late October. With striking specialist Edson Barboza was slated as a replacement, Ferguson would go on to win the subsequent bloodbath by D’Arce choke in the 2nd round.
The Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson fight had come to be seen as essential to the progression of the division, as well as an incredibly intriguing stylistic matchup. The fight was booked for a second time for April 16th 2016, but this time it was Ferguson’s turn to drop out. Issues with his lungs forced him out of the fight and left Khabib to smush, Darrel Horcher, the UFC newcomer who debuted as a replacement, inside of 2 rounds.
July 13th 2016 – Ferguson looked to return from his lung issues against Michael Chiesa, however, an injury forced Chiesa out and he was replaced by Ferguson’s own UFC newcomer “Groovy” Lando Vannata. Ferguson’s replacement fight didn’t go as smoothly as Nurmagomedov’s, as Tony ended up rocked and wobbled multiple times. It didn’t stop Tony from snatching up his second straight D’Arce choke in the second round, later on explain away his stumbles across the cage in response to Vannata’s shots as slippery logos on the canvas.
Khabib Nurmagomedov was meant to fight new UFC Lightweight Champion Eddie Alvarez, but Alvarez passed on a title defense against Nurmagomedov in lieu of a super fight with then Featherweight Champion Conor McGregor. Khabib was enraged, considering he had been the #1 ranked contender for almost a year. He publicly voiced his displeasure with the 145lb champion McGregor cutting the line in front of him after going 1-1 at 170lbs with Nate Diaz, all while never defending his featherweight belt.
He called Eddie Alvarez a “bullshit champ,” and that the UFC had become more “freakshow” than a sport; he thought about quitting in the face of the meritocracy being broken after he had already endured so much in his career, constantly battling through injury.
November 12 2016 – Khabib ended up taking on Michael Johnson on the very same card that McGregor vs. Alvarez took place: UFC 205, MMA’s legal debut in New York City. Khabib mauled Michael Johnson in the middle of Madison Square Garden, seemingly taking his current frustration with the title picture out on Johnson. He dominated Johnson the entire fight to such an extent that he began to calmly and coolly to plead with “The Menace” to give up and accept that he cannot win against Khabib’s deserved destiny as UFC lightweight champion. When Khabib wasn’t begging Johnson to give up with pity in his voice, he was screaming at Dana White in the audience between rounds. “Hey,” he would yell while his corner was icing and giving him water, pushing them out of the way to ensure his message was heard. The message was of his hard feelings towards McGregor for taking his title shot and to those who orchestrated it. “I’m gonna smash your boy!”
After almost ripping Johnson’s arm off with a Kimura in round 3, Khabib called out Conor McGregor and the promotional force behind him in his post-fight interview.
“Beginning of the year he tap like chicken, end of the year he fight for title. Crazy. This is true, this is not trash talking. Irish only 6 million, Russian 150 million. I wanna fight with your chicken, because this is #1 easy fight in lightweight division!”
A week earlier at the Ultimate Fighter Latin America 3 Finale, Tony Ferguson defeated #2 ranked former champion Raphael Dos Anjos by unanimous decision, incorporating salsa dancing into his striking in order to snatch the #1 lightweight contender spot from Khabib. This fight also put Ferguson at 6 Performance of the Night bonuses in his last 5 outings, an accomplishment virtually unheard of for someone so highly ranked in the division as rarely were action fighter also packed with championship merit.
Due to McGregor’s inactivity in MMA and his pursuit of a boxing fight and massive payday with Floyd Mayweather, an interim lightweight championship fight was set between the #1 and #2 contenders to determine who would rule the UFC’s deepest division until Conor returned. Khabib and Tony were set to fight for the 3rd time on March 4th, 2017, for UFC 209. That is, until Nurmagomedov was hospitalized before the bout due to extreme weight cut complications and it was cancelled again, this time the day before the fight.
With the “Money Fight” between McGregor and Mayweather finalized for August 26th, and Interim Lightweight Champion was still needed. Due to his past with injuries and needing to cancel fights, the UFC was unsure about booking Khabib for another main event title bout.
Ferguson’s new dance partner for lightweight gold would be the surging prospect, Kevin Lee. Riding a 5 fight win streak and coming off a controversial Rear-naked choke over Michael Chiesa, Lee was about as close as you could get at 155lbs to a stylistic parity with Khabib. He is a strong, dominant wrestler with ruthless ground and pound, with even more of a proclivity for submissions.
October 7th 2017 – In a back and forth battle at UFC 216, Tony Ferguson was able to submit Kevin Lee off of his back with a triangle choke, the very same submission that his coach, Eddie Bravo, utilized to win his iconic 2003 ADCC match with Royler Gracie. Tony Ferguson became the UFC Interim Lightweight Champion and was promoted to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt in the same night, receiving Jean Jacques Machado’s black belt directly off of Bravo’s waist.
December 30th – At UFC 219 Nurmagomedov faced off against Edson Barboza in what ended up being one of the most dominant and demoralizing performances in recent memory. Putting a new meaning on his favourite verb “maul,” Khabib talked with Barboza’s corner the whole fight. Specifically, he complimented their advice while simultaneously showing them how futile it was. Khabib put doubts that he could make it to fight night to rest, and was crowned the undisputed #1 contender in a cluster-fucked division that already had 2 champions.
Part 2: How Long Must I Wait?
8 months had passed since McGregor's loss to Floyd Mayweather, and his inactivity and inability to roll off of his pile of money and defend any title he had ever won finally caught up with him. He was scheduled to be stripped of the title on April 7th, 2018, allowing Ferguson and Nurmagomedov to finally clash for the throne at UFC 223.
In the cruellest April fool's joke ever played by the MMA Gods, Tony Ferguson had to withdraw from the title fight when he tripped on a camera cable and tore his LCL completely off the bone.
That's two pull outs each if you aren't keeping track.
Fed up with the fact that the undisputed title had not been contested since McGregor’s win against Eddie Alvarez in 2016, the UFC stripped Tony Ferguson of the interim title he had held for 6 months. Some believed that a hard reset of the division was needed with all the disorder. Others would point out that that's a funny way of saying Tony got screwed.
Originally UFC Featherweight Champion Max Holloway was set to move up and replace Ferguson to fight Khabib for the undisputed lightweight belt. When Max couldn't make the weight in 6 days, fellow lightweight Paul Felder was called up for a shot since he was already fighting lower on the card and had made weight. The New York commission deemed Felder too low of a ranking to challenge for a title, so Felder's original opponent, Al Iaquinta, got the title shot instead. Such is the story of one of the oddest UFC vacant undisputed title fights in history. What a mess.
To make matters worse, two days before the fights Conor McGregor and his crew flew into Brooklyn from Dublin with a hunger for vengeance.
During the lead up to the fight one of McGregor's team-mates who was also on the card, Artem Lobov, commented on Khabib's pet name for Conor: “chicken.” Artem went on about how all Khabib does is pull out of fights, making him the real chicken and went on to call him a pussy.
Khabib decided that was more of a face-to-face conversation and confronted Lobov in the lobby of the hotel, slapping him in the face in the process.
Perhaps to defend his friend's honour, perhaps resentment from Khabib fighting for his stripped belt boiled over, or perhaps Mystic Mac had a bit too much booze and angel dust and cracked. The result was 20 plus goons storming the loading bay while the fighters were being transported. They attacked the bus with Khabib in it, calling him a “rug rat” and telling him to come out of the bus and fight. When Khabib did not oblige, McGregor responded by throwing a bunch of heavy metal shit at the bus, losing control, screaming frantically imploring his goons to “smash the windows.”
Three more fights on the card had to be cancelled, bringing the total to six. Michael Chiesa and Ray Borg had to be taken to the hospital due to broken glass fragments lodged in their face and eyes, and Rose Namajunas has opened up since then about her difficulty mentally dealing with the experience. McGregor turned himself in soon after the incident.
Once UFC 223 finally took place, Khabib ran a clinic on “Ragin’” Al Iaquinta, choosing to stand and strike with Iaquinta almost the whole fight. He was showing off.
After a circus of a fight week, Khabib “The Eagle” Nurmagomedov was finally crowned the undefeated, undisputed UFC Lightweight Champion. He was finally on his way to cementing his legacy and fulfilling his long-awaited destiny.
After a nasty surgery on Ferguson's leg, he wasn't projected to return for another 9-12 months. With Khabib wanting to defend his title consistently, it was pretty easy to see what the obvious next step was. If you wanted to make a yacht load of money, that is.
On the merit of Conor never having his belt beaten off of him, and the previous bad blood that had been built between them since UFC 205, Conor McGregor got the next shot at Khabib's belt at UFC 229. The bout was set for October 6th, 2018, almost exactly 6 months after the UFC 223 debacle.
Despite doctor's advice, Tony Ferguson handled the physiotherapy for his own injury. Despite the laws of physics Tony somehow healed his knee enough in 6 months to return on the very same UFC 229 card against Anthony Pettis, as the co-main event under Khabib vs. McGregor. In a cruel twist of events Ferguson fought on the very same card as his rival, but not against him. On a date Ferguson was supposed to be too injured to make, of course, both fighters showed up ready to go with no issues when they weren't even fighting each other.
Ferguson had the Fight of the Night with Anthony Pettis, a crazy back and forth which left Pettis bloodied and broken handed by the beginning of the 3rd forcing his corner to call off the fight in between rounds in the face of Ferguson's overwhelming pace.
Directly afterwards Khabib bent McGregor over his knee and spanked him for three and a half rounds. After submitting Conor by neck crank a wave of emotions flooded Khabib. All the build-up involving McGregor's accusations of Khabib betraying his people to the Russian government and mocking the Caucuses for not being able to fight off Russian oppression like Ireland did with the British. A torrential wave of anger and frustration fuelled by 200 years of oppression exploded from Khabib upon the finish of the fight; he wasn’t done, it wasn’t enough yet.
Khabib proceeded to jump the cage and attack McGregor's corner. A riot nearly broke out in and around the octagon with the two corners engaging in an all-out brawl. It created such a scene in the area that the fighters were escorted out before the results of the fight could be read. Khabib received his belt backstage that night and was later issued a 9-month suspension and a $500,000 fine for his role in the scuffle.
An interim lightweight title was once again introduced into the fold while Khabib took his mandatory extended absence. Originally meant to be between UFC Featherweight Champion Max Holloway and Tony Ferguson, it didn't come to fruition because Tony turned down the fight. He had already competed for an interim belt that was unfairly stripped, and in all honesty, being on an 11 fight win streak he should have been the next challenger upon Khabib’s return anyway.
Dustin Poirier stepped in and took his place, and proceeded to win the war with Max Holloway by unanimous decision in the Fight of the Year contender at UFC 236 on April 13th, 2019. This was Poirier’s 4th Fight of the Night performance in his last 5 fights.
A month before the fight in March, information came to light on an alternate explanation for Tony being unable to participate in UFC 236.
Tony's wife Christina filed a restraining order against him due to his recent erratic and unstable behaviour. She did not claim that Tony did any harm, but his behaviour was worrying and filing the order was the only way she knew how to force him to get the help he needed.
One night Tony had packed up their car with much of their belongings, woke them, and drove them a hundred miles away from their home because he believed a great flood, caused by the lunar eclipse, would kill them. He was incredibly paranoid, believing that a tracking chip had been implanted in his leg during the surgery or than a man was hiding in the walls of his home and monitoring him with a camera hidden in the fireplace. Christina had come home multiple times to Tony ripping apart the walls in search of his paranoid delusions. The final straw was after Tony had finally agreed to go get help at a medical centre. While driving to the centre Christina hit traffic, and Tony jumped out of the car while it was moving, jumped over a fence and disappeared into the woods. He eventually found his way back to their house.
Ferguson now had an even more difficult rehabilitation ahead of him than what was required for his knee. With his physical condition better than it had ever been, Ferguson found himself in a battle for his mental health. Due to the abundance of head trauma received an MMA, the question was no longer whether or not we would ever get to see Tony fight Khabib, it was whether or not we would ever see Tony make the walk again.
In typical Ferguson style, he returned in emphatic fashion only 3 months later, after the restraining order and the overwhelming support of the public pushed him to face his psychological demons.
June 8th 2019 – Tony returns at UFC 238 and batters Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone around the octagon. He won his second straight fight by punishing his opponent until they could not continue into the 3rd round, forced to throw in the towel before it starts. It was Ferguson's fifth straight Fight of the Night bonus.
Now Tony is waiting on the outcome of UFC 242 between Interim Lightweight Champion Dustin Poirier and Ferguson's longtime rival and Lightweight Champion, Khabib Nurmagomedov.
Neither fighter in UFC 242's main event skips a beat when asked which fighter would be their next title defense if they were to win. It's Tony Ferguson, without a doubt.
But what are Tony's hopes when asked about the UFC 242 main event? Same as it always is when he is asked about a fellow lightweight bout.
“Double KO” he says with a grin and shades on, “I hope they both knock each other out.”
They seem to be matched together as dance partners of destiny. If Khabib is able to win on Saturday, September 7th, it sets up a historic match, which will be 7 years in the making when it finally ends up coming to fruition. Those 7 years though are the pinnacle of thousands of years of combat history that has been thrust forward by the human will to thrive and survive.
It's the type of build-up that makes you believe in intertwined fate in a quintessential determination of what could be the greatest fighter ever. The victors record would certainly back up that claim.
The final necessary ingredient in the mix is a win for Khabib over Dustin Poirier at UFC 242 to absorb his impressive win streak and tie up Khabib’s win streak with Tony's.
Many people say that the MMA Gods do not want this fight to happen, and to that I say bullshit! The gods must simply just want it to happen under the perfect circumstances, meeting at the top of the sport to determine the undisputed greatest in the deepest division. Fighting each other on an Ultimate Fighter Finale was never going to be good enough; the interim title was never going to be good enough. It has hopefully been marinating long enough that when it finally does happen, we feel at least a fraction of the magnitude behind this fight that we properly should.