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UFC 238: Breaking down Tony Ferguson’s striking and grappling

UFC 238: Breaking down Tony Ferguson’s striking and grappling

Tony Ferguson smashes Anthony Pettis during UFC 229

For most UFC cards, the most anticipated bout is the main event; the rest of the bouts serve as an appetizer to the full-course meal of the headliner. However, this is not always the case. While UFC 238 features some interesting matchups, none have generated more excitement among the fanbase than “the people’s main event” between Tony Ferguson and Donald Cerrone.

While Cerrone seems to be on an unstoppable rampage inspired by the birth of his first child, Tony Ferguson has long remained at the top of the lightweight division, kept from a title shot only by pesky injuries. In order to understand what has allowed “El Cucuy” to maintain his criminally under-discussed 11 fight win streak, let’s take a look at the spectacularly reckless style of fighting Tony Ferguson employs, both on his feet and on the mat.

Mutually Assured Destruction

Just like every other aspect of his fighting style, Tony Ferguson’s striking is simultaneously effective, unorthodox, and seemingly carefree: when “El Cucuy” is on his feet, he is attempting to hurt his opponent through any means necessary; personal safety be damned. This is evidenced not only by the techniques he employs but by the range he chooses to force upon his opponent.

The overwhelming majority of combat sports competitors choose to engage from just outside of their opponent’s striking range, which means both athletes will have to “enter” into range if they wish to land blows. While they will have to move in to deal damage, their opponent will have to as well, which provides them time and space to defend. Tony Ferguson does not abide by this tradition. Instead, he prefers to find this “safe” range, then take one step in, placing his opponent (and himself) within touching distance. This creates a scenario where the two fighters are locked in a constant striking range. Take a look at this clip, and notice how close Ferguson and Anthony Pettis are: a result of Ferguson’s preference for this close range.

This range was consistent throughout Ferguson and Pettis’s fight, packing the mere two rounds they shared with more excitement and action than most five-round bouts.

In both the above clips, the fighters are locked in an ever-continuous exchange of strikes; this is not a sporadic occurrence in Tony Ferguson’s bouts, as his constant forcing of the close range creates a scenario in which both fighters can hit each other at will. Dealing with this pressure from Ferguson is absolutely exhausting: many fighters are unable to keep up and are often completely exhausted in the later rounds, as Ferguson walks them down with the violent tenacity of Jason Voorhees stalking a Camp Crystal Lake counselor.

Along with relentless pressure, Tony Ferguson will look to utilize an arsenal of strikes that are very dangerous, both for him and his opponent. Throughout his career, he has shown a fondness for the teep (a front kick to the midsection), often throwing it with his hands swinging down and his chin high. Keeping the hands low allows him to throw his body weight into the kick, but obviously comes at the cost of protecting his head.

 

This strike is not only very painful, but it is perhaps one of the most powerful body strikes available. Body shots are notorious for sapping a fighter’s cardio, which when combined with Ferguson’s pressure, results in Ferguson typically having substantially more energy than his opponent at the end of the bout.

While the teep is Ferguson’s favorite way to strike the body, his preferred method of attacking the head is with a lead hand uppercut, an extremely effective, yet risky strike.

Although fast and powerful, the lead hand uppercut is rarely seen in MMA as it leaves the attacker extremely vulnerable to counters, as they have no means of protecting their skull. Coupled with Ferguson’s tendency to leave his chin high when striking, it is no mystery why he has been countered and rocked in every one of his recent fights. Here we see Kevin Lee take advantage of Ferguson committing his hand to the lead uppercut, as Lee counters with a one-two.

As noted, the style of striking employed by Tony Ferguson, one of an almost reckless abandonment, has rightfully earned him a reputation as a wild man. Through his employment of risky striking techniques from a constant in-close range, it would appear that Ferguson’s only mission is to hurt his opponent as much as possible, even if that means he has to take substantial risks and damage in the process.

The D’Arce Knight Rises

Any discussion of Tony Ferguson’s grappling would be entirely deficient if it didn’t center around Ferguson’s favorite submission, the D’Arce choke. The D’Arce is a head and arm strangle where the attacker overhooks the opponent’s arm and neck, and then locks a figure four grip to seal the victim’s fate. Tony Ferguson is without a doubt the most proficient D’Arce choker on the UFC roster: he has used the submission to submit Mike Rio, Lando Vannata, and Edson Barboza.

Ferguson uses the D’Arce extensively for the same reason it is seldom used by other fighters: it is risky. Notice how in the clip above, Ferguson throws himself under Mike Rio in order to lock the submission. If Rio were to escape, he would now have the coveted top position. Most fighters are not inclined to risk giving up top position, and would instead look to circle around their opponent and take the back, a much more conventional and safe approach. But just like with his striking, Tony Ferguson is anything but “conventional,” and he certainly can’t be described as “safe.”

One advantage of Ferguson’s willingness to take risks by pursuing the D’Arce choke is that it allows him to attack from during transitions, while the standard grappling strategy of establishing a dominant position would not. In the finish of Mike Rio above, Ferguson was able to submit his opponent within seconds of his takedown attempt. If a standard strategy was being employed, Ferguson would have to circle around to a ride, break down his opponent, insert the hooks, and start to work for the Rear Naked Choke. While seeking a dominant position is the preferred approach to grappling for Mixed Martial Arts, it is a laborious, time-consuming task that eats up a fighter’s precious time and energy. The D’Arce allows Ferguson to “cut the line” and go straight for the submission, with the tradeoff of an increased penalty for failure. Being the absolute madman that he is, Ferguson takes this risk without thinking twice.

Take a look at how Ferguson’s was able to wrap up Vannata in the D’Arce while they were on their feet. If he was looking to employ a traditional grappling style of takedown the opponent, pass their guard, establish a dominant position, and then work for a submission, that would require substantially more time and effort than attacking with the D’Arce. Instead, Ferguson was able to finish the fight merely because his opponent ducked his head a tad too low during a clinch engagement.

Although they are obviously comprised of different techniques, Tony Ferguson’s grappling and striking games originate from the same philosophy. “El Cucuy” is trying to finish his opponent from bell to bell, regardless of whether the fight is standing or on the floor, and he is willing to take exuberant risks in order to facilitate his chances of finishing. Whether this means he is throwing lead hand uppercuts with his chin up high, or diving under his opponent to pursue a D’Arce Choke, the reckless abandonment pursued by Ferguson makes him incredibly dangerous and spectacularly entertaining.

With that being said, Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone seems to thrive off the presence of danger – it’s what he named his son after all. While it may be difficult to predict which man walks away the victor, one doesn’t need precognition to determine that “the people’s main event” will be an absolutely electrifying bout that is reflected upon for years to come. Before we depart out this video of Ferguson detailing how his D’Arce and lead hand uppercuts work together, and be sure to keep an eye out for them at UFC 238.

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