With Dustin Poirier’s sensational win over featherweight king Max Holloway in April, the next big lightweight bout has been set: Poirier will face undisputed king Khabib Nurmagomedov to unify the lightweight championship.
The man left out in the cold by all that is Tony Ferguson; formerly the interim champion before injury caused that to go away, “El Cucuy” has no real option but to extend his winstreak to 12 before he’s booked against the undisputed champ (whoever it may be). Opportunities at the real championship (and Nurmagomedov) have slipped through his fingers time after time, but a win over Donald Cerrone would ensure that there’s very little left to book for him. Ferguson has seemed undeniable before and then been denied, but taking out yet another top contender would only strengthen his case.
Meanwhile, Donald Cerrone has gone through a renaissance that really isn’t common among fighters with his longevity; “Cowboy” has been with Zuffa for a very long time, he’s risen and fallen and risen again, and is somehow back on the brink of a title shot at his original weight class. When Leon Edwards shut him out, it seemed like the end of Cerrone’s time as even an elite-level gatekeeper; his wins over Perry and Hernandez were nice, but they didn’t really seem to portend a return to serious contendership (more that the fighters he beat still had a long way to go).
The win against Al Iaquinta was a different matter; while “Raging Al” was far from an established top contender, he was a tough and skilled opponent off an excellent win, and Cerrone absolutely battered him. A few short weeks later (in typical Cerrone fashion), “Cowboy” re-enters the cage to look to cement a second title opportunity at lightweight against one of the scariest fighters in the division.
Snap Down City
Tony Ferguson has put together an extremely strong winstreak at one of the strongest divisions in the UFC, he’s only not fought for the undisputed championship because of multiple unlucky breaks, and yet moments in his recent performances belie all of that sustained success. Ferguson has shown to be the better fighter than every one of his last 11 opponents, but he also spends long periods fighting to the level of his competition, and that leaves his winstreak rock-solid (in terms of proving his merit as a top fighter) but also at risk of slipping away at any time. A win over Donald Cerrone likely wouldn’t make any points about his skill that the wins over dos Anjos or Pettis didn’t, but it would keep him in position to face the winner of Nurmagomedov/Poirier (penciled in for later this year).
Ferguson’s best weapon is pure pace, and while he’s built a skillset to accentuate that advantage, it also often leads to dangerous recklessness. Ferguson is a conceptually-sound and extremely aggressive pressure fighter (one who can convince even other great pressurers like Rafael dos Anjos to find another way to deal with him), but he’s technically fairly messy in that respect; Ferguson is far from a textbook pressure-fighter, shifting and narrowing his stance fairly regularly as he moves up, and can often get away with it due to sheer aggression.
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That said, against opponents who concede the front foot to him, Ferguson is a menace; “El Cucuy” brings a very good snap-kick to the body to force his opponent back as he gasses them out, he’s liberal with elbows on the feet, but his best tool is probably the jab. Ferguson isn’t always diligent in leveraging his jab, as he starts extremely slowly (both offensively and defensively, which often allows his opponents to look good for a while before they start to get drowned), but it’s a spearing one that does as much to hurt and disrupt his opponent as anything else; while he can often be found too concerned with pushing a pace to do anything but brawl, Ferguson’s fights often change tone in his favor when the jab appears. Defensively, Ferguson is also a mixed bag; he’s gotten cracked hard by opponents as favorable as Pettis while pushing forward, but in a battle at range, Ferguson has often showed solid slips and his pressure serves to crowd kickers like Barboza and Pettis nicely.
In a way, Ferguson’s entire standing game is a way to set up his grappling; while “El Cucuy” can wrestle, he prefers to convince his opponent that grappling with him is less dangerous than standing with him. Truthfully, if there’s a difference, it’s a fairly small one; Ferguson is an extremely capable grappler from every position. On top, Ferguson tends to work for the d’Arce; he can find the front headlock off a defended takedown (as he did to Barboza) or grab a choke on the feet and transition from there (as he did to Vannata). Ferguson also has one of the more unique offensive-guards in the sport, using the position to find both submissions and genuinely hurting strikes (both on display against Kevin Lee). The key to Ferguson’s game is essentially that his opponent has no place to rest, and that remains true throughout 25 minutes.
Donald Cerrone’s move back to lightweight originally seemed somewhat like a desperation move, one that wouldn’t yield much success; generally, hopping weight classes (as deep as Cerrone is into his UFC tenure) is less a calculated move and more an attempt to keep a declining career afloat, and cutting more weight didn’t seem like it would be a solution to Cerrone’s problems at 170. However, Cerrone has somehow been revitalized since the move, knocking off solid fighters left and right; despite moving to a deeper division, “Cowboy” is knocking on the door of the elite once again. His first title shot at 155 went extremely poorly, a 1:06 loss to the great Rafael dos Anjos; with a win over Ferguson at 238, Cerrone can earn another title crack that ideally goes much better for him.
Cerrone tends to work best as an outside-kicker given the front foot, who can run drive his opponent back with his hands before ending with a kick as they retreat. Cerrone isn’t a particularly good boxer, though; in general, he runs forward alternating hands just to push his opponent back, and he’s shown a jab (Barboza, Iaquinta) but not a particularly nuanced one. Cerrone’s switch-head kick has become his staple, knocking out fighters as good as Matt Brown and shattering the jaw of John Makdessi (prompting a no-mas), but his more reliable work tends to be attritional; Cerrone ate into the lead leg of Iaquinta with his kicks, and his intercepting-knee to the body has changed the tune of a few fighters too eager to crash the pocket.
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Cerrone is also a strong and aggressive grappler from the top and the bottom, and can shoot well enough to alleviate uber-aggressive pressure (as he did early against Hernandez). That said, a good pressure game has always brought the worst traits out of Cerrone; Darren Till showed it most efficiently, pushing Cerrone back and beating him up with left-straights, where Masvidal was probably the craftiest, entering behind feinted kicks to throw off the timing of the knee and jabbing Cerrone up. Cerrone has also shown vulnerability to the body, both in terms of defense and in terms of being able to take it; Cerrone stands tall most of the time and it leaves him easily accessible in the pocket to the body, and dos Anjos and Pettis got him out quickly by kicking him in the gut. Cerrone’s skillset tends to lead to dominant wins over favorable opponents (like Hernandez, who ate the knee a few times and backed off, unable to keep Cerrone from running him down), but his clear weaknesses also result in catastrophic losses against unfavorable ones; 238 will tell which one Ferguson is.
Conclusions and Capping
Ferguson’s consistent defensive issues (even against opponents like Pettis) keep this fight from being capped too wide, but the matchup mostly seems a nightmare for Cerrone. Ferguson is likely to push Cerrone backward after both warm up (both Ferguson and Cerrone classically start fairly slow), which hampers a great deal of Cerrone’s preferred offense, and Cerrone’s vulnerability to the body is naturally exploited by Ferguson’s aggressive snap-kicking. When he has a foe against the fence, Ferguson is a monster, and Cerrone has never done particularly well at the end-stage of a good pressure game; especially after Ferguson finds his jab, Cerrone will likely have trouble keeping Ferguson off him with just the knee, and Cerrone’s takedown game will be going against a grappler just as dangerous as him. Ferguson could just get hit hard early and not recover like he has previously, but as the fight develops, it’s fairly difficult not to see it turning Ferguson’s way.
Prediction: Ferguson via TKO2. This writer caps Ferguson at -190.
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Tony Ferguson vs. Donald Cerrone is a featured bout on the main card of the upcoming UFC 238 pay-per-view fight card. UFC 238 is exclusively available via the ESPN+ streaming service for UFC fans in the United States. Learn more.