Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje before UFC 249

No one has defined “treading water” quite like Tony Ferguson in the last couple years, waiting for his shot at the lineal belt; every time that the fight has been granted to him, the circumstances have undone it, and he’s turned back the men looking to take his spot reliably (and often with extreme brutality).

Without being a champion, Ferguson might be the most proven man in MMA; the more he’s been forced to prove himself, the messier it’s gotten, but he’s come out the other side each time with one more win added to a winstreak that merited a title shot half-a-decade ago.

He’ll receive a belt if he wins at UFC 249, but that isn’t the important part (the belt is of the kind that barely matters at all); not only is his opponent the kind to fully test Ferguson’s terrifically messy approach, he’s also the ticket to Ferguson getting his bout with Khabib Nurmagomedov booked for a sixth time.

For Justin Gaethje, the fight with Tony Ferguson is an unexpected opportunity, but one he deserved; after a pair of setbacks against two of the strongest boxers that 155 has ever seen, Gaethje has faced three easy matchups on paper and absolutely flattened each one.

With Dustin Poirier losing to the champion and Eddie Alvarez out of the promotion, Gaethje’s path to a title shot is somewhat clearer; even if the Ferguson fight hadn’t come together, Gaethje was right on the cusp of a shot at the winner of Nurmagomedov/Ferguson, and his eliminator would’ve come against someone like Conor McGregor.

With this new development, Gaethje can put the nails in the coffin of Ferguson/Nurmagomedov, and make a bid for the undisputed belt himself.

Tony Ferguson crushes Anthony Pettis
Tony Ferguson lands a left hook against Anthony Pettis (Getty Images)

El Cucuy

Tony Ferguson’s path to UFC 249 has been a very unique one, one that a proven top-contender doesn’t deserve; frankly, both the UFC and life itself have been untenably unfair to the Californian, whose efforts to capture the undisputed 155 belt have been cut off at the pass by freak-situation after freak-situation.

Had his bout with Khabib Nurmagomedov started at UFC 223, Ferguson would be known as the undisputed 155 champion, if only until that fight ended; his interim was set to be promoted as Conor McGregor was stripped, only for an injury to convince the UFC to simply pretend his interim belt was never won at all. He’s since finished both Anthony Pettis and Donald Cerrone, but this latest test means more than both; Gaethje is not a past-prime pushover for the elite, but another elite himself, and a win for Ferguson could easily end up his best. More importantly, it could set up yet another crack at Nurmagomedov, ideally one that wouldn’t evaporate before his eyes.

For such an ironclad-elite fighter on paper, though, Ferguson’s showings have been bizarrely shaky; back to Lando Vannata, Ferguson’s all-out aggression has gotten him in trouble, as he’s not a defensively-minded fighter. Even Ferguson’s layups against Pettis and Cerrone had some odd moments; Ferguson ran right into Pettis’s only counterpunch, and Cerrone was allowed to spend a round jabbing and left-hooking Ferguson before it all spiraled out of his control. What “El Cucuy” does better than anyone else is endure those moments and turn the fight into a marathon that his opponent can’t possibly win; insofar as pure attrition and pace, Ferguson is the best of the best. This centers around a couple tools, in conjunction with an absolutely unrelenting pace; the first is his jab, and the second is the snap kick to the body.

As a jabber, Ferguson is active and accurate, if not particularly responsible; Ferguson’s jab was countered even by fighters like Donald Cerrone, as he doesn’t take defensive measures off it and often fires it from a squared stance, but it works down the stretch just as a function of volume and enthusiasm. It keeps his opponent reactive and allows him to draw counters, and Ferguson’s solid at punishing what he expects; one of the best examples of Ferguson’s jab was in the aforementioned Cerrone fight, where he drew Cerrone onto a spinning elbow by jabbing out one of his shifting combinations.

Ferguson can build off the jab with his elbow game and can use it to back his opponent up, where he opens up further with swarming combinations against the fence (as seen against Pettis); however, when he’s fencing at range, the other important component of his striking comes into play.

Ferguson is an active leg-kicker, but his most effective kick is likely to the gut, which furthers his goal of exhaustion nicely. The final objective of Ferguson is to get his opponent to make a mistake out of that exhaustion and pressure, which is where his grappling comes in; in particular, Ferguson’s d’arce from the front-headlock makes regular appearances, precisely because so many of his opponents shoot haphazardly into it.

Ferguson’s process is well-defined, even if it’s done aggressively and weirdly; however, it relies quite a bit on his ability to take punishment, and this is something that has been tested quite a bit in his recent career. Ferguson’s biggest discrete flaw might be his footwork, which he has a tendency to outright ignore; as a fighter who relies a lot on staying in his opponent’s face, his positioning is paramount when they strike back, but this is something that Ferguson has never placed a premium on. This compromises his defense against fighters like Anthony Pettis, who tried the same kick-punch combo through the first two rounds, and finally found it early in the second for a knockdown; Ferguson is constantly in the path of danger, and his game doesn’t mitigate that, it ignores it.

Also of concern is Ferguson’s state coming into this fight; he’s 36, been fighting once a year, and the last elite man he’s faced was dos Anjos in 2016. His first-rounds were never strong as an attrition fighter, but they’ve been getting shakier and shakier, even against other slow-starters like Cerrone. Ferguson’s winstreak is spectacular, but Gaethje is more important to his standing as an elite than many believe.

Justin Gaethje strikes Dustin Poirier in a lightweight UFC bout
Justin Gaethje strikes Dustin Poirier in a lightweight UFC bout (Getty Images)

The Highlight

The emphasis on Gaethje as an action-fighter is somewhat misplaced, but it does seem to be going away a bit; after taking apart Donald Cerrone in 4 minutes, the public seems to have given Gaethje some more respect as a contender, even though Gaethje’s best win was likely the very first one he got in the UFC (over Michael Johnson).

At this point, Gaethje’s been feasting on layups since 2018, and this is something that he and Ferguson have in common; however, unlike Ferguson, the layups that Gaethje’s been facing look like nothing more than layups. Vick and Barboza and Cerrone all got wrecked in under a round a piece, and it has left Gaethje in position to answer the opportunity that came his way for UFC 249. Gaethje becoming an “official” beltholder here aside, what makes this potential win relevant for Gaethje goes beyond just a shot at a lineal belt; he has the opportunity to snap the most numerically-impressive winstreak of the era.

Gaethje is a very-fast-starting pressure-puncher, and this fact alone was enough to put James Vick and Edson Barboza away; however, Gaethje’s losses and his fight against Johnson were far more instructive in terms of how his game works under stress. What makes Gaethje special is a couple things; beyond being a terrific athlete and a glutton for punishing fights, he’s a sound and methodical pressurer, and his defense/counterpunching support this approach very well.

The former is a function of his footwork, where he’s a fantastic cage-cutter who can herd his opponent into sweeping strikes to halt their momentum; the Vick and Barboza finishes came from that ability, but he also walked them back to the fence with aplomb, pushing them back with a jab (which was also a useful tool against Alvarez) and cutting off their exits. Gaethje’s pressure opens up his counterpunching if his opponent looks to alleviate it, but it also opens up his clinch if they acquiesce and sit against the fence; Gaethje’s work from collar-ties is frightening in the open, and against the fence, it was enough to break down the historically durable Johnson inside two rounds.

If his opponent strikes back, though, Gaethje is terrific as a counterpuncher, one of the very best at 155 (along with McGregor and Abdul-Aziz Abdulvakhabov). In theory, this is surprising, because of his preferred defensive tactic; what Gaethje became notorious for after his two losses was a reliance on the high-guard, which allowed fighters like Alvarez and Poirier to draw it and punch around it (including to the body, for Alvarez). However, both were countered consistently in the process with both leg-kicks that knocked then out of stance mid-combo (counterkicking is rare in MMA and Gaethje’s good at it) and with slick catch-and-pitch or slip counters.

Against opponents who couldn’t box with him at all, Gaethje’s high-guard hasn’t been seen as much; he’s been much more content to move his head and extend frames that could create collar-ties off obstructions of his opponent’s blow. Gaethje’s high-guard heavy-aggression method was more an answer to boxers that would destroy him given space than a stock tactic, at least in his UFC career.

As such, Gaethje’s flaws are less pervasive than many think; it takes genuine craft and comfort in the pocket to beat him there, he’s just there a lot and it makes him run that risk. Gaethje can outpace himself at times and short-notice makes that more likely, and bodywork has gotten many of his opponents far, but no man has come out of a Gaethje fight without some damage to show for it.

Justin Gaethje stops Donald Cerrone in the first round at UFC Vancouver
Justin Gaethje stops Donald Cerrone in the first round at UFC Vancouver (Getty Images)

Conclusions And Capping

Fairly straightforward pick, it seems. Gaethje is a monstrous puncher and a fast starter, and Ferguson is far too positionally irresponsible to trust him to survive consistently; this is made worse by Ferguson’s streak being somewhat bereft of strong counterpunchers, with the exception of RDA, against whom Ferguson could eat the counter and keep going with volume anyway. The other thing to watch out for with regard to that fight is how different Ferguson has looked since; he wasn’t nearly as thoughtful against Cerrone or Pettis at dictating the range as he was against RDA, and there’s reason to think Ferguson’s on the decline. If he walks into the pocket squared against Gaethje, it isn’t something he’s likely to walk away unhurt from (as Cerrone learned every single time he tried to blitz), and Cerrone had too much success kicking Ferguson at range to think Gaethje won’t.

Does he have paths? Of course he does. Kicking the body of Gaethje, jabbing responsibly to draw his high-guard and work from there with elbows and bodywork, and trying to use his breadth-of-attack as a substitute for the depth of Poirier or Alvarez in the pocket, he could outlast “The Highlight” and wear him down. The short-notice of Gaethje could help greatly for Ferguson, and Ferguson’s the problem-solver to eventually find his way into the fight if Gaethje starts to slow. But to do that, he has to survive first, and Gaethje is too unforgiving to trust that.

Prediction: Gaethje via KO1. Cap Gaethje at -200.

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