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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC 216’s Tony Ferguson

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The man on the longest win streak in Lightweight history, Tony Ferguson, will face off with fast-rising star, Kevin Lee, for an interim strap this Saturday (Oct. 7, 2017) at UFC 216 inside T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Ferguson is bizarrely amazing. For four years and nine fights, Ferguson has salsa danced, somersaulted and brutalized his way to victory over some of the world’s best. He’s proven a definitively unique fighter, a man who most certainly has some flaws in his game yet nevertheless overcomes them often through sheer force of will. He’s the rare combination of being among the best in the world while also being absurdly fun to watch. With an absentee Conor McGregor as the official Lightweight kingpin, the belt Ferguson is fighting for could very easily be seen as the real thing.

Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:

Striking

This is no insult, but Tony Ferguson is not the first man the average fighter should seek to emulate. There are smart nuances to his game that everyone would be well-advised to pick up, sure, but his overall approach is one that only really works because of his insane physical attributes.

Above all else, Ferguson’s focus is damage. Much like Jon Jones once did, Ferguson is able to batter his opponents from the outside kicking range, boxing distance, and in-tight exchanges. Over time, he breaks them down and leaves them slow and hesitant.

Aside from his frame, the most important factor that allows this style to work is Ferguson’s physical and mental toughness. Ferguson gets hit. In his last fight, he spent much of the first round getting countered hard by Rafael dos Anjos, who is an excellent fighter by every measure. It wasn’t just punches either; dos Anjos ripped hard kicks to the body and swept Ferguson to the mat with clean low kicks.

In other bouts, those same techniques lead to the finish for “RDA.”

Opposite Ferguson, there was no visibly effect. Ferguson did not hesitate, stop pressuring or doing weird things, or really adjust in any significant way. That sounds like a bad thing on paper, but the result was that Ferguson slowly established himself as the pressuring fighter and took control of the fight. I’m sure that Ferguson’s legs and body hurt like hell the next day, but in the cage he was completely impassive (GIF).

With the type of shots dos Anjos — and in another similar example, Edson Barboza — was landing, every other fighter would have reacted. With Ferguson, you simply cannot expect to deter or slow him down in any way. Unless he’s unconscious, it’s simply not going to happen.

Starting from the furthest distance and working in, Ferguson’s kicks are a devastating part of his arsenal. Ferguson wastes little time at the start of the bout to boldly step toward his foe, and even experienced distance fighters have a tough time avoiding all of his strikes.

Since Ferguson is so aggressive and long, he’s almost always at range to land kicks. He has a bad habit of throwing kicks that aren’t full speed without any setup, which has gotten them caught and countered numerous times. Nonetheless, Ferguson’s disregard for the consequences allows him to land a ton of kicks.

Ferguson’s front kicks are particularly punishing. “El Cucuy” will walk his man down and jam snap kicks into his opponent’s mid-section, mixing his technique. By attacking with the lead and rear leg from both the Orthodox and Southpaw stances, Ferguson makes this kicks more difficult to block or parry. Ferguson will also raise one knee and fire off the other kick, similar to a crane kick.

These kicks are miserable. A well-placed snap kick is quite painful and saps energy, enabling Ferguson’s swarming game plan to play out more smoothly as his opponent covers up.

Additionally, Ferguson has punishing round kicks. He can kick powerful at all heights and mixes head/body kicks into his combinations well, but Ferguson really commits to his slamming low kicks (GIF), often to the inside of his foe’s leg. Between the low kick and snap kick, Ferguson’s strategy of breaking his opponent down starts from far out. Once the threat of both kicks are established, Ferguson’s leg feints become a serious threat that make it easier to land said kicks and more punches. Additionally, Ferguson digs to the calf often enough, further causing his opponent pain and limiting their mobility.

In the boxing range, Ferguson’s straight punches excel (GIF). His jab is quite powerful and has dropped opponents in the past, and his cross is a potential fight finisher as well. While Ferguson may be unconcerned about getting hit, he does move his head in the pocket and look for opportunities to pull strikes and counter with his cross (GIF).

Ferguson does a really nice job of mixing it up in the pocket. He switches stances very frequently and will flash out sudden punches either way. Ferguson will mix powerful hooks and looping punches into his offense as well, but this is where he tends to get a bit sloppy. Ferguson often leans into these blows hard, which leaves him vulnerable to counter punches and can leave him off-balance.

Ferguson gets away with it by being absurdly tough and comfortable in odd positions, but it’s still an opening.

As Ferguson moves another step closer to his opponent, elbows become his biggest weapon. In his wins over both Josh Thomson and Edson Barboza, elbows played a major part in his strategy. Opposite Thomson, Ferguson was out-landing his opponent, but having a difficult time really hurting the veteran. That all changed when Ferguson swung his elbow like a wrench into Thomson’s temple, rocking “Punk” badly (GIF). Throughout the rest of the fight, Ferguson looked for his elbows more often, controlling his opponent’s hand before collapsing his arm into an elbow strike.

Ferguson showed even more elbow variety in his next bout with Barboza. Opposite the Brazilian, Ferguson lunged towards his foe with upward and spinning elbows. In an attempt to keep Ferguson at bay, Barboza had been planting his feet and countering — admittedly to great effect, as Barboza landed plenty of hard punches — but that kept him in range.

It’s far easier to fully slip a punch than an elbow (GIF).

Wrestling

Ferguson wrestled throughout high school and college, but he’s much more of a counter wrestler than anything else. He’s willing to shoot for takedowns largely in an attempt to mix it up and remain unpredictable, but Ferguson’s defense is the most impressive aspect of his wrestling.

For the most part, Ferguson is an opportunist. If he’s able to catch one of his opponent’s kicks, he’ll quickly yank up the foot and look to drop his foe on his back. He’ll also occasionally level change into a single leg, looking to catch his foe off-guard and run the pipe.

Defensively, Ferguson is a difficult man to take down and even harder to control. His sprawl and defensive clinch work are solid, meaning that even strong shots are likely to fail unless set up very well. That said, Ferguson’s occasionally wild stand up can leave openings for reactive takedowns. In the situation where Ferguson’s initial line of defense is beaten — i.e. his opponent has gotten in on the hips or slipped to his back in the clinch — Ferguson relies on his scrambling abilities to escape.

The main key to scrambling and escaping bottom position is movement, which creates space. To that end, Ferguson is more than willing to forward and shoulder roll away from his opponent (GIF). This doesn’t always allow him to escape immediately, but it forces his opponent to expend energy and transition with the lanky grappler.

More often than not, Ferguson is able to break free of his opponent’s grasp.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

A Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, Ferguson has scored eight submission victories. “El Cucuy” is an aggressive submission fighter with a wide array of techniques, and his opportunistic nature is especially visible here.

As mentioned, Ferguson is a very nasty counter wrestler. To that end, his most effective technique is the d’arce. When his opponent shoots toward his hips, Ferguson is often able to sprawl and smash their head into the mat. By breaking his opponent’s posture, the d’arce suddenly becomes available, as a ducked head is an opening for a front choke (GIF).

The d’arce choke and Ferguson’s successful set ups are the subject of this week’s technique highlight.

In addition, Ferguson is very aggressive with his leg locks. He’ll attack with knee bars by rolling into them from standing or by going inverted from his back. From there, he can switch to heel hooks, foot locks, or more commonly look to sweep. On the whole, leg locks are his most effective bottom technique. Ferguson tries to play rubber guard and has used that position to hunt for arm bars and triangles, but he often ends up eating ground strikes for his trouble.

While on his back, Ferguson is truly excellent at damaging his opponent with ground strikes. He landed an upkick knockout on The Ultimate Fighter, but his game goes even further than that. While occupying his opponent with grappling, Ferguson finds small opportunities to whack his foe with hard punches and elbows. It’s a painful strategy that makes controlling him from top position an unpleasant task.

Lastly, Ferguson’s back control is quite dangerous. His length allows him to apply lots of hip pressure, and he does a very nice job of controlling his opponent’s wrist while punching or hunting for the choke. He will also switch things up by looking to trap an arm, often hunting for the crucifix and slamming home elbows.

Either way, Ferguson is crafty from that position, and his rear naked choke is a definite threat (GIF).

Conclusion

This is a long time coming for Ferguson, who has deserved a chance to fight for some kind of gold for a while now, but injuries to himself and his opponents prevented it. Win or lose, Ferguson does stand as a great example that even at this point in MMA, unorthodox techniques and strategies can still be hugely effective if applied by the right athlete.

*****

Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, is an amateur champion who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport’s most elite fighters..


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