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UFC 229: Khabib vs. McGregor – Tony Ferguson vs. Anthony Pettis Toe-to-Toe preview

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Tony Ferguson vs. Anthony Pettis co-headlines UFC 229 this October 6, 2018 at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.

One sentence summary

David: Not your average rat race.

Phil: Pretty vs Ugly, the battle of the Tonys

Stats

Record: Tony Ferguson 23-3 | Anthony Pettis 21-7

Odds: Tony Ferguson -335 | Anthony Pettis +305

History / Introduction to the fighters

David: Five hundred google docs later, we finally get to print some of the adverbs and adjectives we’ve used on Fergy (he seems like the kind of guy who would be comfortable with this nickname, right?). Times have been tough on Tony — especially for a fighter on a 10 fight winning streak. He won the UFC interim lightweight championship only to have it stripped away; after less than a year no less. But here he is again, trying to fight for the musical chairs of Superfluous Lightweight Belts. Against a fighter who has more or less been awful over the last several years but has the talent and groove to make this must-see-cage-tv.

Phil: Poor Tony Ferguson. He managed to make his way to the top through a harmonious combination of kicking ass and being incredibly weird, and then basically tripped off the summit. In the interim, we’ve had Khabib winning the belt against, um, Al Iaquinta, and the Dagestani is now in the process of collecting his McGregor payday. Meanwhile, Ferguson is back from a significant injury in a very compressed time frame (a year? Try five months), and only the results on Saturday will indicate if coming back that quickly was impressive, or just stupid. But that’s Ferguson: a living testament to the power of will and weirdness. Sort of like Diego Sanchez, but actually good (don’t @ me). Unsurprisingly, he’s shown up to 229 determined to steal the show in his own inimitable way

David: Pettis probably doesn’t deserve to be “here”, but since when has “deserve” had anything to do with it? The truth is, Pettis is one of the few fighters who has earned the benefit of the doubt. He’s a former champ, and fleeting Wheaties icon, which makes him the UFC’s cagefighting version of LFO if LFO had more than just Summer Girls. For LFO fans, that’s not facetiousness talking. Pettis is a veritable star in a universe where wrestling is outlawed in the cage. But for all of this silly talk, I still rank him pretty high, and unironically high on my list of most watchable fighters. The best part is that I think this is both the best, and worst matchup for him. Which means that since Khabib, Ferguson, and Pettis are all healthy, this fight will end like Bobby Southworth vs. James Irvin: a NC from both fighters falling from the cage.

Phil: The air of mystique around Anthony Pettis should have been destroyed. Rafael Dos Anjos abused him for five rounds, Max Holloway smoked him without much issue, and Edson Barboza (himself now something of a gatekeeper to the elite) dominated him at his own game. Yet still, whenever he pulls something off people look around asking themselves: is he back? Has he finally put it all back together into his championship form? It’s all a bit illusory, really: most of the fighters who beat him could handily take out any version of Showtime to ever step in the cage, but it’s notable how easily he can reignite the old magic. His moments of brilliance are so scintillating that it’s hard not to draw a bright line between them and perhaps the coolest goddamn moment in MMA. After a lot of injuries, and a lot of wear, and a fair few losses to elite talent, though, this feels like a matchup that he has to win to be seen as championship caliber material.

What’s at stake?

David: More than usual, since the card is stacked with lightweight contenders. That means a bad performance from both men could knock them the winner of Gray Maynard and Nik Lentz. Ho, ho. I honestly didn’t know Gray was still fighting.

Phil: Weirdly enough, Ugly Tony is actually three years older than his pulchritudinous counterpart, and he appears to be doing his catch up to Pettis when it comes to racking up injuries. Lightweight is a horrific division to fight to the top of: both saleability and actual fighting ability are at an absolute premium. The winner of this fight has a small chance of overtaking the Diaz-Poirier winner for a shot at the belt proper (particularly, unfortunately, if it’s Poirier), but they’re going to have to be pretty spectacular. The loser faces the unenviable opportunity of fighting their way back up through guys like Kevin Lee.

Where do they want it?

David: Ferguson is a case study in how ADHD fighting can be extremely effective. He’s the version of Pettis Pettis would be if Pettis were completely reptile-brained. His transitions are sometimes arbitrary. His striking doesn’t always have a proper rhythm. And his grappling is overactive. Inexplicably, this sometimes works; see his rolling anklepick from halfway across the octagon against Edson Barboza for proof. For all the talk about disruption in MMA, Ferguson is a closer approximation to whatever this postmodern bloviating in MMA analysis attempts to explain. His proficiencies work on an abstract level: forcing reactions from opponents out of sheer force of will. This uneven approach helps explain why he gets absolutely blitzed at times. Lando Vannata landed absolute heaters on him; Ferguson was literally barrel rolling across the cage just to stay alive. Then Ferguson began sticking him with a jab. A scramble later, and Vannata was getting D’Arced. Ferguson has good, fundamental skills though. His Cheater Arms allow him to punish opponents with a stiff jab, and he finds quick openings without much windup (i.e. the Ramsey Nijem KO). I don’t consider Ferguson a “smart” fighter in the traditional sense. On the feet, he’s wild, and off-kilter, but not in the jazz sense of the word. He takes risks. However, I do feel like he’s an intelligent “ring general”, if you will. He knows how to do more than transition, but caps off each transition with opportunistic, aggressive offense that keeps the fight in a motion that benefits him. He’s also just tough as hell. That always helps.

Phil: We’re going to talk about perhaps the fastest starter in MMA later on, when we discuss McGregor, but before then it’s time to discuss perhaps the slowest. Tony Ferguson is a sinewy scarecrow of weird aggression, but his prioritization of offense over defense and his tendency to try and read his opponents by throwing crazy nonsense at them has meant that he fights out of a hole in almost every bout he has. Once he’s gotten that first round out of the way, however, Ferguson is an absolute monster. He maximizes his range with a long, hard jab, kicking away the opponent’s base when they step inside and carving them up with elbows. He’s got a grappling game built off… funk rolls and snap downs? But it works. Back when he was getting held down by Danny Castillo it was curious to see him just constantly attack from his back rather than working his way back to his feet, but he’s clearly figured out how to make his grappling game work in a broader context. I agree with the comment on his ring generalship, too: he’s always struck me as a surprisingly thoughtful fighter, in his own completely nutso way. The pieces of his game don’t stick together in the ways that you expect, but he almost always employs them in an appropriate way for the fighter in front of him: putting RDA on the end of his reach, rushing down Barboza, and fighting Tibau from the outside.

David: A decade later, and Pettis is still functionally the same fighter. He’s a methodical, yet flashy striker with excellent jiu jitsu, but nothing in between. I’ve always appreciated Pettis’ game. It’s not just the cartwheel kicks and the creativity, but I appreciate his patient, technical approach. All that said, everything he does well he must do at his own pace. So as we’ve said, observed, and argued time and time again; get in his face, and his game shrinks. It wasn’t just Rafael dos Anjos who successfully bullrushed the artistry out of him; Gilbert Melendez was doing it too — at least for a round. Hell, you could make the case Jeremy Stephens did it before that (lazily, IMO: that fight was classic ‘lay and pray’). The point, as we’re won’t to make — Pettis still hasn’t learned how to create space for himself. His offense only ever penetrates, never truly punishes. His grappling reacts well, but doesn’t proactively engage. He’s not an inert fighter, but inertia is created out of his lack of urgency. Pettis is great in a vacuum, but the octagon is no vacuum; it’s ninja turtles all the way down.

Phil: Writing about certain fighters can often be a little repetitive, but it’s rare to encounter one who has such an perception of inconsistency about them which is so completely false. Nurmagomedov was dismissive of Pettis early, and he turned out to be brutally prescient (“You remember, I told you he’s no true champion. I told you before, Rafael dos Anjos can beat him, I can beat him, and a lot of fighters can beat him.”). In truth, there are just too many flaws in Pettis’ game for him. He has no offense in the clinch, his footwork is poor, he doesn’t move his head, and he’s a decent-not-great-wrestler. One or two of these flaws could be overcome with his incredible toughness and talent, but all of them together mean that it’s just too easy for opponents to assemble gameplans against him. On the plus side, he remains a ferocious submission threat, and he’s probably still the most purely dangerous kicker in MMA (aside from perhaps Luke Rockhold, or Tenshin Nasukawa, who probably doesn’t count). One underrated aspect of his game is that he’s also a fairly powerful, straight puncher. He’s not great at getting out of the way of return fire, but his one-two is clean and dangerous.

Insight from past fights

David: I don’t think Pettis has ever beat anyone with a profile like Ferguson. The one thing I’ll Pettis credit for in this fight, is that Pettis can outpoint Ferguson in the moments Ferguson will engage. Ferguson is always open for lead shots, counters, overhands, kicks, etc. Ferguson doesn’t is not a rapid fire combination striker. His syncs his offense more than chains it. As such, I think Pettis can find room for enough good strikes to make the bout more competitive than it is on paper. Same thing with the ground; Ferguson has excellent grappling, but Pettis has never been submitted, and I could see him catching Tony during a heated ground exchange. This momentary exchanges aren’t enough to bet on Pettis, but over time, I think they could make the difference in a best case scenario.

Phil: We mentioned earlier that Ferguson is a solid ring general, and that’s one of the essential elements he needs for this fight. In this case, Pettis’ best analogue is Edson Barboza, a man who beat him fairly handily at his own game. When Ferguson fought Barboza, he just rushed him down. Barboza landed his shots, but he was never able to brace and kick, and so won the first almost entirely off his boxing. Ferguson is, to reiterate, a terrible defensive fighter in the first frame, which spells quite a lot of risk against a man who remains one of the most deadly finishing threats around, but if Ferguson just plunges forward into boxing range again and again, he might walk onto Pettis’ punches, but he won’t be getting kicked in the head.

X-Factors

David: Well, Pettis made the weight so there goes that! Amirite??

Phil: Pettis looked just awful, didn’t he? The main X-factor has to be whatever awful injuries they’ve both got that they’re toughing through to make it onto this card and potentially get a last-minute call up for the McGregor payday.

Prognostication

David: I can never pick Pettis against elite competition. I just can’t. You really did a great job — British Ed Norton — of succinctly spelling it out; he’s not just a flawed fighter, but possesses a confluence of flaws. No amount of Matrix-like movements in the cage will ever cover for a veritable sum of inadequacies. Ferguson is the opposite. Even his flaws — like his defense, or lackthereof — are masked by his toughness and durability. Tony Ferguson by D’Arce, round 2.

Phil: Like you said, this is a “best and worst” matchup for Pettis. On the one hand, he’s up against one of the most defensively open elite fighters he’s going to get a shot at. If he’s going to get a miracle cage-leap tornado kick KO to propel himself back into title contention, it’s going to be against Tony Ferguson, and it’s going to be in the first round. Once that first round is over, though? This fight starts going downhill fast. He has just not shown himself to be capable of dealing with Ferguson’s clinch, or his pressure, or his boxing, or his pace. Pettis is still crazy tough, but Ferguson is a hell of a finisher. Tony Ferguson by submission, round 3.


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