UFC 249: What’s it like to fight Tony Ferguson? ‘It was painful, man’

Tony Ferguson waded in with a left knee to the body. Josh Thomson saw it the whole way. He wrapped his arms fully around Ferguson and dumped him to the mat for an easy takedown in the first round of their 2015 fight.

Thomson was in control, or so he thought.

Ferguson used the momentum from Thomson’s technique and exploded quickly into a front roll. Before Thomson could even process what had just happened, Ferguson was up on his feet, ready to resume his attack.

“I shot a double leg — probably one of the deepest double legs I’ve ever hit on anybody,” Thomson told ESPN. “Hit him right to a [takedown]. He did a tuck and a roll and came right back up to his feet. I stood back and was like, ‘This is crazy.’ After that I decided, ‘OK, wrestling may not be the way to go.'”

Thomson, the former Strikeforce lightweight champion — and one of the best 155-pounders of his era — fought Ferguson at UFC San Diego on July 15, 2015. Ferguson won by unanimous decision for his sixth straight victory. Thomson wasn’t just handed a loss, either. In addition to that humbling moment on the takedown attempt, Thomson ended up with about 30 stitches on his head and face, as well as forearm pain that took weeks to heal.

“The sad thing is, [the takedown attempt] was a lot of effort to put out for something he pretty much gave me, so he could roll out and that pretty much changed the way I approached the fight,” Thomson said. “And that was in the first round.”

Five years later, Ferguson is still on a winning streak — 12 straight now. And he’s still making opponents shake their heads. On Saturday, Ferguson faces Justin Gaethje for the UFC interim lightweight title in the main event of UFC 249 in Jacksonville, Florida. Ferguson (25-3) is known for his unorthodox approach to fighting and sometimes extreme training tactics. But what makes the Californian so different in the Octagon? ESPN asked several of Ferguson’s former opponents what it’s like to be in the cage with one of the most unique combatants in MMA history.

Editor’s note: Answers have been edited for clarity.

Josh Thomson (lost to Ferguson via unanimous decision at UFC San Diego on July 15, 2015)

When I first shook his hands at weigh-ins, I didn’t realize how big his hands were. When we shook hands, his hand went all the way around my hand. Honestly, he doesn’t really hit that hard when I take into consideration guys that I’ve been hit by. He’s not that physically strong, but he has that length and that leverage.

When we got into the fight, he actually grabbed me at the forearm and slid his hand down to where my glove is. There was no way of me getting out. His hand went all the way around my wrist, all the way around my forearm. That all kind of plays into his jiu-jitsu, his control on the ground. All these types of things when he needs to utilize these positions.

There were a lot of things I expected from him. I expected good cardio, I expected a relentless pace. I expected that push kick. I didn’t expect it to have as much power as it had behind it. I thought the push kick — I’ll just block it, catch it a couple times, whatever it may be. I did catch it, but when you catch it, he’s throwing combinations off of it. My forearm was swollen from blocking that push kick for probably about two weeks. I couldn’t put my forearm down. You know when you sit at the dinner table and you rest your forearms on the side of the table? Couldn’t do that. It was painful, man.

I had very, very few cuts in my 32-fight career. I want to say by the end [of the night after fighting Ferguson] I probably had close to 30-something stitches on my face. I had 20 on that big cut on the side of my head that actually dropped me. There’s a lot that people can prepare for, but that amount of blood and that amount of cuts, that’s not something most people can handle.

Yves Edwards (lost to Ferguson via unanimous decision at TUF 14 Finale on Dec. 3, 2011)

Now that I see him in the cage and I see some of the things he says and does, I’m not surprised by what happened. He’s definitely a wild one. There are some things when we fought that were like, how does that make sense? He’s orthodox and I’m southpaw. And he’s throwing that inside leg kick, hard and viciously. But he isn’t trying to kick my thigh. He’s literally going down to my shin.

I have a good check. You’re throwing that inside kick, you don’t pick up the leg and turn it over. You just roll the ankle over and turn it in like you’re throwing a hook. He throws that kick and I turn my knee over to check it and we go shin to shin. I’m thinking to myself, “Why the f— would you do that? That s— hurts, now we’re both f—ed up. But I can’t show you this.” So I keep fighting. He did that two or three times.

If I do that and it hurts me horribly, I’m not gonna continue to do that same thing. I’m trying to damage you, not myself. He just feels that and keeps moving forward. He’s just evolved from there. He’s become more and more vicious, more and more calculated. And the cardio that he has — it’s hard to put him down and keep him down. I don’t think he has a higher threshold for pain. I think he enjoys it. I don’t know if it’s one of those things that makes him feel alive or maybe he enjoys the fact that he can out-suffer you.

Anthony Pettis (lost to Ferguson via second-round TKO at UFC 229 on Oct. 6, 2018)

He just really wants to win, bad. I hit him with a right hand — kick, punch, dropped him. He did a front roll. His skill level and the way he does his standup is different. He doesn’t come at you the traditional kickboxing way. He doesn’t come at you with any kind of style — it’s like his own style. He mixes in breakdancing with it. It’s really hard to prepare for and also he’s nonstop with it, the elbows, the punches.

His recklessness is why he wins, too. I caught him and I tried to kill him and I broke my hand, and that’s what cost me the fight. He takes the hits and he likes that. It’s part of his game plan, to get hit and hit back. That being said, though, he does get hit, and Gaethje has that knockout power. So this is a great fight. If Gaethje catches him and puts him away, that’s the only way he beats him: knockout.

Kevin Lee (lost to Ferguson via third-round submission at UFC 216 on Oct. 7, 2017)

There was so much pressure going into the fight. It seemed like he didn’t really get as bothered by the pressure as much as me. I think that is what kind of shined through. When s— was really, really starting to boil down, he just started to go with it. And that’s something I’m trying to figure out myself. That fight was the eye-opener for me. He was able to tune everything else out the way I couldn’t.

He’s confident in who he is and what he’s got going on. That’s the only way he can do the weird s— that he does. He just truly don’t give a f— what anybody else thinks. I think it’s the confidence, more than anything. That goes a long way into being a great fighter, having that confidence. It’s different, that’s for sure.

Lando Vannata (lost to Ferguson via second-round submission at UFC Sioux Falls on July 13, 2016)

He’s very much a pressure fighter, in your f—ing face, pushes everybody back. I took the fight on short notice. In the second round, I was like, “I’m probably not gonna win this fight because I’m absolutely exhausted. So I’m just gonna walk this dude down and get a little moral victory.” It was a good lesson to fight him. It was fun. I enjoyed it, even though I lost.

It’s his mentality. That’s what makes him stand out. It makes him train to the point where he’s training harder than anybody else that’s around him and I’m sure 99% of guys in the UFC. He doesn’t get tired and has this unshakable confidence. Even with his skill set that’s real weird and leaves him exposed a lot, he gets away with it because of the shape he’s in and because of the confidence he brings.

I think Tony is on the same wavelength of delusion of great athletes. They think they’re untouchable, they think they’re the best. They think they’re destined and all that s—. It’s really, really good while things are going good. It wins a lot of championships and inspires a lot of confidence. But it’s a world that’s easy to shatter.

Gleison Tibau (lost to Ferguson via first-round submission at UFC 184 on Feb. 28, 2015)

I took the fight on short notice. His opponent fell off and the UFC asked me to step in. I had a tough weight cut. Then I had to fight Tony Ferguson. That was a bad idea. That was stupid. I’ll never do something like that again.

It was hard to figure out what he was gonna do. It’s a different style, not everybody is gonna understand. It wasn’t normal Muay Thai or boxing. Different style — “Tony Style.”

Ferguson’s grappling, if he was competing in jiu-jitsu, it’s not high-level jiu-jitsu. But for MMA, it’s very good. I didn’t think Tony was very strong coming into the fight, but yes, he was. He’s a good wrestler and he’s strong, too. That was a big surprise for me.

Donald Cerrone (lost to Ferguson via second-round TKO at UFC 238 on June 8, 2019)

Nothing unique about Ferguson other than my eye swelling up in the second round, fighting him with one eye. Coming out of the third round, I’m kind of glad they called the fight, because fighting Tony with one eye probably would have been not so good. He has good pressure, man. He has good punch volume.

Mike Rio (lost to Ferguson via first-round submission at UFC 166 on Oct. 19, 2013)

He threw me off because he was awkward and long and he knew how to use that. And he’s dangerous both on his feet and down on the mat. I think Ferguson will beat Khabib Nurmagomedov if that fight ever happens, and I think he will beat Gaethje.

I wasn’t in there long with him, but in that time I couldn’t find a clear opening to attack. It was weird. He stayed out of range from me hitting him but was still able to connect with his strikes. I remember being mad because I thought I was out of his range, but he would still connect.

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