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Tony Ferguson stepping into unfamiliar territory at UFC Fight Night 98

Tony Ferguson in action against Michael Johnson during their bout at UFC on Fox at the Izod Center in E. Rutherford, NJ on Saturday, May 5, 2012. Johnson won via unanimous decision. (AP Photo/Gregory Payan)
(AP Photo/Gregory Payan)

When Tony Ferguson steps inside of the Octagon at UFC Fight Night 98, he’ll have a unique opportunity like none other in his entire mixed martial arts career. The 32-year-old veteran will look to put his eight-fight divisional win streak to good use and hand former UFC lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos his second-straight loss. Remember, RDA most recently relinquished his title to Eddie Alvarez at UFC Fight Night 90 this past July.

While many casual fight fans miss the boat in recognizing Ferguson’s true ability inside of the cage, hardcore fans understand the journey he has traveled to get to this point. Ever since winning season 13 of The Ultimate Fighter by knocking out Ramsey Nijem in under four minutes, “El Cucuy” has been a work in progress. He has evolved his technical striking, grappling repertoire and patient approach to finishing fights, which has led to an incredible 11-1 promotional record, losing to only Michael “The Menace” Johnson back in 2012.

Still, as good as Ferguson has looked over the past few years, he will be stepping into unfamiliar territory when the cage door shuts this weekend in Mexico City. For all the fights and dangerous opponents Ferguson has encountered throughout his UFC tenure, this upcoming tilt opposite RDA will be one of a kind.

First off, Ferguson has never headlined a UFC event. He has been featured on three pay-per-view main cards (UFC 177, UFC 181 and UFC 184), but he has never seen a main event. Not even on a FOX Sports 1 card, which he has served as the co-main event on three separate occasions (all wins). Even his TUF 13 Finale appearance was overshadowed by the promotional debut of Anthony “Showtime” Pettis. So when it comes to capping off an event and having the pressure of performing as the top bill, “El Cucuy” has zero experience in that UFC department.

In turn, Ferguson has never competed in a five-round fight under the bright lights of the Octagon. As matter of fact, the world-class lightweight has only had one career fight in which he saw a fourth round. Everybody knows, especially those atop the most competitive weight class in all of MMA, that preparing for 25 minutes of action is completely different than preparing for 15 minutes of action.

The two-round difference often shakes up a fighter’s gameplan, forces them to hesitant in the early going and demands an entirely new level of concentration, conservation and calculation. While Ferguson is the quintessential professional who is more than capable of juggling these unexplored nuances of the fight game, they will be yet another thing he has to worry about when taking on a killer like dos Anjos.

Speaking of RDA, he’s actually going to be the first former UFC champion that Ferguson has ever faced, adding even more unfamiliarity to an already hectic situation. Ferguson has fought and beat the likes of Edson Barboza, Josh Thomson and Yves Edwards, but none of those guys ever made it to a No. 1 contender’s bout, let alone held a UFC title.

In that regard, Ferguson has never fought someone of RDA’s caliber. He has met top-ranked opponents and dangerous fighters who were once champions in other promotions (i.e. Thomson in Strikeforce), but a UFC champion is an entirely different breed of competitor. They’ve climbed the mountain before and understand more than anyone what it takes to stay on top. It’s a mentality that few guys possess and one that Ferguson must overcome to win his ninth fight in a row.

With so much at stake and everything to gain, Ferguson needs to be at an all-time best to get past dos Anjos at UFC Fight Night 98 this weekend. Add in the fact that it’s the first time “El Cucuy” is competing outside of the United States and at an altitude like Mexico City, and it becomes even more unlikely that Ferguson can out-strike a fierce destroyer or submit a guy who has never been tapped in his career.

But considering Ferguson has lost only once since 2009 and sports a finishing rate of 82 percent, can you really bet against him at this point?

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