Eight victories deep into an improbable run in one of the densest divisions in all of mixed martial arts, Tony Ferguson needed just one more to make his critics into believers.
One more win and Ferguson’s slim chances of fighting for the UFC lightweight title would be surrounded by an ocean of angry supporters rather than the critics who believed he hadn’t done enough to warrant the No. 1 spot.
One more win and Ferguson would not only become the first fighter in UFC history to win nine straight inside the bounds of the lightweight class, but he’d allow himself to stand head and shoulders above the rest of the well-deserving fighters also jockeying to share the Octagon with the division’s champion.
“El Cucuy” faced former UFC lightweight titleholder Rafael dos Anjos Saturday in Mexico City, hoping to become just the second man to defeat the Brazilian juggernaut since he first kicked off an improbable championship campaign of his own in 2014. With only a stunning first-round knockout from current champion Eddie Alvarez to prove dos Anjos was, in fact, a mortal man inside the Octagon, Ferguson clearly needed a standout performance to ensure his unblemished efforts over the past three years wouldn’t go to waste.
With virtually no room for error, Ferguson delivered. He fought the perfect fight against a fighter once considered the most dominant lightweight champion in UFC history. Five rounds later, there was no more doubting him.
In doing so, “El Cucuy” colored himself the scariest fighter in the lightweight division.
A designation with two folds, Ferguson’s boogeyman moniker is not only a compliment to his skill-set inside the cage, but a criticism of his popularity in a division that now features the biggest male star in the history of the sport.
The 32-year-old TUF winner proved Saturday that he is a true threat to any man he has or will share the cage with. Be it standout talents he’s already bested in dos Anjos or Edson Barboza, or elite contenders he’s destined to face in Khabib Nurmagomedov, Alvarez, Nate Diaz or Conor McGregor, Ferguson’s combination of fluid, competent boxing and craftily dangerous grappling makes him a tough out for anybody in the 155-pound class.
Unfortunately, the fact that he’s made it nine in a row without so much as receiving more than a moment’s consideration for a title shot further reminds us why he’s had to make it nine in a row. A fan favorite for his penchant for exhilarating violence and clutch finishes, “El Cucuy” is not a well-known commodity outside of the tight-knit MMA community.
He’s not a superstar like McGregor.
He doesn’t have the lightweight championship like Alvarez.
He doesn’t have the support of an entire country like Nurmagomedov.
He doesn’t have the growing fandom of Diaz.
He doesn’t have a rooted history as a champion like dos Anjos.
He, in many ways, presents a lose-lose situation for many of those competing at 155 pounds. He’s as dangerous an opponent as the division has to offer, yet provides would-be opposition little notoriety in the aftermath of a potential victory.
That’s why, despite making UFC history in Mexico City Saturday, he’ll likely need to go 10 straight before he finds himself in the blue corner of a fight for gold.
With McGregor getting the next shot at the lightweight crown one week removed from Ferguson’s big win, there’s no telling what could be next for the division. A win from the Irishman could put the division on hold indefinitely, as there’s no telling what his future inside the Octagon may hold. A loss from the “Notorious” one likely sets up Nurmagomedov, who was offered two separate contracts to face Alvarez at UFC 205 and UFC 206, as the next man in line.
Hell, even Diaz, who hasn’t fought at 155 pounds since defeating Michael Johnson last December and is just 2-3 in the lightweight division since 2012, could be a more fruitful option for a title shot heading into 2017 — be it McGregor or Alvarez at the helm when the time comes.
It’s been a long journey thus far for “El Cucuy,” but until he decides that talking his way into a title fight is a profitable avenue to take, he’ll likely need to stack his wins to unimaginable heights before they finally pay off.