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In all of the excitement surrounding the long-awaited return of Conor McGregor and the chaos surrounding his rivalry with UFC 229 opponent and current Ultimate Fighting Championship lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, we have forgotten an important missing link: Tony Ferguson. The former interim belt holder is apparently “cleared for combat,” according to his recent Instagram posts. A lot has changed in the most stacked and competitive division in all of mixed martial arts. So what world is he returning to at lightweight? What are his options now?
It’s understandable why the MMA community would let Ferguson fall out of their thoughts. His last performance in the Octagon, a submission win over Kevin Lee at UFC 216, was largely overshadowed by Lee’s weight cutting-related staph infection and Demetrious Johnson’s incredible Mighty Wiz-Bar. While Ferguson’s victory secured an interim title, the talk still centered on then-rightful champion McGregor and when he would come back to his primary sport.
Fight week for UFC 223 and Ferguson’s scheduled main-event spot versus Nurmagomedov started with a freak accident: Ferguson tripped over a cord in the Fox Studios, resulting in a catastrophic knee injury. As Ferguson-Nurmagomedov fell through for a record fourth time, public focus shifted to the back-and-forth opponent switches to replace him. With the news that Ferguson’s LCL had torn completely off the bone, and as the Dagestani held up his now-undisputed belt, it was even easier to forget. Add in a dolly-like projectile aimed at a charter bus full of fighters and the upcoming mega-fight between the undefeated Nurmagomedov and the Irish star for the 155-pound crown, and Ferguson has unfortunately become an afterthought. The return of Nate Diaz against the surging Dustin Poirier at UFC 230 at Madison Square Garden the following month -- believed to be a title eliminator -- has pushed the Ultimate Fighter winner further into the background.
That isn’t likely to last long. Ferguson entered injured reserve on the heels of a ridiculous 10-fight win streak that included seven stoppages and seven performance bonuses. Announcing his return to medical clearance with videos showing traditional martial arts katas and side planks stacked on upside down plyometric boxes makes it clear that the Oxnard, California, native has no plans on staying in the background. Without a doubt his return is welcomed, but reclaiming championship status, and the pay increase that comes with it, is an uphill battle in the current climate.
There are a plethora of great matchups left for Ferguson, the other two members of the lightweight champ trifecta being the obvious top choices. Any observer with the slightest concept of style matchups would do nothing less than smile and reach for their bank card if “El Cucuy” were placed opposite any of the four aforementioned fighters in the immediate title picture. Outside of that, his options either do nothing to further his profile or unnecessarily risk his official No. 2 contender status.
Ferguson versus either James Vick or former World Series of Fighting lightweight champion Justin Gaethje, who are scheduled to lock horns at UFC Fight Night 135, would be another chance to see exciting and unrelenting styles colliding. However, aside from keeping him active and most likely extending the win streak, Ferguson would not benefit much from it. Gaethje’s current two-fight skid and Vick’s introduction to top-10 opposition make them both poor opponents for Ferguson’s career trajectory.
Eddie Alvarez would make for another good opponent in the action department. He’s only three fights removed from being the top 155-pounder in the UFC. However, of those three fights, one was a no-contest with Poirier that was settled with a devastating TKO in a rematch just weeks ago. Also, Alvarez fulfilled his contractual obligations to the UFC and depending on how negotiations go, may no longer find himself on the roster.
Kevin Lee and Edson Barboza both had highly competitive and exciting fights with Ferguson. However, they both found themselves tapping to his dangerous submission game. Despite the fact that both bouts were not without their fair share of oohs, ahhs and controversy in the form of Lee’s aforementioned staph infection and an illegal upkick on Barboza, the images of those finishes are still too fresh. Lee’s loss was less than a year ago while Barboza is now on a two-fight losing streak. They would be at the bottom of the list as potential opponents for his return.
The only top-10 opponent left is fellow former champion Anthony Pettis. Pettis had a great showing against slight betting favorite Michael Chiesa at UFC 226. While his recent record has been spotty, the high-profile name and most recent result make him a good option for Ferguson. The unorthodox and dynamic striking attacks coupled with submission heavy grappling offense of both men would be pure bliss to watch and if Ferguson emerged victorious would be well worth the risk-to-reward ratio. Outside of a taking a winnable fight at welterweight, his sensible options remain limited.
However, in this injury-plagued, USADA-regulated and unstable sport, opportunities open up in an instant. Ferguson might be better served not rushing into a booking simply to fight again. Perhaps his time would be better spent being ready just in case. Both upcoming fights with immediate title implications have serious asterisks next to them. Nurmagomedov has had quite a history of missing scheduled bouts. Between issues making weight and consistent injury woes, it is no guarantee that “The Eagle” will be ready on Oct. 6. Between McGregor’s willingness to take on late-notice replacements, the lack of depth on the card and the promotion’s need to make a big splash with The Notorious’ return, Ferguson would be a great replacement in case something went wrong with the current champion.
Nate Diaz also has a colorful past in regards to attendance. The younger “209” brother has consistently butted heads with the UFC and has had two separate year-long layoffs in addition to his current two-year absence following the McGregor rematch at UFC 202. Judging by his late arrival and abrupt departure from the press conference announcing his rival’s return at UFC 229, and subsequent Tweet declaring that he wasn’t going to fight at UFC 230, it isn’t impossible to imagine Diaz not showing up in Madison Square Garden. An opening in a No. 1 contender bout is a no-brainer for Ferguson.
“El Cucuy” is gifted and cursed with being in such a talent-rich and fluid division. While his recovery from the knee injury went faster than many expected, it was still long enough for business as usual to carry on. When your counterparts in the division are the biggest superstar the sport has ever seen, the key to the huge Russian fanbase and MMA’s version of a counter-culture folk hero, it is hard to stand out. It’s even harder to stand out while sidelined. However unfair it may be, getting back to reclaim his lost glory involves risking what he has built.