Dr. Rhadi Ferguson (right) | Esther Lin/Strikeforce
Dr. Rhadi Ferguson primes for his promotional debut in Strikeforce with the understanding that his margin for error will be narrower than most aspiring mixed martial artists.
A four-time national judo champion and 2004 Olympian, Ferguson will meet South Carolina’s John Richard in a featured light heavyweight matchup at Strikeforce “Challengers 13” on Friday at the Nashville Municipal Auditorium in Nashville, Tenn. Some might questions the wisdom of entering into MMA at such an advanced athletic age, but Ferguson, 35, has his reasons.
“I’m doing it because I can,” Ferguson told Sherdog.com, “and because a time will come when I cannot. I don’t want to look back and think I passed up an opportunity to do something exciting. Russell Simmons has a great book out called ‘Do You!’ That’s what I’m doing.
“I sat back and said to myself, ‘I’d really like to get in there and mix it up,” he added. “I really want to learn the art of being a pugilist. I enjoy the cognitive side of the sport, not just the athletic side. MMA is a phenomenal sport. It’s like a chess match. I like that aspect. For me, it’s more mental than physical, and it’s always been like that.”
A black belt in judo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Ferguson holds a Ph.D in education from Capella University in Minneapolis. The cousin of Internet street-fighting sensation and UFC veteran Kevin “Kimbo Slice” Ferguson, the 35-year-old father of two was named the 2001-02 United States Federation International Senior Male Athlete of the Year. Ferguson, a protégé of Judo Jack Williams, remains the only athlete ever to compete in the Olympics, the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu World Championships and the Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championships. He draws heavily upon his Olympic experience.
“I don’t get nervous,” Ferguson said. “I competed at the Olympics, the largest sporting event in the world. I competed on the biggest stage. There’s nothing like it.”
Based at American Top Team in Coconut Creek, Fla., Ferguson has impressed ATT boxing coach Howard Davis Jr. with his willingness to learn and work ethic.
“Rhadi is a natural athlete,” said Davis, who won an Olympic gold medal in boxing in 1976. “He’s one of those guys who can improvise in a split second. He’s fast learner. Sometimes you get fighters who don’t know what they’re doing striking and they look at you like you’ve got three eyes, but he understands what I’m saying to him.”
Unbeaten in two professional appearances, Ferguson was offered contracts by both Strikeforce and Bellator Fighting Championships, which will feature a light heavyweight tournament in 2011. He chose to sign with the former. Ferguson remains grounded in reality, and his MMA goals reflect his position.
“I want to win … and then win the next one and the next one, and then before my contract is renewed, I want to sit down with my team and say, ‘Hey, man. Do I have a shot, or am I at the point of diminishing returns. I don’t know if I’m good or if I’m not good. You don’t know until you get out there.”
Ferguson has trained UFC veterans Thiago Alves, Brandon Vera, Jeff Monson and Karo Parisyan, among others. Until now, he has competed only at the regional level, at events in Kentucky and Tennessee. It was an eye-opening experience.
“The level at which I was coaching was a lot different than the level at which I was fighting,” Ferguson said. “I didn’t have an appreciation for the little guy in MMA until I became one of the little guys. I didn’t know there were people wrapping their own hands [at these events]. It gave me a better appreciation now when I coach.”
Ferguson, who has also trained extensively with Lloyd Irvin, understands better than anyone that Father Time will be working against him.
“I need to learn from some of the best,” he said. “I sit down and I listen and I learn. I have to scale this ladder as quickly as I can. At 35, I don’t have a lot of time to do stuff wrong.”