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Lightweights#9 LW | Beneil Dariush (20-4-1, 14-4-1 UFC) vs. #5 | Tony Ferguson (25-5, 15-3 UFC)
ODDS: Dariush (-170), Ferguson (+150)
Ferguson’s long run of success finally ended in 2020, and it happened in shockingly decisive fashion. Ferguson immediately became a top prospect to watch after winning Season 13 of “The Ultimate Fighter” in 2011, but the start of his UFC career was a bit slow. Ferguson got four fights during his first year on the roster, but a broken arm suffered against Michael Johnson led to an understandably flat performance and kept him out of action for a bit. Upon his return in late 2013, Ferguson just kept winning and made a name for himself as a must-watch fighter in the process. Buoyed by an unhealthy level of self-belief, “El Cucuy” rode out rough starts to eventually drown his opponents in a whirlwind of unorthodox techniques attempted at a relentless pace, usually grabbing a submission to finish them off. By the end of 2015, Ferguson had clearly established himself as one of the best lightweights in the world, but even as he kept winning, his career seemed somewhat cursed. With Conor McGregor moving up to lightweight, the title picture at 155 pounds slowed to a crawl, leaving Ferguson as one of many fighters left on the outside looking in. Then, of course, there were the repeated attempts to match Ferguson with Khabib Nurmagomedov. From 2015 to 2020, there were at least five separate attempts to pair the two men that fell through for various reasons. By the time the lightweight title picture was finally ready to move past McGregor in April 2018, Ferguson was once again left out in the cold. He was matched against Nurmagomedov in a fight for the vacant title, only to be forced out of the fight after he tore up his knee tripping over a wire during a media tour—on April Fool’s Day, no less. Nurmagomedov went on to beat Al Iaquinta for the vacant belt and feud with McGregor, while Ferguson was left to tread water until the UFC revisited the idea of a title bout against Nurmagomedov in April 2020. This time, a global pandemic eternally doomed the pairing, so Ferguson was left to face Justin Gaethje in a fight that might wind up being the start of a depressing slide. Ferguson had obviously slowed a bit since the knee injury, but the Gaethje fight was the first time where he did not have enough power or burst to turn the corner and take over a fight. Ferguson got his licks in, but Gaethje would just hit him back harder and more often until “El Cucuy” was essentially on autopilot by the fifth round, at which point the fight was stopped. A December bout against Charles Oliveira was an opportunity at a rebound, but instead, Ferguson never really got out of the gates. Oliveira outwrestled and outgrappled Ferguson, essentially leaving him without much of an answer as to how to turn the fight around. Ferguson is now 37, so there is legitimate concern that his years of insanity have finally caught up to him inside the cage. He badly needs a win against Dariush to keep any sort of relevance as a contender.
Through his first few years inside the UFC, Dariush looked like a future title contender. Coming into the promotion as a decorated grappler, Dariush also showed a measured and technical striking game that could handle opponents and lead them into his best weapons. However, Dariush had a particularly rough three-fight stretch that raised some questions about his ceiling and possibly his UFC future. Dariush did well against Edson Barboza for about a round and a half before eating a beautiful flying knee that knocked him out cold, causing some worry that his penchant for pressure would just get him blasted by better athletes. Then came a draw against Evan Dunham that saw Dariush tire badly, which gave way to a particularly damaging loss against UFC newcomer Alexander Hernandez, who blitzed the Kings MMA rep and knocked him out in just 42 seconds. For his next few fights, Dariush understandably used a much more cautious approach that relied on his wrestling and grappling skills, but that wound up leading into one of the more unexpected stylistic changes in recent memory. March 2020 saw the debut of Dariush as a reckless knockout artist. After outgrappling Drakkar Klose for a round, Dariush chose to embrace his inner Chris Leben, charging forward with wild and powerful punches that led to one of the best knockouts of the year. Dariush has kept up that aggression since. He annihilated Scott Holtzman with a spinning backfist in August, and while his win over Diego Ferreira saw him once again rely on his wrestling, it appears the wilder Dariush is here to stay. Somehow, Dariush has become a headhunting maniac who can fall back on one of the best technical arsenals on the UFC roster, and that combination just might be enough to finally get him into title contention.
Even if there is clearly a huge difference in the career momentum of these two fighters, this is still a winnable fight for Ferguson. “El Cucuy” has advantages in a lot of areas, such as cardio, durability and ability to set a pace, so he should wind up having his best moments by the third round. Of course, the question centers on what happens before that. If this is entirely a striking match, Ferguson should be able to win the war of attrition. Ferguson is still durable to a level that his counterpart has never been, so even though Dariush is the harder shot-for-shot hitter at this point, his newfound willingness to abandon all defense and technique in pursuit of the kill is likely to get him hit a ton and leave him exhausted. With that said, Oliveira basically provided the blueprint for Dariush to take this, as he should similarly be able to outwrestle and control Ferguson on the mat and use his grappling acumen to prevent “The Ultimate Fighter 13” winner from turning things around. Even a winning type of fight leaves Dariush tired by the third round—from Ferguson’s standpoint, it is a shame that this fight is not five rounds—so there is the chance that Ferguson can put together enough volume and damage to score a late finish. However, it seems likelier that Dariush can gut things out until the final horn. The pick is Dariush via decision.
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