Tony Ferguson Proved he Deserves a Shot at McGregor
Ferguson triangle-choked Kevin Lee into submission in the third round and is the (interim) King of the Lightweights.
Joshua Dahl-USA TODAY Sports
There is no doubt about it. Tony Ferguson should get the first crack at Conor McGregor's lightweight title. And honestly, with the list of victories Ferguson has put together, you could really see things the other way around—perhaps it would be McGregor getting a shot at Ferguson's belt.
At UFC 216, Ferguson took on Kevin Lee and showed himself once again to be the man to beat at 155 pounds, triangle choking Lee into submission in the third round.
Fighters don't come much stranger than Tony Ferguson. Where most are part of a team built around their gym, Ferguson builds his training camp around himself and can readily be seen on Instagram performing deadlifts on a bosu ball, elbowing speed bags, and working on the Muk yan jong. His in-ring work is just as unique, and that often gets him into trouble in the early going. This fight was no exception. Ferguson is so lanky for the weightclass that he can get away with leaning straight back to get away from strikes. Against the equally gangly Lee he found himself getting hit while leaning in the early going.
Ferguson was looking for the check hook and counter jabs as Lee fell short and soon got his timing down on these, but not before showing another habit that often gets him into trouble. Ferguson kicks hard and effectively, but he telegraphs every kick he throws by stopping dead, then walking up into it. Lee had Ferguson's timing down for much of the fight, timing counter punches while Ferguson was still on one leg.
We discussed this at length in our preview, and noted that Michael Johnson and Rafael dos Anjos were both able to crack Ferguson clean on multiple occasions when he kicked in their fights. In the third round Lee also picked up a nice takedown by timing one such telegraphed kick.
When Lee knocked Ferguson off his feet with a southpaw jab on one of his earliest kicks, Ferguson scrambled and Lee pursued straight onto Ferguson's first effective check hook of the fight, sending Lee to a knee.
Ferguson was effective in pushing the pace against Lee, who had a hard time making weight, but also showed a more conservative streak than against opponents such as Josh Thomson and Edson Barboza—probing at Lee and waiting on the chance to lean back and counter. Lee's striking was measured and there were points when he darted in on punches far more swiftly and cleanly than in his previous showings, catching Ferguson mid-kick or as Ferguson leaned away after an attempted lead. In fact, the first takedown of the fight came as Ferguson got caught on one leg, leaned all the way back to evade a punch, and was bundled to the mat. He did a great job almost reversing into a monoplata but was flattened to his back.
We speculated in our preview over how effective Ferguson's active guard could prove against Lee, and as it turned out Ferguson's guard made all the difference. As we mentioned in that article, Lee is a very strong guard passer and top player, and when he was able to escape Ferguson's submission attempts and pass guard in the first round he was free to move around on top of Ferguson with little difficulty. In fact the first round ended with Lee raining down blows from the mount.
Where in the first round Ferguson had managed to trap Lee's hand on the mat and begin working down the traditional omoplata route, he wasn't afforded that opportunity as readily when they next hit the mat. When Lee kept his hands in, Ferguson used his elbows to make the difference. Lee noted in the post-fight that he was surprised by them, as Ferguson raised his arm straight above his head and curved in the elbow very smoothly. Playing with his feet on Lee's hips and his own hips off the mat, Ferguson snuck these in and forced Lee to adapt. Lee reached out to obstruct the elbows, while driving into Ferguson, whose back was clear of the floor, and presented first an armbar—which escaped nicely—and later a triangle choke which finished the fight.
It is rare to see a submission from the guard at the highest levels of modern MMA, and Ferguson's bottom game is well worth studying. For those looking for other moments of Ferguson's usual creativity, the intercepting upward elbow from the Barboza fight was back. This is one we often discuss when we're examining a match up containing an aggressive swarmer. Hitting hard with the hands takes coordination and timing, but generating power or perfectly timing the hips and feet are not concerns on an intercepting elbow. Almost anyone can learn to project their elbow in front of the opponent and do some damage if they step onto it.
When Lee switched to southpaw, Ferguson also found a hole for the Chinzo Machida special—a right front kick into a stepping right straight. This is a neat little technique because against a southpaw the right straight will always be the keystone punch—whether you are standing orthodox or southpaw. The recovery of a front kick is where many fighters get caught with a counter, but this technique allows a fighter to simply fall in after the kick and blade his body to get down behind his lead shoulder in a much safer jab.
Chinzo himself demonstrating the technique.
Kevin Lee was considered the underdog in this bout but at no point looked out of place. At just twenty-five, with youth very much on his side, it is not hard to imagine Lee working his way back into a title shot in the coming years. Meanwhile Tony Ferguson proved that he more than deserves a big money fight against Conor McGregor and the chance to wear the real belt, remaining one of the most entertaining finishers in the game even when fighting from his back.
The one thing that left fans conflicted about this fight was that the commission gave the go ahead for it, while Kevin Lee was sporting a gigantic staph sore on his chest. To the fan of great fights, that was a good thing. But considering how badly many careers in combat sports have been affected by staph (look up the holes in Kevin Randleman's body if you have a strong stomach) it seems wildly irresponsible on the part of a sanctioning body that is supposed to be protecting the fighters.
Pick up Jack's book, Notorious: The Life and Fights of Conor McGregor .