Tony Ferguson may not be fighting for the title yet, but he already accomplished something no other lightweight in UFC history has done.
"El Cucuy" sliced and diced former 155-pound champion Rafael dos Anjos with a slew of unconventional attacks to capture a thrilling unanimous decision victory and become the first UFC lightweight ever to win nine consecutive fights on Saturday night in the main event of UFC Fight Night 98 in Mexico City, Mexico.
Ferguson (22-3) may very well have been a stand-in for the Terminator, as he spent a majority of the bout walking down dos Anjos and eating every shot the Brazilian threw at him, only to fire back with a seemingly endless cascade of punches, elbows, knees, kicks, and spinning strikes.
The contest was far from easy, though. Dos Anjos opened the bout on fire, mixing up his offense and landing heavy kicks to Ferguson's lead leg. Ferguson then picked things up in the second round, becoming the aggressor, getting creative with his strikes, and eventually rocking dos Anjos with a two-punch combination before blowing a kiss to his foe at the end of the round.
Dos Anjos evened the momentum in the third frame, repeatedly digging hard shots to the body and then cracking Ferguson flush with a spinning backfist. But as he did all night, Ferguson simply ate the strikes and answered back harder, seizing the fourth and fifth round by smashing dos Anjos with combinations from the pocket and badly bloodying the right side of dos Anjos' face.
In the end, all three judges saw it 48-47 for Ferguson, giving the No. 3 ranked UFC lightweight the most impressive victory of an Octagon career that has already seen Ferguson collect a remarkable 12-1 record while cementing himself as one of the very best 155-pounders in the world.
Afterward, Ferguson declined to say much on the mic other than thanking the Mexican fans. But with Conor McGregor and Eddie Alvarez set to duel for the UFC lightweight title a week from now at UFC 205, Ferguson certainly appears to be in good position to challenge for the belt next.
In the night's co-main event, the last remaining active cast member of The Ultimate Fighter 1, Diego Sanchez (27-8), staved off retirement talks with a throwback performance over one-time Bellator title challenger Marcin Held (22-5), grounding the UFC newcomer to a halt with a wrestling-heavy attack to capture a unanimous decision victory.
The wildest moment in the fight came midway through the opening round, as Sanchez dove in on a double-leg takedown attempt against the fence and Held worked to lock in a front choke. Sensing danger, Sanchez wall-climbed up the cage with his feet, then shifted his weight and hurled Held to the floor to complete the most unorthodox submission escape seen in some time.
From there, the rest of the fight was contested largely on the mats, with Held spending most of rounds two and three fishing for submissions from bottom position to no avail -- including plenty of his trademark leglock attempts -- while Sanchez stifled the young lightweight's offense with smothering punches and top pressure. Ultimately the judges saw the contest 29-28, 29-28, and 29-27 in Sanchez's favor, pushing the 34-year-old's record to 4-4 since 2012.
Notably, the three-round decision also helped Sanchez to pass B.J. Penn for fourth on the all-time list of minutes logged inside the Octagon.
One could say justice was served further down the card, as No. 4 ranked featherweight Ricardo Lamas (17-5) overcame a significant size disadvantage to submit No. 8 ranked Charles Oliveira (21-7, 1 NC) with a nasty second-round guillotine choke.
Oliveira missed weight by nine pounds on Friday, marking the fifth time that the Brazilian has missed weight in his UFC career. Lamas accepted the bout anyway, however the size difference between the two fighters showed itself early in the opening round as the much larger Oliveira took Lamas to the canvas and drowned the American under a sea of top pressure, before taking his back and nearly locking in a rear-naked choke as round one came to a close.
But Lamas battled back, catching Oliveira in a guillotine at 2:13 of the second round after seizing the upper hand in a scramble. With the victory, Lamas propelled his UFC record to 4-2 since his 2014 title loss to Jose Aldo.
"I want to dedicate this fight to my mother, who is battling cancer," an emotional Lamas said afterward while fighting back tears. "Mom, I know you will come out on top of this, and I know your children and grandchildren are there to support you."
In the TUF final that Saturday's event was named after, Mexico native Martin Bravo (11-0) melted Claudio Puelles (7-2) with a sizzling second-round liver shot to be crowned the lightweight winner of The Ultimate Fighter Latin America 3.
Bravo, a 23-year-old natural featherweight, hurt Puelles with a left to the body along the fence, followed up with two more punches to the head, then sent Puelles slumping to the canvas with one more left to the liver. The official time of the stoppage came at 1:55 of round two, and afterward an elated Bravo rushed into the crowd and wrapped his TUF coach, UFC Hall of Famer Forrest Griffin, in a bear-hug of an embrace.
Elsewhere on the card, No. 9 ranked lightweight contender Beneil Dariush (14-2) took a unanimous decision over No. 15 ranked Rashid Magomedov (19-2) in a grinding affair to pick up his second straight win and hand Magomedov his first loss under the UFC umbrella.
The Thai clinch was the weapon of choice for Dariush, as the 27-year-old barraged Magomedov with a seemingly endless stream of knees to the body and head in a fight that spent large portions against the fence. Dariush added to that body work by repeatedly nailing Magomedov with several hard kicks to the midsection throughout the three-round contest. Afterward, a winded Dariush admitted to being affected by the high elevation in Mexico City.
"I trained incredibly hard, I went into the mountains' elevation. But after the first round, you feel the heaviness," Dariush said. "You feel it. Man, Mexico City, you guys are awesome just living here. I don't know how you do it."
In the night's main card opener, one of the top strawweight prospects in mixed martial arts, Alexa Grasso (9-0), made a worthy statement in her UFC debut, dominating The Ultimate Fighter veteran Heather Jo Clark (7-6) from pillar to post to sweep the judges' scorecards and win a unanimous decision.
A 23-year-old talent out of Mexico, Grasso hurt Clark early in the opening round with a head kick off of a Clark takedown attempt, then swarmed with hard punches along the fence. Clark survived, albeit bloodied and busted up, but admitted to having vision problems between rounds and slowly got picked apart for the rest of the fight, with Grasso putting an exclamation mark on her victory with a huge airborne takedown in the closing moments of round three.
"This is incredible," an ecstatic Grasso said. "... It's a blessing to have had the opportunity to make my debut in such an important fight here in Mexico."
For more on UFC Fight Night 98, catch the complete event results here.