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Technique Talk: Brian Stann on the magic of Tony Ferguson’s mental ferocity

Gallery Photo: UFC 173 Photos

In part one of this two-part series, we spoke to Ben Askren about what made UFC 209 co-main event lightweight Khabib Nurmagomedov special. Now it’s Tony Ferguson’s turn.

Stated plainly, ‘El Cucuy’ has emerged as a shockingly talented competitor. He seamlessly marries an unmatched will to persevere with elite skills in every dimension of modern MMA. Ferguson can wrestle, strike, submit and do all of them at break neck speeds, no matter if the fight is five rounds or at extreme altitude. More importantly, while always showing promise, he’s transformed from more of an everyman to the UFC’s renaissance man.

In part two of this series, former UFC middleweight contender Brian Stann underscores not merely the talent or grit that Ferguson displays, but the rarity of perfectly meshing both and what separates him emanates from an exceedingly deep-rooted, almost intoxicating self-belief.

Partial transcript and full audio below:

Brian, let's start with where everything centers on Ferguson. We can talk about Ferguson's athleticism, we can talk about a lot of different attributes that he has, but I want to start mentally.

This is a guy who is a walking testament of self-belief, and it's not merely that he's tough. From the competitor's mindset, when you notice how he mentally approaches the game, what do you think makes it work for him, even though he's so offensive, and it's sometimes kind of reckless?

I think it really goes all the way back to the way he trains every day, and then how that self-belief, and the way that he trains then manifests itself when he performs in the Octagon. A lot of people, at face value, look at Tony Ferguson, and they take his self-belief as arrogance, and it's really not. When you truly get to know him, and I've called a couple of fights now and had the chance to dive in and talk to him about his training, talk to his coaches and training partners, he's someone who does things very, very different. He embraces it. He's not the type of guy who selects one head coach and then does whatever that person tells him to and allows that coach to maybe box them in on what their game plan or their style should be. He goes out there, and he grabs coaches and adopts them to his style and where he wants to be in the future and the things he wants to do, which is win. He wants to be the best striker, he wants to be the best grappler, he wants to be the best submission artist.

He trains so uniquely that this guy built his own gym in his house. Him and his father built it, so that he could train at home and have a place to work out. He's done all kinds of different, unique things. When I went and watched him train in Mexico City, this is the week of his fight, when he was fighting Rafael dos Anjos. I'm watching him train, he's doing a lot more than most people would do the week of a fight. Nothing too, too rigorous, but just by the time. He spends quite a bit of time in there sweating and doing stuff, but the whole time you could see him talking to himself. You could see things going on behind his eyes, and he's just visualizing. The whole time visualizing, watching himself win every position, win every exchange, adapt to whatever dos Anjos is going to do, and come back from it.

When you watch a lot of fights as both you and I do, typical fighters when things start to go wrong, you can start to sense when they've broken. It doesn't mean that they've broken and they're going to quit, right? Sometimes it means they've broken and they've accepted that they're probably going to lose this fight, and they are just happy to go to decision. Sometimes it comes out and they just quit, and they want to get out of the Octagon as soon as possible.

With Tony Ferguson, that's not even remotely close to happening ever. Even when he fought Rafael dos Anjos, and there were periods there where dos Anjos started to battle back in the fight, started getting his range and his timing. He would crack Ferguson hard. The things that take place in Ferguson's mind are, 'Okay, you caught me once. Now I'm going to get you.' His self-belief is so strong that it never allows any doubt to seep in, and doubt is the worst enemy of a fighter. Everybody is susceptible to it. I have not found a moment in Tony Ferguson's career yet, where he's been susceptible to any doubt.

What's interesting is a guy like Diego Sanchez, who is also mentally perseverant. I'm not saying that Diego is not a skilled fighter, but I don't think it's fair to say he's as skilled as Tony. I think some might look at what Diego does, and they'll say, not compensating exactly, but because he might be relative to the very highest level, slightly below that he will will himself to greatness and in some ways overachieve.

You don't really have that with Tony. You have a guy who has these elite capabilities, and he has this combination of mental fortitude. I'm wondering from your perspective, if you think that's a fair assessment and to what extent is that rare?

It's a very fair assessment. I also think that it's extraordinarily rare. In most athletes who are very gifted physically, and they can pick up skills so quickly, because it comes so easy to them they don't develop that same level of greatness. That same level of ability to come back if things aren't going their way or to really push themselves when it matters most.

We see it all the time. You see people that are truly, truly gifted, but they never achieve that level of greatness because they took it for granted. It just came easy to them. They didn't have to grind into work and to sweat and to bleed to obtain all those skills, so it was never so valuable to them that they're willing to go to hell and back, to achieve what they wanted to achieve.

With Tony, it's different. He has both. He's a very, very gifted athlete, but he truly enjoys that hard work. He enjoys that moment every day when you train in mixed martial arts. Every day there comes a time to train for a fight where your body and your mind are telling you, "Man, just stop. This hurts. This is boring. This is not fun. I don't want to hit pads another round. I don't want to grapple this guy another round. This is starting to hurt and be painful." Tony always fights through it. He enjoys that about himself. You can see the way he carries himself, the way he puts out different pictures of him being the boogeyman. He knows that. He's gone past that breaking point in his life many, many times, and he knows that other people can't. He's seen other people hit that and quit.

When he's gone past that, and he knows he has that advantage over you, he enjoys taking a fight to that moment. That's why he pushes such a crazy pace. He wants to get you to that wall, and he wants you to see him cross it and not care that he's tired; not care that he's bleeding. Then you get scared of him, and he enjoys that play in the fight where he starts to break you.

Where do you think Ferguson’s innovation comes from exactly? A lot of fighters, they show up I think at the highest level and they want to learn, they want to be shown things. We often hear, "So and so was a sponge.", but being a sponge is one thing, being receptive to teaching. Another one is having an idea about yourself and trying to mold an image. Is that what Tony's doing? How hard is that?

It's extremely hard. I remember, personally, when I was training at Jackson's and primarily under Coach Winkeljohn, he has a lot of traditional martial arts experience. He would try to show guys different side kicks and spinning kicks, everybody looked at him with kind of like, "That's not going to work for me. Coach, those things don't work in this sport." A lot of us were resistant to it, me primarily, because everybody wanted to take me down, and I thought that left me more susceptible to those takedowns. A lot of other people, "Well, those just won't work." Then you'd get guys, like the Tony Ferguson's, like Jon Jones obviously, the first day he came to gym he loved all that stuff.

They don't box themselves in. Tony believes so much that, "Hey you know what? I love all this stuff." I like the fact that if you tell him that won't work, that almost guarantees he's going throw it in his next fight. Some people are just like that. That's just part of his personality. You hear that said about a lot of fighters. If you tell them they can't do it, now they're definitely going to try. Not everybody is like that. Tony definitely is. It's almost a personal challenge to him now. If you tell him that these techniques shouldn't work in the Octagon, it's a personal challenge for him to find a way to integrate it into his skill set and make it work.

Then he has a real belief in that some of the things he throws at you will confuse you and cause you to make a mistake. It's why he applies so much pressure, it's why he throws strikes from different stances, sometimes even squares up which shortens his reach and makes him more hittable, but when he becomes more hittable he believes that you make openings yourself. You look for a knockout on him and that creates openings for him to capitalize. Some of the things he does is to throw stuff at you until you make a mistake, and once you make it that's where he takes you down. That's where he chokes you, that's where he can knock you out, that's where he can finish you. He really, really likes to do that, and he's had such good experience. You've seen his fights where he throws so much at you, so many different things, then you see the moment. Bam, there's a mistake Barboza made — now he's choked out, now he's finished.

Let's start breaking down a bit of his game. I'll start with the striking. I went back, and I watched his last loss, the Michael Johnson fight. We are talking about a barely recognizable fighter. He didn't switch stances, he was stuck in orthodox the whole time, he was getting countered on his right hand side, the left hand side of Michael Johnson over and over throughout the fight. I'm wondering as a guy who's been observing his career and called a few of his fights, how did he make a change and where can we pinpoint where he really began to turn a corner?

I think that was the corner change. I think that defeat was where he turned that corner, and where he started to experiment a little bit more. He started to say, "Wait a minute here. I'm not going to be held to this one style. I'm going to keep an open mind." He kind of woke up and realized, "Wait a minute."

Sometimes this happens to fighters. They're capable of doing a lot of things in the gym, but then they go in the Octagon and they only do the things that always works for them. They're not as open to experimentation. All of a sudden, one day, he just stopped doing that. Now, we saw everything that he was doing in the gym now and he didn't just feel like, "Hey, I need to stand in this stance cause this is where I'm best. I need to primarily use these techniques because this is where I'm best." When that happened, you could see his confidence incrementally go up each and every fight. That's the difference maker.

Then obviously, too, that at the pressure and the pace he fights at, it's one thing to be technically better than someone in one area, but to be better than them at the pace that Tony Ferguson brings is really difficult. It reminds me of a totally different fighter than him, but Clay Guida was a guy that does that to people. He's not as talented as some of these fighters in certain areas, but he's better than them when they have to fight, when he forces you to fight at his pace then he becomes a real problem for them. I think when you go and you see the Mike Rio fights, the Kikuno fights, those are the times where he starts to turn corners, starts to experiment a little bit more.

Then starts taking out some real monsters. Trujillo, whose stylistic a tougher matchup for him, and Gleison Tibau, who's a tough matchup for anybody, dominant win over a guy, a veteran in Josh Thomson. Those are fights where you started to see him using new technique, but now in his last couple of fights he's using them at 90 miles an hour. When guys learn new things, there's typically a phase there where it slows them down a little bit because there's thinking more in the Octagon. Then all of a sudden they get comfortable with all that information, and they've practiced it so much that it's instinct and then they can fight at 90 miles an hour again. That's the Tony Ferguson that we're seeing now. Now he's through that phase where some of this new experimentation, and new techniques slowed him down a little bit and now he's just coming at you with everything.

I went back and I watched that Tibau fight. He assaulted him. It reminded me of a big brother drowning a kid brother, and the kid brother trying to force his way up to get air and just never had a moment. What would you call that? Bravery? Recklessness? Athletic courage? What do we call that kind of approach to a guy like Gleison Tibau, in a fight of that kind of consequence?

There's so many words you can put in there, but to me I don't know if I could put one word to it. I think when I watched that fight, I see a man in Tony Ferguson who walked into the Octagon knowing he's going to win the fight. Not wondering, not hoping. He walked in there knowing how good he was, and knowing that he was going to win that fight and he wanted to show the world that, "Hey, I'm going to take this guy who's always been a tough out for everybody — nobody smokes this guy — I'm going to come out here and I'm going to make him look bad." He just knew and that's the power.

You have so many fighters that realize this and know, that this game is so much more mental than people realize. You see some of these guys that go out there and they're phenomenal in the gym. In the Octagon, you see 50 percent of what they're capable of. Again, it's not who the best fighter is. It's who fights best in that moment. Tony Ferguson has found a way to walk in there and each and every time fight best in that moment.

Not fight best two weeks before when he's trying to peak early in the gym, but in that moment in the Octagon and he just knew in that fight. He just knew.

Let's talk just a little bit more about his striking. What can we say about it if we're actually analyzing it? What would you say about Tony, and specifically I'm wondering if you have any thoughts about his footwork?

The footwork is really where it starts because he creates openings. He comes at you forward, and you're expecting a certain angle. Then sometimes after his first strike, he switches stances and then he steps just a little bit to the right or left as he's coming forward. What that does, is it just alters the angles he's throwing at you just a slight amount, so all of a sudden the punch that you think you're going to be able to block, or you think you're going to be able to slip, now catches you.

It's really difficult when you're backing up. You hear people talk about it all the time in boxing and mixed martial arts; you can't fight backing up, you can't fight backing up. It's true. There are a lot of guys that have a hard time when they have to fight backing up, especially defensively and he causes you to back up the entire time. The interesting thing too though, is his ability to use his feet to get back. If you look, there are some moments in that Tibau fight where he's pressure and pressure and pressure. He's throwing combinations, then out of nowhere right as Tibau looks to counter Ferguson's actually able to quickly hop back and get out of range. That's really tough to do. Not a lot of guys are that light on their feet, that they can go in, out and move back at the same time. When you couple that kind of footwork with this stance switches, it's really, really impressive. He can switch the stances, come forward, and he'll switch the stances going backwards at times as well. That changes things up quite a bit.

I went back and watched the Castillo fight. Some of those take downs, he just gave up because he was trying Imanari rolls. What I'm wondering is, in the grappling department this is where I wonder if his confidence might backfire a little bit. Not least of which is because this is Nurmagomedov's world. We know he's a good wrestler, but does he have a liability there in that particular department? A-Given the skill differential with Nurmagomedov and B-because he seems especially likely to go for low percentage attacks.

I do agree with that assessment. I don't feel like it's a good move for Tony Ferguson to get too fancy early in the fight. If you allow Nurmagomedov to get on top, you give up an easy takedown because you're looking to roll out, you're looking to do something fancy; typically not going to work on a guy like Nurmagomedov. He has a style that can drain your energy quickly. There's nothing more tiring than offensive takedowns in MMA, the only thing that comes close is having to work your way back to your feet against a guy who's really, really good at riding you.

I don't think that's a good idea for Ferguson early; maybe first two rounds. Once the fight starts to get into where they're both bloody, they're both tired, they're both really wet and it's harder to hold on to people, then he can start to get a little bit more creative and a little bit more funky in some of the things he's doing. At that point, then Khabib can start to put his head into danger.

I like him defending takedowns early because when you defend takedowns early, your opponent’s head is in a position where you can look for front headlocks. Anytime Tony can get into a front headlock position, you're in a lot of danger of a d’arce or an anaconda, and he's got a lot of cool transitions off those if you defend them; whether it's taking the back, whether it's looking for a guillotine, whether it's sliding two different positions.

So, I like him stuffing the early takedown, pushing the head down, getting to a front headlock vise, allowing Nurmagomedov to throw a combination and get in tight on his hips, and then having to try and roll out or go to his back and trying to play that game there because Nurmagomedov is just so heavy on top, especially if you allow your back to touch the mat and give him that position where he can start to solidify himself.

What kind of trouble do you think Nurmagomedov's going to give him in those first three rounds? I'm confident he'll get some takedowns, but I just don't know how often and how much he'll be able to do with them. What do you think?

I think Nurmagomedov is a better striker than he showed against Michael Johnson. I think he'll be able to connect because Tony is still hittable, where he's really good, but I think he's a little hittable, and I think Nurmagomedov could give him a little bit of trouble on the feet. More than maybe he's expecting or maybe underestimating him a little bit.

He's got to be careful and use good head movement. We've seen Ferguson have good head movement before. You referenced the Gleison Tibau fight. In that one he had excellent head movement, but Tibau wasn't exactly the fastest handed guy at 155 pounds, he's just so big.

Then obviously, I think he gives him trouble even if he just gets into the clinch; if he can a body lock and try to hold Tony Ferguson against the fence. Anytime you get guys who fight at that kind of pace, that have really long reach, excellent footwork, widely creative, don't give them the space. Get your arms around their waist, get them pressed up against the fence and do everything you can to keep them there. It's a five round fight, so don't be afraid to make it a little boring at first.

Nurmagomedov doesn't care. You can boo him, he's not going to care. Tony Ferguson, a lot of those things he does and does well, he can't do them if you've got him tied up and pushed up against the fence. I think Nurmagomedov maybe physically a little bit stronger.

If he decides to work off his back against Nurmagomedov, does he have much of a chance there?

I don't like anybody going to their back on purpose. I think what he does have a good chance of, if he focuses on neutralizing him and slowing things down. If he can control posture and use those long limbs to lock Nurmagomedov down, whether he uses rubber guard or he over hooks the head, ties up the shoulders and the arms with over hooks. If he does that, slow him down and hold on to him, and then maybe work to neutralize his ground and pound as he tries to then scoot to the side to get himself back up.

What he's got to be really careful of is when guys try to get back to their feet against Nurmagomedov, he does such a good job of controlling a wrist, of grabbing an arm, of grabbing one of your posts to get back up; ripping it out from under you, maintaining control of it, and then smashing you with his other hand. He is really, really crafty there.

So, with Tony if you get taken down, I'd much rather see him in his mind, 'Hey, when you're halfway down you're actually halfway up.' The best time to get back up to your feet is right as the takedown is happening. If you let a guy like Nurmagomedov settle, boy it's going to cost you a lot of energy if you do get back to your feet or it could cost you the entire round because it's that hard to get back up.

I don't like him playing guard in this. I'd much rather see him instead of closed guard, work for butterfly guard. Work to move as much as Tony can move under there and disrupt the offense and create some space, and then get back to his feet immediately. If he's going to be in guard, it better be to lock Nurmagomedov down. Make it boring, force the referee to stand them back up.

What can we say about Tony Ferguson's fight IQ? As much as we're praising Tony, in fairness to Nurmagomedov, is there a case to be made that Tony Ferguson's ability, while high, maybe his fight IQ is slightly questionable? Let me just say I'm defining fight IQ in this context as someone who makes great decisions in the middle of a fight.

I think he has a very solid fight IQ. It would be hard for me to criticize him because it's a double edge sword, right? There's times where we're going to praise him for his brilliance and creativity, because it works; and then there's just times where it doesn't pan out the way he wanted it to and then we're dinging him on this fight IQ.

I think if there is a matchup for him to be a little bit more conservative or deliberate in the creative techniques he throws, this is the one. If that's kind of me nonchalantly saying, "Hey, make really good decisions in this fight,” then that's what I'm doing. I don't think this is the fight where he's got a better chance of getting back to his feet time and time again against Rafael dos Anjos than he does Khabib Nurmagomedov. I think he does have to be smart, not to push himself in really questionable positions against this guy.

I think some of the things he does, like his own offensive takedowns, even when they fail, you saw round four against dos Anjos he shot on him and then it didn't work, got right back up, fires off a combo. I think things like that are fine, but techniques where you have a high probability of ending up on your back are really the ones that, if I were coaching him and I was in his corner, I would tell him to avoid. Let's not do that, especially early. Let's get up, let's get up a round or two on this guy. Let's start to crack his confidence, make him doubt himself, before you start doing that to create other openings and force him to make a mistake because Khabib doesn't make mistakes.

He's not a guy who puts himself in compromised positions. You know exactly what he wants to go out there and do.

As we wrap this conversation, one of the things that's also remarkable about Tony is just his, and you mentioned it, the Mexico City things. People got mad at Tony for not calling out Conor McGregor after he beat dos Anjos, and I'm like, "Do you understand he just beat Rafael dos Anjos in the sky?" Like this is an insane athletic achievement that he was able to get, and this is hardly the first demonstration of his really impeccable cardio.

I really believe that a lot of the things that he does well comes from just trial and error in his life. I bet he figured out pretty early he was heavy handed. I bet he figured out pretty early he did have an aptitude for learning, and I bet he figured out pretty early that he was naturally flexible and that he does have cardio, but that he could make real gains and he could outlast his opposition.

What can you say about, not merely what his cardio does for him, but about that theory about him?

I agree. It's interesting. When I landed in Mexico City, it was quite a long ride because of the traffic to get to our hotel. I got to take that ride with Tony's parents, and it was enlightening to sit there and talk to them about their son, and what he was like growing up. All the things that we discussed, from that belief, from his athletic ability early on, from his love for a challenge to his belief in himself. His mom sat there and talked about how these things were happening when he was not only 10 years old yet. Some of the things that he liked to do, and the crazy athletic achievements he had, and how hard he used to work as a youth wrestler, and she knew right away that her son was just different. She could tell him 10 times to do one thing, and that only reinforced that he was going to do something else.

I think all of those things, when I had that conversation with his parents, all those things are answered. It solidifies our argument about that belief and his creativity, but his cardio is phenomenal, to push the pace like he did in round five in Mexico City. I've said this before, I don't think the UFC should ever go back to that city ever. It is that hard to fight there. That hard.

Every fighter on that card had to fly out there and live there for a month. Not all of them did and you could certainly tell the ones who paid the price. To go there and do what he did, in that climate, was remarkable and I don't know if we talked about it enough during that fight just because the fight was so incredible on it's own. There was so much happening technically, but that is a massive advantage coming into this fight and his ability to push the pace.

We're going to learn a lot about Nurmagomedov, and his ability to keep up with that because I've never felt ... I worked out twice when I was in Mexico City, I've never felt altitude like that.

My wife's from Bogota, Colombia, which is actually just slightly higher than that, and I got dizzy getting off the plane.

Forrest Griffin and I grappled for about 30 minutes there. He's a big guy. I could not believe how tired I was, but for a guy like Ferguson, you can't push a pace like that unless you've known for years that your heart can just keep up with it. He learned early on in wrestling that he can go into a tournament where he's going to wrestle four or five times in the day and he can just go. The kid can just go, and the way he trains, when I watched him train that week, I was sitting there watching the guys he's rolling with and I'm watching him hit pads and I'm thinking to myself, "When is this session going to end? He fights in two days." Well, it went and it just didn't, and he can just go. Once he gets to a certain point where he's warmed up, man, he's in motion and there's no stopping him.

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