If you tuned in at any random time during Wednesday night’s UFC 223 conference call—and I mean, any time—you were delivered headlong into anarchy. Like jumping into a game of Double Dutch for the first time, there was no common sense entry point, even if you kinda, sorta understood the general concept of what was happening. And what was happening was Tony Ferguson and Khabib Nurmagomedov. That’s all you need to know really, because what including them hasn’t unraveled into some form of chaos?
Wednesday was no different. The scheduled combatants in a main event that may or may not feature the official UFC lightweight championship up for grabs had a lot to say. Some of it made perfect sense, a lot of it made none. There was plenty of bickering and hostility, and occasionally, genuine respect. They contradicted themselves and each other, they spoke over each, they misunderstood each other. They completely overshadowed the other two stars on the call, strawweight champion Rose Namajunas and Joanna Jedrzejczyk. It was maddening. It was confusing. It was glorious. May their fight bring such entertaining lunacy.
Oh, this fight. If we’re throwing out wishes to the MMA gods, let’s also add: may this fight reach the cage. Please, please, please, please. This is, after all, the fourth time we’ve set our hearts on this journey.
We first tried it in 2015, but Nurmagomedov withdrew due to a rib injury over a month before their date. We tried it in 2016 and got closer — within 11 days — but Ferguson pulled out after doctors found blood and fluid in his lungs. We tried it one more time in 2017, and this time got painfully, agonizingly close — within a single damn day — before Nurmagomedov’s botched weight cut sent him to a hospital and he was deemed ineligible to fight.
From then to now, chaos has been the most constant companion of this pairing, even ahead of the gigantic shadow of a certain popular Irish fellow last seen in a boxing ring. You know the one.
At the risk of tempting fate, things seem to be trending in the right direction. Nurmagomedov is completely confident he’ll make weight, and Ferguson is so hyper-focused that he was literally doing his conditioning while conducting a conference call. No, really, he was. You may have first suspected it when he sounded short of breath early in the call but then again, he was talking fast and filibustering and maybe it was tension?
“I’m actually working out when I’m talking,” he finally told Nurmagomedov later. “What are you doing, f*cking stuffing your face with tiramisu?”
In the grand scheme, fat jokes are lowbrow trash talk, but in the fight game it’s always wise to score points any way you can. And with these two, it was difficult to get a word in edge-wise. They bickered and squabbled and scrapped for the last word. At one point, they verbally sparred for eight minutes and 33 seconds straight. At another, their exchanges went seven minutes and 23 seconds. Punch, punch, counterpunch, whiff, repeat. The final time they attempted to spar, they were nearing the five-minute mark when UFC director of public relations Dave Lockett interjected, requesting the next question. They ignored him, too, until the call moderator cut them off.
While sharp words only sometimes have effect on athletes mentally strong enough to reach such heights as Ferguson and Nurmagomedov, their unwillingness to give an inch matches the intensity they bring to the cage, and offers insight into the excitement surrounding the fight.
These are two fighters who are so used to winning, they simply can’t back down. Nurmagomedov remains undefeated throughout his career, 25-0, while Ferguson (23-3) has beaten 10 straight UFC opponents. Both are riding streaks so epic, they can’t even imagine losing a phone call.
That’s not to say that everything out of their mouths was golden. It was often disjointed and bordered on nonsense. At one point, Ferguson began reciting his athletic résumé, highlighting his past as a hard-hitting football cornerback in high school. It was apropos of nothing, and his Dagestani opponent seemed to literally have no idea what he was talking about.
“What? What is this?” he said, flummoxed. “Seriously, I don’t understand.”
The feeling was mutual for all sides at some point, but so was the agreement of what they were both stepping into. Despite Ferguson calling Nurmagomedov fat, and Nurmagomedov calling Ferguson old, despite accusations of cowardice and jealousy, despite skewed comparisons of brilliant résumés, they could both agree that they were each other’s measuring stick. That Nurmagomedov was the best fighter Ferguson has ever faced, and vice versa. (And unspoken, that Conor McGregor was at least for now, not needed!)
Nurmagomedov will have to attempt to stop Ferguson’s unrelenting and improvisational offense, and Ferguson will have to stop Nurmagomedov from implementing his powerful wrestling game and grinding him into a fine dust. Irresistible force and immovable object. Either way, they can only stare from a distance for so long before they get to where they’re going. April 7 can’t get here soon enough.
After three aborted attempts, after trading countless barbs and after studying each other for parts of the last four years, it stands to reason these two are going a little bit crazy to get at each other.
From shocking cancellations to chaotic conversations, the Ferguson-Nurmagomedov rivalry has been anarchy. All we need now is for the fight to be the same.