The UFC 238 official poster features four fighters, including an Olympic gold medalist and two UFC champions. It does not, however, feature the event’s most compelling attraction. The most fascinating fighter on the card is a frenetic ball of energy with a winning streak that outlasts most UFC careers, a contender who is chasing down the elusive title opportunity that continues to remain just out of reach, a man that has faced down professional obstacles and personal challenges.
When Tony Ferguson finished his open workout, the Chicago fans did what they had during the course of his 24 minutes punching, kicking and dancing on the mat. They cheered, they chanted, they screamed. They pulled him into a virtual embrace. Handed the spotlight, Ferguson waited for the shrieks to silence, recited his “champ s—t only” tagline, and dropped the mic to more wild wailing.
Ferguson has been a staple in the UFC for nearly a decade. He is 35 years old in a division where age matters, a year removed from knee surgery, and just three months separated from a series of incidents where he reportedly exhibited concerning behavior, leading to a restraining order against him filed by his wife.
The last year has been a very difficult one for him, but Ferguson, as always, has shown incredible resilience. Here he is, knee back to full health, wife and son alongside him in Chicago for fight week. Here he is, deftly sidestepping any questions related to his rocky stretch. Here he is, doing what Tony Ferguson always does: moving forward.
With that backdrop, Ferguson has found himself in an unlikely position as the event’s breakout star, even against longtime fan favorite Donald Cerrone. After years of toiling away, Ferguson has become a sympathetic figure to MMA fans, who likely can identify with some element of his many difficulties. As great as he is as a fighter, he’s also very human and relatable. And suddenly, he is more popular than ever.
Still, there is some concern that Ferguson may be returning too quickly. Between February and March, police were called to the Ferguson house three times. By late April, Ferguson’s wife dropped the restraining order against him, and three weeks later he was booked in the cage. It is fair to wonder about whether it is too much, too soon, and about if Ferguson truly addressed the root causes of his troubles.
Most of these concerns for him are genuine. Ferguson has always been a unique character, one who mangles common expressions or reimagines them into new ones, depending on your perspective. His offbeat personality makes him likable to some, interesting to all.
He is also remarkably intense. He earned a Michigan state wrestling championship in high school, captured the NCAA Division II wrestling championship four years later, won The Ultimate Fighter in 2011, and added the UFC interim lightweight title to his mantle in 2017.
It’s a lot of gold, yet there remains one piece of hardware missing, and despite his 11-fight win streak, he still apparently needs to do more to get his chance. He has to outgun the Cowboy.
Still, Ferguson insists the awards aren’t the thing.
“Why do I do this?” he asks, grinning and pointing his index fingers into his dimples during a media obligation. “Smiles, man.”
Ferguson does exude a certain amount of joy in his work. He walks, sways and shimmies out to the cage to dance music, often fights with reckless abandon, and seems to celebrate the spilling of his opponent’s blood. He is a certified wild man.
As a fan, there is little more you’d want in a champion, if only he could get there. This, after all, is a sport replete with characters, and even within this subculture, Ferguson stands out.
Part of his story is not widely known. Ferguson, born Anthony Padilla, grew up without his father, only meeting him briefly at age 13. When his mother met and became engaged to another man, they moved from California to Michigan, where he excelled in sports. His mom eventually married the man, and Tony took his stepfather’s surname as his own.
Ferguson has alluded to being abandoned by his dad as a seminal moment in his life. His stated focus though, is always moving forward and presumably, being the kind of dad his own never was. Part of this goes on behind the scenes in the kind of private moments that aren’t meant for public consumption, but part of it is in the example he sets as a fierce competitor and as a winner.
On Saturday, as Ferguson walks back to the Octagon to leave a stressful piece of history behind, that part of his identity gets restored. If he wins, how can the UFC deny him again? If he loses, his streak will be all for naught. Or will it? Ferguson only knows how to move forward, and the army behind him seems to be growing.