Like the boogeyman that he is, Tony Ferguson seemed to be unstoppable. He mowed through one victim at a time, even as his sights remained set on a distant target that could never be reached. Ferguson seemed just too much for anyone who can hit 155 pounds on a scale, with his thudding punches and slicing elbows and endless ammunition, but mostly with his championship mind.
Saturday night at UFC 249, Justin Gaethje was supposed to be another casualty of El Cucuy’s curse, unlucky number 13 on his streak toward yet another booking with UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov. But the movie ended early, the unstoppable villain never making it to the climactic showdown.
Perhaps it is the fate of a boogeyman to never slay his greatest adversary, but Ferguson deserved the chance. He more than deserved it. He earned it in blood, sweat, effort.
Part of what kept him from Khabib was bad luck. The UFC tried and failed to get the two to the cage so many times its matchmakers will forever wake up in cold sweats. It fell apart for reasons that were increasingly improbable and out of the promotion’s control, but with every additional victory, the matchup became all the more intriguing. But now, it is likely gone forever.
What a shame. For Ferguson, for Khabib, for the UFC, for the fans, it will always be the one that got away.
Gaethje did to him what he has done to most of the UFC lightweight roster over the past seven and a half years. He bloodied him, swelled him up, made his legs go wobbly, left him looking like the victim of a midnight horror show. In some ways, he was. In some ways, it was even worse than that. Some fighters leave the cage losing a fight. Ferguson lost the opportunity of a lifetime.
Things went south for him early. Gaethje’s low kicks found their mark and his powerful left hook seemed to have a radar lock on Ferguson’s chin. While Ferguson somehow managed to remain upright from punches that would have dropped most middleweights, his toughness was perhaps his highlight of the night. There wasn’t a result to celebrate but his courage, his streak, his heart, those were all things that were reflected in his presence and performance.
Ferguson, after all, didn’t have to do this. He was well within his rights to park himself and his unrivaled rèsume on the sidelines until the UFC could figure out how to put him and Nurmagomedov in the same arena at the same time. It probably wouldn’t even have been a long wait. While there is still no clear date for the easing of COVID-19 related travel restrictions that have impacted international travel, you can sense things changing as national and local governments around the world begin to permit the reopening of businesses. The UFC will soon have options on where to host a match between them. Florida is the promotion’s home for the week, but UFC president Dana White’s often-mentioned “Fight Island,” an under-construction venue in a yet-undisclosed location, is expected to be available by the early summer. Plenty of other places are soon to shoot up their hands and volunteer, too, hopeful to show the world they’re back in business with a marquee fight.
The fact is, nobody would much care where it happened. Las Vegas, a barge off international waters, the YAMMA pit. We would take it wherever we could get it, as long as we got it.
Is it possible he could fight his way back toward Khabib? Yes, but the likelihood seems remote, if only because of his age — he’s 36 years old, the second-oldest ranked lightweight behind 37-year-old Donald Cerrone. Perhaps a single win over a top five opponent would put him back in the hunt, but it can’t be denied that without the competing streaks—Nurmagomedov has won 12 in a row—the fight loses much of its luster. The boogeyman, after all, isn’t quite as scary after you’ve just seen him lose.
Maybe when things go back to normal we can just pretend this was all a fever dream. It all seems so surreal, anyway, two guys fighting in an empty, cavernous arena as the world waits to come out of hibernation. Ferguson did us all a favor by competing, but his good deed backfired in a way that shook the sport. Ferguson-Nurmagomedov is now a lost piece of history and a cautionary tale with a final plot twist no one saw coming, El Cucuy transforming from terrifying to tragic.