The fight has star-power on both sides, could arguably be a No. 1 lightweight title contender elimination match, and it will almost certainly include lots of action from the two showcase athletes. There’s a reason why Ferguson himself seemed to suggest earlier this week that he and Cerrone were being called upon by the promotion to “save” Saturday’s UFC 238 card.
“We’re here to do business, man,” Ferguson told media on Wednesday.
“We saved this card. We heard that they needed a superhero so I’m here right now.”
In a vacuum, Ferguson vs. Cerrone is a great fight. Placed within larger context, however, the timing of this contest is a bit concerning, to say the least.
Cerrone fought Al Iaquinta just one month ago during which he absorbed nearly 100 strikes. Cerrone said the UFC called him while he was vacationing in Mexico and once the Ferguson fight was set he left his holiday early to jump right back into training, leaving virtually no time to rest in between training camps and fights.
Ferguson was booked to fight Cerrone just about a month after being served with a temporary restraining order that alleged some disturbing, violent and paranoid behavior on his part, and afterward he admitted on social media that he needed “help” and that the UFC was assisting him with receiving it.
Both Ferguson and Cerrone are incredible athletes who have each entertained us for over a decade with almost superhuman seeming feats of skill, strength, and endurance.
Still, they are just humans, and they need to rest their bodies and minds after sustaining trauma as would anyone else. They need the space and time to look into possible mental health issues and appropriate treatment without being asked to don a cape, ignore their health and “save” a card.
Yahoo Sports spoke with Ferguson, Cerrone and UFC president Dana White Thursday afternoon, all separately, to discuss the timing of this fight and whether due-diligence was done to ensure neither man is endangering their long-term health. Ferguson and White were both emphatic in providing vague assurances that things are fine, but offered little in the way of specifics.
For his part, Cerrone seemed to acknowledge the risks he takes by fighting on short-notice. The game fighter admitted he didn’t think much about the consequences of those risks to his long-term health, now, while in the midst of a career which he loves and is still excelling in.
Ferguson rejected the idea outright that any real supporter of his might be worried about his health in light of his alleged paranoid behavior in recent months.
“My fans aren’t worried about me,” he insisted. “They’re on Instagram, sharing videos, doing the thing. And, like I’ve said before, everyone else can f--- off.”
Ferguson wasn’t merely resolute that there is no reason at all to be concerned about his mental health and his fighting so soon after police were involved in the alleged domestic situations, he claims that he was ready much sooner.
We asked what let Ferguson know he was ready for hard training and competition again, and when he knew it, after being served with the temporary restraining order in mid-March. “I knew I was ready by the Holloway/Poirier fight,” he contended.
The interim lightweight title fight between Max Holloway and Dustin Poirier took place on April 13. “El Cucuy” wanted in on that title opportunity, and insists he was “ready” for it.
If Ferguson means he was and is ready to compete effectively — and even win — so soon after his domestic disturbances and alleged violent psychological issues manifestations, he’s likely correct. He knows how to win fights.
In fact, he hasn’t lost one since 2012. Ability to win fights does not always coincide with brain health, however.
White told Yahoo Sports that “doctors” had indeed “cleared” Ferguson to fight before the promotion offered him the UFC 238 contract. White also provided confident but vague implicit assurance that Cerrone does not, in terms of brain health, need more than the month he’s getting between his last fight and Saturday’s.
“I would never put a fighter in a fight that they weren’t ready to fight in,” White said.
“No one fight is worth it.”
Fighters are routinely offered bouts on short notice in the UFC, and sometimes with only weeks between bouts. Most state commissions which ostensibly regulate portions of the UFC’s domestic event operations do not require regular brain imaging or scans of athletes, and oftentimes give medical suspensions pretty close to immediately after bouts after relatively brief examinations, on-site, to fighters following their fights.
White insisted that the UFC has fighters examined by other doctors beyond what state commissions require to ensure their fitness to train and fight, but wouldn’t get specific on what types of tests are done, and how often. For White, it seems, there is not necessarily extraordinary danger in fighting on short-notice, and with little time to recover after previous outings.
In 2013, White called MMA “the safest sport in the world, fact,” citing something true he repeated to us Thursday — that there has never been an in-ring death in the UFC’s near 26-year history. The notion that MMA, or any combat sport where athletes receive blows to the head in nearly every contest, could ever be considered the “safest sport in the world,” is of course absurd.
Mixed martial artists have also died as an apparent direct result of weight-cutting and competition, though none of them have been UFC athletes. It’s also important to realize that traumatic brain injuries are often slow killers, with the symptoms of CTE sometimes not showing themselves until years after an athlete has stopped competing.
Several UFC veterans have gone public about the symptoms they say they’re experiencing now and believe are related to the brain trauma they’ve received during their fight careers, including Wanderlei Silva, Renato “Babalu” Sobral and Gary Goodridge. Silva is 42 years of age, Goodridge is 53 and Sobral is 43.
White also insisted that the promotion goes “above and beyond with healthcare” when it comes to fighters. That may very well be a matter of perspective, however, as UFC fighters do not have employee status, rights, or year-round healthcare coverage.
In Ferguson’s case leading up to this bout, White would not discuss whether or not Ferguson underwent psychological evaluations or treatment but did insist that “doctors checked Tony out, and once he was checked out and cleared by them, I didn’t have any concerns.” White understandably would not mention what doctors, by name, examined Ferguson, but did say that he met with the fighter personally.
After his May 4 win over Iaquinta, Cerrone called for either a title fight or a date with Conor McGregor. Instead, he’s fighting the former interim lightweight champion in Ferguson on short-notice.
Cerrone has made the “why” abundantly clear this week, and over the course of his career. He fights, and fights often, against just about anyone, he’s been consistent in telling the world, because he loves the sport, has goals he wants to reach, and because it’s how he makes a living for his family.
So, we didn’t ask Cerrone “why” he chose to fight this weekend without a real training camp or substantial rest and recovery time after his last bout, which went the distance. Instead, we asked Cerrone whether he ever, in the midst of his busy career, thinks about his own long-term health when deciding when and how often he fights.
Do the potential ramifications of damage sustained now in training and fights ever factor in to decisions made about whether or not to fight on short-notice, like he’s doing now and has done repeatedly in the past?
“Naw,” he says with a smile, patient with the difficult subject matter being brought up as he readies for battle and is in the middle of a weight cut. “No. I’m sure it will catch up to me someday, but I don’t think about that now.”
That’s admirable, though alarming.
Fighters fight, and Ferguson and Cerrone are fighter’s fighters. What we as spectators talk about when we talk about matchups like Ferguson vs. Cerrone can and should look outside of that scope, however, and state regulators should be much more careful about allowing athletes to fight as often and as long as they do, without also requiring additional brain health testing and monitoring.
State commissions are often underfunded and so regulation is sometimes done on the cheap, and done fast, effectively leaving large promotions like the UFC to call the shots with fight booking and fighter healthcare. The UFC does more than it used to with and for fighters, in this regard, but it’s nowhere near what athletes in other sport leagues get.
Cerrone may have known what he was getting into when he got into fighting, and he’s doing it because he loves it. Still, if he’d been an NFL, NBA or MLB player for as long as he’s been with the UFC/WEC, he would have likely had a host of things he doesn’t currently enjoy including a salary, a pension and health insurance. We mentioned this to him and ask if, even considering the lack of safety net for fighters once they hang up their gloves, he truly does not consider his long-term health when making fight decisions.
“No,” he concluded, still grinning and polite. “I love doing this.”
We all love watching fighters like Cerrone and Ferguson. Part of the reason for that is their skill, but a lot of it is because of their bravery and willingness to do what others won’t.
Gutsy, game, in the moment – that’s all fighters being what fighters should be. The larger structures surrounding the fight world, however, as well as the conversations we have about these remarkable athletes and their bouts which we so enjoy, should be much more sensitive than they usually are to the pain and sacrifice fights like Ferguson vs. Cerrone require.
More from Yahoo Sports: