The time has come for Tony Ferguson to get that mega-fight

Kevin IoleCombat columnist
Yahoo Sports
Tony Ferguson celebrates his victory over Donald Cerrone in their lightweight bout during UFC 238 at the United Center on June 8, 2019 in Chicago. (Getty Images)
Tony Ferguson celebrates his victory over Donald Cerrone in their lightweight bout during UFC 238 at the United Center on June 8, 2019 in Chicago. (Getty Images)

CHICAGO — Referee Dan Miragliotta, a hulk of a man who is generally much larger and more physically imposing than the fighters he is supposed to control inside the cage, was folded into parts, crouching down to watch a replay of a punch by Tony Ferguson that occurred after the bell to end the second round of his bout with Donald Cerrone at the United Center.

Though no one in the crowd of 16,083 knew it, doctors had already made the determination that Cerrone couldn’t continue because a grotesquely swollen right eye.

No one beats up opponents quite like Ferguson, who leaves the men he fights with oddly shaped heads, lacerations and welts all over their faces.

Cerrone certainly looked the part of a Ferguson victim as the second round came down the homestretch. All of the unease about Ferguson’s mental health was forgotten when the bell sounded to begin this fight that, on paper, at least, promised the most violence of any fight the UFC had ever made.

That’s saying something.

How Ferguson-Cerrone went down at UFC 238

The bout was third to last, the final non-title bout of UFC 238, but this was treated as the main event in everything but name only. The house lights darkened as Ferguson made the walk down the aisle typically reserved for the champions.

The crowd was in a frenzy as the bout began, and Cerrone and Ferguson quickly showed the uninitiated why. They fought with little regard for their own bodies, as if all that mattered was doing as much damage to the other guy as possible.

The Marquess of Queensbury rules refer to boxing as “the manly art of self defense.” This could have been referred to as “the manly art of bludgeoning another guy half to death with punches, elbows, kicks and knees.”

After it was over, Ferguson was talking about how pleased he was that his fans showed him so much love when he was suffering with mental health issues before the fight that caused his wife, Cristina, to seek a temporary restraining order against him.

“I’m very thankful to have such a great fan base that cares about our well-being,” Ferguson said. “We’re not animals, man. We’re not out there cockfighting.”

But the best way to describe a Ferguson or a Cerrone fight is savagery. Their bouts aren’t for the faint of heart, for either anyone planning to step into the cage with them or for those who watch with perhaps a weak stomach.

Donald Cerrone punches Tony Ferguson in their lightweight bout during UFC 238 at the United Center on June 8, 2019 in Chicago. (Getty Images)
Donald Cerrone punches Tony Ferguson in their lightweight bout during UFC 238 at the United Center on June 8, 2019 in Chicago. (Getty Images)

The first round was close, and while exciting, it wasn’t the greatest round in UFC history. Ferguson won the round on two of the three cards, but he was just getting warmed up when Round 2 began.

Cerrone is like a force of nature and he’s used to winning fights by willing himself to walk through the fire until his opponent fizzles in face of the pressure. But in Ferguson, he was fighting a mirror image of himself.

Ferguson entered the fight with a 12-bout winning streak and while there were also questions raised about his fitness to fight, there were also plenty of questions about why he wasn’t a bigger star given his talent and fan-friendly style.

This was the night that he would step to the next level, though. His fist continually found a place on Cerrone’s face as the second round began. Right. Left. Left-right-left.

Neither man ever landed the home-run shot that could end it, but Ferguson was like Chinese water torture: Drip, drip, drip. There was never any release.

Halfway through the second, Cerrone’s face looked as if it had been through a meat grinder, and it looked eerily similar to the faces of men like Anthony Pettis, Kevin Lee, Rafael dos Anjos, Lando Vannata and Edson Barboza — all of whom Ferguson had beaten during his long winning streak.

“He was slowing down, I think,” Ferguson said of Cerrone. “It just took me a second. It’s been a while since the last time I fought. It was different, it took me longer to get into it. I didn’t feel like I was into the fight until I got taken down. Then my Grand Valley roots, they pulled me and I just popped back up. … In the second round, I saw him slowing down. The body shots and kicks, he was a little surprised by my kicks.”

True to his nature, Cerrone kept pushing, but Ferguson’s blows were having an impact. He didn’t change strategy, nor adopt a more defensive posture. He kept hanging in there, believing he’d be able to land the shot or the combination of shots that would turn it in his favor.

“I don’t quit,” Cerrone said, resolutely, before leaving the United Center to be treated for a fractured orbital bone. “I don’t back down. I just wanted to keep fighting.”

He went wearily back to his corner for the third round, but there was little doubt that Cerrone would put on a charge when the round began. It’s who he is, and everyone in the place knew it.

He was trying to open his right eye and was poking at it with his fingers, when he made the cardinal sin of blowing his nose. Air went into the pocket and couldn’t be released because of the swelling. As a result, a mostly closed eye shut completely and turned into a grotesque mess.

Donald Cerrone reacts after the conclusion of his lightweight bout against Tony Ferguson during UFC 238 at the United Center on June 8, 2019 in Chicago. (Getty Images)
Donald Cerrone reacts after the conclusion of his lightweight bout against Tony Ferguson during UFC 238 at the United Center on June 8, 2019 in Chicago. (Getty Images)

When the fighters got off their stools prepared to start the third round, Miragliotta noticed Cerrone’s eye and called time. He invited doctors into the cage to examine him.

At the same time, Miragliotta left the Octagon to go to the Illinois commission’s table and watch a replay. Ferguson landed a right hand a second or perhaps two after the bell sounded to end the second.

Miragliotta looked to see whether the late punch was what caused Cerrone’s eye to swell. As he watched, the doctors had decided Cerrone would not be able to continue. All that was left to be determined, though the crowd did not know this, is whether it was a Ferguson win by TKO or a Cerrone win by disqualification. Had the illegal punch caused the swelling, Ferguson would have been disqualified.

It did not and he got arguably the biggest win of his career.

The crowd groaned, because anticipation for the fight had been so high. A beer flung from the rafters landed in the center of the cage. But there was no controversy. Miragliotta and the doctors had made the right call.

“Anybody who was in this arena tonight who thought Cowboy should have continued the fight should be beaten with a stick, OK?” UFC president Dana White said afterward. “That’s just horrible to think that that guy should go back in there and fight like that. He would, of course he would, but he shouldn’t, and he didn’t.”

What’s next for Ferguson after win over Cerrone?

The win was a milestone for Ferguson, who is in position for a big fight against either “Tiramisu,” — his nickname for lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov — or “McNuggets,” — his nickname for ex-champion Conor McGregor.

He’s beaten a litany of the best fighters in the best division over the last decade, and he deserves the biggest bout that could be made. Understandably, there was some discussion about a rematch, and White wouldn’t rule it out depending upon when Cerrone heals, but Ferguson deserves the most significant match the UFC could give him.

His 12-fight winning streak is the sixth longest in UFC history, trailing only Anderson Silva (16), Demetrious Johnson (13), Max Holloway (13), Jon Jones (13) and George St-Pierre (13).

And it should be said that Ferguson, like those five, is a legendary figure in this company and in this sport.

“I forgot how many wins in a row I’ve got,” Ferguson said. “Not to be cocky, but I don’t care. I don’t. I look at that belt and I carry it with me to media day and that kind of stuff. I’m real proud of that. I won it and I haven’t lost it. To me, I haven’t lost it. I got to lose in order to lose that s--t. If I would have lost tonight, I would have bought Cowboy a [expletive] belt. … I want to keep [the streak] going. I want to be in the Hall of Fame. How do you do that? You keep winning. You keep putting your nose to the grindstone. You keep doing your thing and you don’t worry about other bulls---. It’ll come.”

Ferguson, undefeated since 2012, deserves a title shot. Nurmagomedov will meet interim champion Dustin Poirier in Abu Dhabi on Sept. 7 at UFC 242 for the undisputed title. Ferguson against the winner makes sense.

If McGregor comes back, Ferguson is the perfect opponent for him in what would be a highly anticipated fight.

He’s more than paid his dues. It’s long past time for Ferguson to be on the biggest stage the UFC can provide.

With all his quirks, never forget this simple fact: He’s undeniably one of the best to ever do it.

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