As always, Tony Ferguson walked into UFC 291 brimming with confidence. The former interim lightweight champion has never been a man short on self belief. No matter how far down he seems to be in the chips, he’s there to take the next gamble. Even in a sport notable for its heavy concentration of guys who don’t know when to quit, ‘El Cucuy”s single-mindedness stands apart.
That said, when all the dust was settled after UFC 291, Ferguson only had his ‘show money’ to hang his hat on. Another stoppage loss for the fighter who once went twelve fights and seven years without tasting defeat. Ferguson hasn’t seen a win since 2019; six fights, six losses, four inside the distance. Something has to change.
Daniel Cormier calls for UFC to release Ferguson or ease up his booking
After his latest loss, the 10th Planet black belt made it clear that he wasn’t looking to retire. “I plan to work closely with Dana, Hunter & my entire team to assess what’s next,” he wrote while also stating that “I know for a fact I have more to give.”
As for what that conversation between Ferguson and the UFC might look like? Former two-division champion Daniel Cormier gave his thoughts on a recent episode of his DC & RC show: That the UFC either needs to give Ferguson a serious step back, or release him altogether.
“Five fights to the title, that was his catchline all week, but now he’s lost six in a row,” Cormier explained (transcript via MMA Junkie) “Look man, this guy is not losing to terrible fighters. He’s lost to Diaz, Chandler, Dariush, Oliveira, and Bobby Green now. But the reality is, he’s 39 years old, and while he still has a ton of heart to fight, it just does not seem like his body is allowing him to do everything that his mind is telling him to do.
“Because of that, and only that, I think it might be time for him to either say to the UFC, ‘I want to keep fighting but the competition needs to go down,’ or go fight somewhere else. He’s going to be mad at me about it, but yes, the fight’s still there. It just does not seem the body is able to respond in the way his mind is telling it to. So, I tap in (on Ferguson walking away).”
Cormier’s right not to talk retirement
It seems silly to say this—since the obvious, clear takeaway from Ferguson’s recent results are that he shouldn’t be fighting at all anymore—but Cormier is right not to take Ferguson to task for continuing his career. If the last century of combat sports has taught us anything (apart from how bad fighting is for your brain), it’s that the fight game is incredibly hard to let go of.
When people outside a fighter’s intimate circle start talking about how they should retire, the result is almost always unhappy. For many athletes in the MMA and boxing world, everything about their identity has been wrapped up in their ability as competitors. For some it’s the only real, stable job they’ve ever had. Even in best case scenarios like Chuck Liddell and Matt Hughes, where Dana White stepped in and offered them long term employment to walk away from fighting, both men ended up bitter in their resentment towards White’s interference.
Liddell eventually returned to competition eight years later, only to get knocked out by Tito Ortiz in their terribly ill advised 2018 trilogy fight. Hughes had his long-teased return to competition cut off by a horrific train accident that left him with severely limited mobility in the aftermath. Neither man ever wanted to quit, even with money and security and a legacy to stand on.
Trying to force Ferguson out of MMA via well meant concern seems almost guaranteed not to work. To harangue him with constant calls for his retirement would not only be unlikely to result in fewer Tony Ferguson fights, but would likely only make his life outside of fighting worse. He’ll quit when he’s ready, not before.
Ferguson can fight, but fans don’t need to see it
If the 39-year-old former top contender wants to keep competing, he’ll find a way. The much more cruel truth, however, is that Ferguson no longer looks like a feature competitor and shouldn’t be treated as such. A truly benevolent UFC plan would be to let him keep making the kind of money he earned over his years as a top talent, while also facing lower tier fighters down on the prelims, something like the deal they’ve seemingly had going with Andrei Arlovski (although Arlovski has showed a much more gentle decline).
More likely, if this wasn’t already the very last straw, the UFC will use whatever’s left of Ferguson’s name for a fight or two and then kick him to the curb. If the PFL still sees value there, they might try jumping on the scraps for a couple more highlight fights. Otherwise, the former Ultimate Fighter winner will likely end up on the Middle Eastern/Russian MMA circuit, where rich men will seemingly pay decent money for former UFC talent to get fed to regional stars.
Much like the way the early years of a combat sports career can be a brutal, low-paying grind among fighters barely scratching out a living working part time jobs as they try to balance a professional training regimen, the late years have a tragedy all their own. With promoters looking for any last shred of drawing power they can squeeze out of someone before they lose all will to compete.
It’s because of that, that I feel like fans have to know when to turn away. The brittle agreement between spectator and entertainer so often means being there to pick someone up when they’re down. To keep rooting for the team, even when the team is bad. To let an athlete know how inspiring they are for continuing to battle against all odds. But, combat sports are different.
The cost of fighting is so high, and the bar to entry so low, that it’s too easy for fighters to compete well past any sensible point. This isn’t Stephon Marbury going off to play basketball in China, where technically you could stay a die hard fan for years beyond his NBA days and be supportive of what is still a reasonably successful basketball career. MMA very rarely provides that kind of third act. Instead, as fans, we have to pick our time to say when we’ve seen enough, come whatever may.
Ferguson can compete however much he likes, for better or worse, but his time as an elite fighter is almost certainly done. What’s left for him in MMA is unlikely to be worth watching.
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