Skip to main content

The Weekly Takedown: Tony Ferguson enters UFC 274 on mission to prove he's still an elite fighter

After three straight losses, can Ferguson regain his elusive form in a must-win bout against Michael Chandler?

Welcome to The Weekly Takedown, Sports Illustrated's in-depth look at MMA. Every week, this column offers insight and information on the most noteworthy stories in the fight world.

Only two years ago, Tony Ferguson was on the cusp of achieving his greatest success in the UFC.

After plowing through 12 consecutive opponents, Ferguson had won 25 of his 28 pro fights. His next opponent was the undefeated Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 249, and Ferguson was ready to climb to heights previously unexplored by winning the undisputed lightweight championship and forever breaking Nurmagomedov's pristine record.

That would have forever changed Ferguson's legacy. But plans changed.

There was the issue of travel during the pandemic, then further complications were added when Nurmagomedov's father was hospitalized after being diagnosed with COVID-19. Justin Gaethje replaced Nurmagomedov, turning the bout into an interim title fight, and what initially appeared to be a legendary moment for Ferguson instead became a breakout fight for his opponent. Gaethje controlled the fight from start until finish, earning himself a TKO win with just over a minute remaining in the final round, starting a career tailspin for Ferguson.

Gaethje went on to have a title unification bout against Nurmagomedov, which Nurmagomedov won in convincing fashion. Ferguson's style would have been extremely problematic for Nurmagomedov, but that is a bout that ultimately never happened. And with Nurmagomedov now retired, it is one that will also never take place.

Unless, of course, you ask Ferguson, who may be the only person in the world who still believes he will square off against Nurmagomedov, whether that be in the cage–or elsewhere.

"I'm not going to call myself an Oracle, but before his father passed, that was the fight that was supposed to happen," Ferguson said. "We were supposed to compete. Someday, we will. Whether it's a fight or a chess match or something else, it is going to happen."

Ferguson next enters the octagon this Saturday in a must-win bout against Michael Chandler. His epic 12-fight victory streak was replaced with three straight losses. That stretch has included Ferguson (25-6 MMA, 15-4 UFC) suffering one-sided defeats to Gaethje, Charles Oliveira, and, one year ago, Beneil Dariush. The 38-year-old Ferguson needs a strong performance against Chandler (22-7 MMA, 1-2 UFC) to show he remains one of the most dangerous fighters in UFC's lightweight division.

"I still have a lot to prove," Ferguson said. "There is a lot that's driving me. Coming out of a great camp, I'm feeling strong, the weight is good. I feel really confident – not overconfident – that I can bring the pressure on this kid."

Entering UFC 274 a sizable underdog, there will be endless chatter about Ferguson's demise if he drops a fourth straight. But he is looking to capitalize on an opponent that also enters on a losing streak. Chandler has dropped his past two bouts, and Ferguson believes he has the former Bellator star lulled into a false sense of security.

"I respect his grit, his tenacity," Ferguson said. "But what I don't like about him is that he talks about himself in the third person. And he's already looking past me. That's dangerous.

"Everyone on this side, we're making sure we are focused. My focus is Mike Chandler."

Well aware of the significance of Saturday's bout, Ferguson is seeking to regain the elusive form that brought him much success. Even if the odds do not appear to be in his favor, he has three rounds to prove otherwise.

"I'm not here to lose," Ferguson said. "I'm here to win. I'm not taking any performance-decreasing drugs. I'm not that guy.

"I'm not going to be a slow starter, that's for sure. Right now, I'm worried about UFC 274 and Mike Chandler. And when I beat Michael, the only thing I'm going to be worried about is my victory dance."

Ryan Bader defends heavyweight title in France at Bellator 280

UFC 274 isn't the only big-ticket fight card this weekend.

Kayla Harrison and Anthony Pettis both compete on tomorrow's PFL card, and there is also a heavyweight title bout at Bellator 280.

Ryan Bader returns to the cage to defend his championship against Cheick Kongo. This is a rematch from September of 2019, when an accidental eye poke from Bader in the opening round rendered this bout a no-contest. As Bader (29-7 MMA, 7-2 BMMA) transitions to full-time in the heavyweight division, he wants this victory against Kongo (31-11-2 MMA, 13-3 BMMA) to help cement that he is at the top of the division.

Though Bader won the title in January of 2019, he has only defended it twice because he was still competing in the light heavyweight division. One of those title defenses was the no-decision against Kongo, while the other was a unanimous decision victory against Valentin Moldavsky, who is the protege of the great Fedor Emelianenko.

Bader defeated Emelianenko by TKO to win the vacant heavyweight title. After beating Moldavsky in January, Bader assumed his next opponent would be Emelianenko, who is on the record saying he would like another crack at Bader for the final fight of his legendary career.

"I thought we were going to set up a rematch against Fedor after I beat Moldavsky," Bader said. "It threw me for a loop when Kongo came out. That's the first time they threw that on me. We were still in the cage and my manager came up and said, ‘You're fighting Kongo in May in Paris.'"

The 46-year-old Cheick isn't the biggest draw, but he has unfinished business with Bader. He is also from Paris, the city hosting Bellator 280. Bader plans on retaining the title with a definitive, controversy-free finish, and he will then be open to exploring a rematch against Emelianenko.

"I thought that was going to be my next fight," Bader said. "I don't know where that's at, but I'm open to it. I have a world of respect for Fedor. If he wants to fight again, then let's fight again."

The Pick ‘Em Section:

UFC 274 main event lightweight title bout: Charles Oliveira (c) vs. Justin Gaethje

  • Pick: Charles Oliveira

UFC 274 women's strawweight title bout: Rose Namajunas (c) vs. Carla Esparza

  • Pick: Rose Namajunas

UFC 274 lightweight bout: Michael Chandler vs. Tony Ferguson

  • Pick: Michael Chandler

Bellator 280 main event heavyweight title bout: Ryan Bader (c) vs. Cheick Kongo

  • Pick: Ryan Bader

PFL lightweight bout: Anthony Pettis vs. Myles Price

  • Pick: Anthony Pettis

Last week: 2-3

2022 record: 54-25