For a long time, Tony “El Cucuy” Ferguson (22-3) was like the Ebola virus: very dangerous but acknowledged only by the smartest of us. But his absolute outclassing of Rafael Dos Anjos was like an outbreak that the news actually covered. It was the capstone on a nine-fight win streak encompassing a murderer’s row including Josh Thomson and Edson Barboza, cementing him as the best lightweight on the planet.
At first glance, it’s hard to tell why Ferguson is so good. He has a fantastic reach, but his hands aren’t fast enough to outfight effectively. Consequently, Ferguson gets clipped a lot. His takedown defense isn’t great, and he fights tall which means it’s easy to run through him to get him to the ground.
But what Ferguson does better than anyone is learn on the fly.
Yes, he gets clipped, but survives due to his incredible chin and recovers pretty quickly. He uses this information to gauge an opponent’s effective range and start timing his own shots. People may not realize this, but Ferguson doesn’t get hurt by the same shot twice. On the ground, Ferguson throws up submission attempts, hammer fists and elbows as he tries to get back to his feet which saps his opponent’s gas tank.
From there, his natural gifts take over.
The top speed of his punches may be low, but he can still throw combinations faster than you’d expect which pairs nicely with the concussive power in his hands. Combined with his brutal body kicks, opponents that are too slow to get inside get eaten up. Opponents that desperately shoot for takedowns fall victim to his incredible D’Aarce choke, the same one that stole victory from the jaws of defeat against Lando Vannata.
So many of Ferguson’s weaknesses seem to exist by design it’s hard to tell whether they’re weaknesses at all.
All it took was one fight to turn Kevin “Mo-Town Phenom” Lee (11-2) from hot prospect into a legitimate title contender.
He had finished his last three opponents (snapping Fransisco Trinaldo’s seven fight winning streak) when he ran up against Michael Chiesa. At the time Chiesa was rapidly reaching contender status. He stood 6’1″, had a record of 14-2 with ten submissions and had won three straight including a standing rear naked choke of Beneil Dariush. Kevin Lee, for all intents and purposes, was a step down in competition.
Lee rag dolled Chiesa to the ground and choked him out in the first round. Forget the controversial Mario Yamasaki stoppage; Chiesa wasn’t going to beat that rear naked choke. With Khabib Nurmagomedov’s extended (and quite possibly permanent) absence from the division, Lee is the most explosive lightweight grappler in the UFC. This is a guy who can run through opponents with tackles, trip them out of the clinch, or suplex them in the open.
It’s not just his raw, explosive strength either; he has muscle endurance. Lee can just grab an opponent’s wrist and slowly wrench it away from their body to open their neck for a choke. This is further exacerbated by Kevin Lee’s reach; despite being 5′ 9″ his reach is an absurd 77″. Meaning that Lee isn’t just explosive and crazy strong, but also long beyond comprehension. He’s like an octopus on steroids.
On the feet, Lee is limited but dangerous. He’s not a particularly intelligent or technical striker, but his right hand over the top has slobber-knocking power. His lefts and body kicks can get sloppy at times, but he throws them so hard that a blocking opponent is still stunned.
Power isn’t everything, however. Leonardo Santos kept Lee on the feet long enough to land a counterpunch and secure a TKO. Lee’s become a better fighter since that loss but he has faced no one who could test his striking since then.
Ferguson is always clipped and taken down in the beginning of fights. Lee hits harder and wrestles better than any of his previous opposition and, consequently, has the best chance of finishing Ferguson.
But Ferguson’s advantage on the feet dwarfs Lee’s advantage on the ground. Lee is better than any of the wrestlers Ferguson has faced, but Ferguson is leagues ahead of anything Lee’s seen in the striking department. If Santos could catch him, Ferguson can maul him.
Even with Lee’s explosive power, multiple opponents of middling quality have lasted into the second and third rounds with him. He still wins the overwhelming majority of those fights, but his explosiveness is muted as a fight progresses. That kind of momentum shift favors Ferguson, who likes seeing what his opponent has got before hacking away at their soul.
Lee matches up really well to Ferguson, so the betting odds are accordingly close. But Ferguson takes this in the later rounds off a D’Arce to counter Lee’s takedown.
Tony Ferguson via Submission
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