Issue 163

January 2018

The world demands Tony Ferguson Vs. Conor McGregor, no one more than 'El Cucuy' himself, who says it's time for the 'The Notorious' to defend or vacate.

This interview with Tony Ferguson was conducted a few hours after his rival Conor McGregor’s inexplicable assault at the Bellator 187 event in Dublin, 2018. The ‘Mad Mac Beyond The Bellator Thunderdome’ episode heralds serious smack towards the Irishman from ‘El Cucuy’ – the bogeyman. The incident, explains Ferguson, and McGregor’s attitude and actions, show just where the current champion is right now: in no man’s land.

And the American fighter, the UFC’s interim lightweight champion, expresses the simplest of goals: calling, in his view, the pesky McGregor to task, though admitting his own ambition right now involves self-development, climbing the UFC’s pound-for-pound list.

Firstly, addressing McGregor’s unbridled leap into the cage in Dublin, he offers this: “I have to kind of laugh at it. It’s a lot of hype and a lot of build-up. A meteoric rise like that will get to somebody’s head. You forget your manners,” explained the Californian fighter, who has to rank as one of the most improved mixed martial artists on the entire UFC roster.

Ten successive victories in four years, and indeed, just one defeat in 17 fights spanning back to 2009, sees Ferguson full of the vim and vigor rightly derived from a run in which nothing has been handed to him, unlike current UFC lightweight champion McGregor, he believes, the Irishman having earned a reported $100 million for his part in losing a boxing match against Floyd Mayweather Jr last summer. Ferguson had five Performance or Fight of the Night bonuses on the trot before claiming that interim crown.

Since defeating Eddie Alvarez, McGregor has not defended his UFC lightweight crown for a year. It sticks in the craw. “I think that boy needs some manners taught to him. He needs to get his ass kicked by a man named ‘El Cucuy’. I think he is losing his mind. He needs to get his ass back in that Octagon before he gets hurt.”

Ferguson’s thinking is clear. “Everybody on that (UFC) pound-for-pound list has a belt. There’s not one person on there that doesn’t have a belt. If you want to be on the list and considered pound-for-pound, you’re probably going to have to have a belt. I don’t think Conor wants to vacate that belt just yet. If he wants to try and figure something out and prolong it, and get out of the fight, that’s fine.”

But Ferguson believes there is another option for the Irishman, who has stated that the American’s draw with fans just doesn’t match up to his, even though his skill set plainly does. “If he doesn’t want it, just put the belt down and walk away, then,” reasons Ferguson. “The fights are always going to go on without this knucklehead. They always have and always will. People have been fighting for years. They win, they lose, they come, they die, they live. The legacy lives on. People always remember the next best fight.

“With Conor, if he wants to keep this up, he’s going to be just like Jon Jones’ case. I know a lot of people are about the money fights but I’ve never needed anybody to make the money for me. I’ve made my money by winning consistently. For myself and my family, I don’t need someone to tell me whether they’re going to defend a belt or not. I don’t give two f**ks. That belt’s going to be mine either way, regardless of whether he defends it or vacates it. I’m going to keep winning and keep providing for my family. I’m not going to change.”

He sees a lot of options. The first one is what happens, structurally, with the lightweight division. Essentially, in a perfect world, Ferguson ought to have fought McGregor by the end of 2017, but the interim champion is resolved that it won’t happen – for now.

“Bottom line is that this fight has to happen. We have to settle this s**t and unify these belts. Otherwise, I see his legacy being complete bulls**t. He talked his way up there and he’ll be known as a paper champion from now until forever.

“Defend or vacate, man. I’d be f**king scared of me too.”

Walking around at a “beastly” 195lb, with the ability to finish on the feet, from the top or on his back, the 33-year-old is certainly a dangerous proposition. But Ferguson believes there will come a time when McGregor will not be able to resist the lure of the challenge. It is in all fighters, he reckons.

“That’s why I feel with Conor he may or may not want to take this fight, but I guarantee you, I know him, he’s an athlete,” he says. “He’s going to get tired of all this partying and other bulls**t. His kid’s going to get older. There will be a lot of changes that happen naturally. The one thing he can’t get rid of is that athlete talent. When that’s in somebody it drives them crazy. He doesn’t want to see that belt around my waist. That drives him nuts.

“When you accomplish certain things like he has, the monetary part is great, you can do as much as you want, but there’s that burning sensation you hold as an athlete. I see Conor, regardless of all this stuff, looking from his home, and he might not say much, but all this s**t is going to get to him. I will keep saying little things to get to him. It might be a closed mouth don’t get fed but sometimes people talk too much. Paulie Malignaggi and all these others guys trying to fight Conor, while I’m sat on the sidelines, chilling. I ain’t saying f**king s**t. If he says one word, I’ll say one thing back. That’s it. He knows exactly where I come from. His legacy will be finished if he fights me. That’s a big risk on his part.”

The acquisition of the UFC’s interim lightweight belt in October in Las Vegas, at UFC 216, was one of the weirdest weeks of Ferguson’s life. It is unlikely ever to be repeated. The contest with Kevin Lee came just a week after the horrific Las Vegas shooting that rocked Sin City and the world. There were 58 victims and more than 500 injured.

The Saturday fight night was a day for solemn thoughts and silent prayer, yet just a few streets away, the Strip was a bustling mass of humanity, as is usual on a weekend in this Disneyland for adults. The Mandalay Bay, with its shimmering gold, had a haunted quality about its facade that week as fight fans streamed towards the nearby T-Mobile Arena.

The eerie week deeply affected Ferguson. On fight day, the road was still cordoned o by police and the musical stage was still untouched. Throughout the afternoon, FBI officers were removing the abandoned belongings of people who ran from the murderous gunman who turned the Route 91 Festival into a massacre site.

All over the city, inside casinos and on billboards, were the #VegasStrong signs which became emblematic of the deadliest mass shooting in American history. It will remain a bloodstain on the Mojave Desert. Sometimes it is difficult to make sense of the world we live in. For Ferguson, being in Vegas on that terrible weekend will stay with him. 

“Having my family that close to the situation... man. We were going to go that festival,” he reveals. “I was finishing off practice and cutting some weight, and when we came back, trying to get back to my family, I heard there were multiple shootings and I was just trying to figure out what had happened. There was a lot of chaos, man, especially when you’re trying to get ready for a fight. I can only imagine how the people who were there and had to live through that s**t felt.” 

It affected him deeply. Like it did so many people that week. “During the week I didn’t get too much sleep. Usually, I run the Strip to go and cut some weight. The whole week was altered, man. But the one thing I remembered was trying to be professional. The UFC didn’t cancel the fight. I had to remember that I had a family to support and I had people counting on me. I felt that it was my duty to go out there and give the best show I possibly f**king could, which meant a different Tony Ferguson fight, which meant taking a lot more risks. It was a turn-the-other-cheek mindset.”

It was a more raucous, carefree, even reckless approach from Ferguson. He knew, for example, that his skill set outmatched Lee. But he also knew Lee’s conditioning would be “top notch”. In the end, Ferguson threw caution to the wind and wanted simply “to entertain” the fans.

“The last fight, I had fun in there. He (McGregor) might look at me and think my chin is exposed but I go in there and take chances and take risks, because that’s what I do. I do that in the fight game just as you would in a football game. If you’re not moving the ball you have to take a risk and move the defense a little bit to make some f**king plays. You’ve got to make plays. If you’re not a playmaker you’re going to lose.

“For me, in the weeks leading up to the fight, I was doing homework on certain fighters and the way they approached the game. I took the approach of Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran when they fought the second time. I was Leonard. Any time that dude was trying to get mad or do anything like that, I had to shake it off. My training in Big Bear was more serene than it was pumping weights or hitting mitts or doing whatever. It was like, don’t let this dude get a hold of my mental game. Not one bit. If he did, it was going to be me who took myself out of the fight.”

There were times early in the contest with Lee where Ferguson looked like he was losing it, but his superiority in conditioning and finishing ability prevailed.

Perhaps because of those events in Las Vegas, the journey he has made, coming up the hard way, Ferguson has grown. As a man, and as a fighter. “The man I am today is because of the wins and losses I have taken in and out of that Octagon. Straight up. I’ve matured, bought my house, had a kid, got married, got two dogs. I’ve got things I never thought I’d have.

“I’m an athlete, a professional athlete, and I love what I do. But I know no matter what it is that I do if I put 100% into it, just like I do with this, I’m going to be OK. We’re going to be fine. Not just fine but great. I don’t know how to lose and not bounce back.”

In other words, Ferguson has already developed the mindset of a champion. And, in fact, what he is saying now mirrors what McGregor was saying in pursuit of Jose? Aldo at featherweight, a couple of years back. He’s also sacrificing mind, body and spirit to be at a lighter weight in order to dominate. It’s funny how things tend to mirror each other in MMA. 

"When you’re champion, you have a lot of different looks at you, man. It’s a crazy type of thing. It took a lot longer than I thought for the belt to actually sit in my mental game, because I’m always looking forward to that next tournament or that next fight.

“That’s that competitive nature and that fire I was talking about that’s hard to put out. There’s a lot of fire in this division but I’ve extinguished a lot of it,” he explains, as his mind returns to McGregor. “Conor sees that I’m a danger to his light and he doesn’t want me to extinguish it. If he feels that he loses to me, especially in spectacular fashion, there’s no bouncing back from it.”

But Ferguson urges integrity as a champion over the green goddess of the almighty dollar. “He needs to do it to put some honor back into this sport. Nelson Mandela said it perfectly. He said sport uni es people. The weekend in New York we had a whole bunch of champions, and 2018 is going to be a changing of the guard. If Conor still wants to lead the pack, fine. But I think he’s on his way out. I think he’s losing it mentally and isn’t stable enough to fight me. Yet I’m ready for him.

“Regardless of whether he wants to defend or vacate, it’s not going to matter. Conor doesn’t make my world spin. There’s a bunch of other things going on in this world that I have to worry about. I’ve always made my money by winning. I don’t need somebody else to pay my meal ticket, especially Conor McGregor.”

Ferguson believes wholeheartedly that he has the kryptonite for Conor, and he’s convinced McGregor is trying to avoid fighting him. But he’s adamant ‘The Notorious’ has no other alternative. This is his call to arms: “The boy’s scared. He’s running right now. He’d much rather take a fight with Paulie Malignaggi on f**king Showtime. Make me beg? Get the f**k out of here. You’re a f**king MMA fighter. Quit running.

“Conor. You’re f**king scared dude – McNuggets.”

He has a theory that McGregor “isn’t actually happy”, knowing that what makes fighters happy is the challenge, the call out, the training camp, the battle and the glow of victory.

“The more antics he puts out there, the less happy he seems. He can do all this different stuff but when the cage door closes there are only a couple of people locked in there. He’s got a lot to think about before he signs on that dotted line. He might want to ask for a s**t load of money because this could be the last time he fights again and the last time he walks again, especially if I kick him in those chicken legs,” says Ferguson with a spit and spite as if the 

fight is just about to go down.

“If he wants to settle this s**t, we’ll settle it like men. I’ll put my belt with his belt and we’ll squash this s**t and find out who the best fighter is at 155.” Now that’s fighting talk from ‘El Cucuy’.