If I could give you one piece of advice this UFC 256 fight week, it would be this: Do not, under any circumstances, try to tell Tony Ferguson (25-4) how many hours of sleep he should be getting.
The chip on Ferguson's shoulder is massive this week, and his me-against-the-world dial is turned up to 11 heading into Saturday's co-main event with Charles Oliveira (29-8-1). They say all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. But say this for Ferguson: as he stomps his way toward Saturday, the routine is anything but dull.
In virtually all his media appearances this week, Ferguson's taken aim at Oliveira, the UFC, Conor McGregor and, of course, the assembled slobs of the MMA media. No one is safe from one of the UFC's most intense competitors.
But surely even Ferguson has to decompress at some point. When I spoke with him by phone in an exclusive interview, I thought I'd keep things light by asking him what he does when it's time to chill. For example, how did he optimize his recovery? Did he get eight hours of sleep?
"Maaaaan. Eight hours?" he scoffed, as if I'd just told him I'd been taken in by a pyramid scheme. "I don't get eight hours. That's just some number."
I told him I was basing the number on well-known doctor recommendations.
"Oh," he said, with the assurance of someone check-mating Boris Spassky. "Now it's the doctors who say it."
But Ferguson wasn't done pontificating. Something about my line of questioning had set him off.
"You sound like you need some more me time," he said to me a few minutes later. "You seem like you take things too calculated. Look in the mirror. If you're pale, it means you've been stuck inside. Get outside. Put the phone down. Everyone's gotta put their phones down."
How does he control his phone time?
"By knowing I'm two minutes past the end of this phone interview."
And that, as they say, was that.
I was far from alone, though, as it was merely one example of an adversarial fight week for Ferguson. If the right mindset and focus are key to success in the cage, one has to wonder if these components are dragging Ferguson down.
There was one quote that seemed to encapsulate several beefs in one. Speaking to TSN reporter Aaron Bronsteter during an event media day (h/t Body Lock MMA), Ferguson took aim and fired with a scatter gun's worth of vitriol and, yes, paranoia:
"I keep earning my way to victory every single time, but nobody speaks up. You guys [in the media] don't speak up because you guys are getting paid by Conor [McGregor]. You guys are getting paid by Proper Twelve and all that other bulls--t. You guys got that f--king facade over your face. You guys don't want to speak up for me and be like, 'Yo, give Tony the f--king title shot.' You guys got umpteen amount of time to talk to [UFC president] Dana [White], but you guys aren't speaking up for me. You guys are watching me get f--ked over left and right by my old management companies. Nobody's saying s--t right but yet here I am saving the f--king day and making sure everyone's got entertainment in the world and then taking heat afterwards saying, 'Why didn't you win?'"
Even small talk about sleep goes down in flames when Ferguson's fanning it. But at the end of the day, the ultra-intense competitor isn't in Las Vegas to be nice or to contemplate his sleep patterns. It's just a matter of whether the gambit will work.
I mean, can't Ferguson just chill? Like even a little bit? It's not like he'd suddenly stop being an amazing fighter if he did. Even by the standards of an offseason-less blood sport, Ferguson stands out as someone who is, well, tightly wound. And this week he appears to be settling all types of scores, real and Jordanseque alike.
Will it serve him well in the cage, where DraftKings has him as a solid-but-not-overwhelming -175 (bet $100 to win $57.14) favorite to handle a streaking Oliveira and his top-notch jiu-jitsu? Will he shake off the cobwebs of his last fight, in which he took the worst beating of his career? That remains to be seen.
In a way, Ferguson's beef goes back to 2013, when his 12-fight win streak began. That streak made Ferguson elite. From there, the intense workouts and berserker stylings made him a main-card mainstay and a cult figure.
"The stuff I'm doing, the point is to trick your body," he told me. "You gotta trick your body so it reacts differently. Not just training, weights, cardio. I came up with those because I was injured and could barely f--king walk. You guys didn't see that part, because I didn't put it out there. I was just doing a character that I created."
At certain points, it seemed the streak would lift him to a title bout, but circumstances intervened time and time again to scuttle a date with lightweight GOAT and now-retired Khabib Nurmagomedov. There has been a virtual litany of star-crossed super-bouts with Nurmagomedov and McGregor, and Ferguson has openly lambasted the UFC and pretty much all other stakeholders for the failure to make it happen.
And then there's Justin Gaethje. This spring, Gaethje stopped the streak and made Ferguson look human again, in the process putting serious punishment on the too-tough-for-his-own-good Ferguson, who finally went down in the waning minutes of the final round. It was the kind of sustained head trauma that looked, to plenty of observers including doctors, to be potentially career-altering. Ferguson is looking to prove Saturday that he's no worse for the wear. And the chip on his shoulder only grows.
Ferguson has been raising eyebrows for much of this year, so if he's still doing a character, he has a lot of people fooled. A month before he fought Gaethje, he decided to cut weight for UFC 249—an event that had already been rescheduled. He apparently did it to prove a point about his commitment to the proverbial bit. As most people know, weight cuts are one of the riskiest parts of the fight game. Dude!
It must be tiring always trying to tear a hole in the space-time continuum. I'm not saying Ferguson shouldn't feel free to air grievances or act however he wants. But here's a guy who appears, to an admittedly untrained eye, like the gears are overheating just a touch. Maybe an egg-white omelette and some shut-eye are just what the doctor ordered. Hopefully, a win over Oliveira Saturday will get him to a slightly more comfortable headspace. It's all a moot point (for now) if he wins Saturday, but in this fight week, he seems to have everything but the fight on his mind.
Lobbing one last softball in our talk, I asked him about a typical meal for the rest of fight week.
"Sticks and rocks, bro," he said. "I'm in the wilderness here."
That sounds like it would hurt.
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