Catching Up with Tony Ferguson Ahead of UFC 256

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Tony Ferguson looks to return to the win column this Saturday at UFC 256 as he steps into the Octagon for a bout against Charles Oliveira, which is his first contest since a one-sided 249 loss to Justin Gaethje in May.

Prior to the Gaethje fight, Ferguson (25-4) had won 12 straight fights. He now looks to end the seven-fight win streak built by Oliveira (29-8, 1 NC), and the winner of this bout between the third-ranked Ferguson and seventh-ranked Oliveira will instantly be a top contender in a division without a champion.

Lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov announced his retirement after defeating Gaethje in October. Nurmagomedov had been slated to fight Ferguson during the spring, but the fight was postponed. When Ferguson, who was the interim lightweight champion, lost to Gaethje, he also lost his chance at the undefeated Nurmagomedov.

Ferguson spoke with Sports Illustrated about his upcoming fight at UFC 256 (Saturday, 10 p.m. ET, ESPN+) and detailed what drives him to succeed, as well as offered some choice words for Nurmagomedov, Dustin Poirier and Conor McGregor.

Justin Barrasso: You were not originally scheduled for a fight in December, and this fight came against Charles Oliveira together as the 256 card changed. What is the biggest challenge for you when preparing under short notice?

Tony Ferguson: I don’t think it’s short notice. I’ve been preparing since I got out of the Gaethje fight. As soon as I got out of the hospital, I went back home and said to my wife, “I’ll be right back.” She already knew. That was exactly how it was when I got out of surgery, too. I force my body to recover faster.

I ended up breaking my foot in the fight and didn’t even notice it. I just went back to work, so technically I’ve been in camp since June. When you think about that, there’s no short notice.

JB: You made a post on Instagram about changing your approach in terms of your nutritionist and your diet, taking ownership of the way you prepare. Do you worry about making weight?

TF: I missed weight one time and that was back in the day. That was that. I’ve had hundreds of wrestling matches, maybe even in the thousands, and I’ve been competing in sports for 30-plus years, and I don’t like to mess up or bring my team down or have any kind of bad vibe. I will always make my weight.

I’m no longer working with my former nutritionist because, based on my opinion, I don’t have a lot of money to spend like everybody else. I have another kid on the way. I’ve been cutting weight for a very long time, and I know exactly what’s going on with my body. I know what I’m doing, and I trust in my team to get me to where we’ve got to go.

JB: You can only control the things you can control, which obviously does not include whether Oliveira makes weight. Will you really walk away from this fight if Oliveira misses weight?

DF: I tell my students, I tell my trainers, and I tell all my boys that the only two things in our life we can control is our heart rate and our breathing. One directly affects the other. Everything else is for the big guy upstairs.

If they’re professional and they really want to do this, they have their whole entire team and they have a nutritionist, he should be able to make weight. Since I don’t have a nutritionist, and I’m trying to make weight myself, what’s the excuse? What’s the excuse? Short notice or no short notice, you used to fight at 145. What’s the problem? Why are you going to f****** miss weight at 155? I’m not saying he planned this out, but I called him out. He’s been thinking about it. Whether I fight or not, I don’t give two f****, but that’s not on me.

We used to have a guy named Burt Watson and he used to check everybody’s weight once, twice, three times a week to make sure that you were going to show up on time. Since he’s left, we’ve had all these missed weights and we’ve had a lot of problems with people not showing up. It’s guys like myself that come from The Ultimate Fighter and have that background, it’s kind of like the UFC’s graduate program. We know what the f*** we’re doing. If Charles really wants to be a champ, he’s going to make weight.

JB: And it’s not as if you were scheduled for this fight and Oliveira is a last-minute replacement, you both have had the same amount of time to prepare.

DF: Maybe I’ll open up my own nutritionist program. If he doesn’t make weight, he can hire me.

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JB: You touched on your 30 years of experience in fighting. Regardless of one decision, you are among the greatest to ever compete in the Octagon. But mentally, how frustrating was it to accept that the Gaethje fight did not go your way?

DF: I was happy we got what we got. Weren’t people excited? There wasn’t s*** going on in the sports world. I had to step it up and make weight. I did that myself. You know what I did do? I purposely ate and ate and ate to get to 181.5 on Sunday night, and I cut all the way to championship weight on Friday f***** morning. So that way, none of these other asshole can have an excuse and say, “Oh, I can’t make weight, short-notice fight.” I did 25 pounds in how many days? Four days. So you tell me the excuse for these younger athletes when you’ve got a 36-year-old f***** doing this s***, by himself, during a pandemic. I had every excuse in the f***** world, but I was there, showing up and doing it.

As for the fight, it was the same thing. Instead of a one-round knockout, where we had like one uppercut, I went in there and dared that motherf***** to hit me with everything he could. I was angry, I wanted to get hit. You guys have no idea what it was like, what we had to go through in that 72 hours to get the fight going on, between Dana [White], [President] Trump, myself, and my agents. A message relayed from Trump saying, “Hey, are you in, kid?” and then Dana telling me the same thing, “We’ve got to get sports back on. Are you in?” I was like, ‘F*** yeah, sign me the f*** up.’

This is what we do, this is why we’re here and why we’re great. Everybody else like Conor ran. Khabib ran. That just shows you, when the s*** hits the fan, who the f*** are you going to go to?

JB: You had the Khabib fight taken away from you on multiple occasions. Can you articulate that disappointment?

DF: I’m going to be real. I have a full dossier on Khabib. I even measured him myself at the f***** faceoffs. Go back and watch that film. Khabib, the guy has no f***** backbone. He’s such a f***** punk. This weekend, we got somebody that’s got the balls to step across the ring from me.

JB: I know you called out Michael Chandler on Instagram. After spending so much of your life in fighting, does it ever amuse you to think that we are at a point where fighters call each other out over social media?

DF: No, because these guys are attention whores. It’s kind of like how Poirier was when he was like, “I’ll fight you, Tony,” and then he went to the f***** guy that had the biggest bid. He basically took bribe money from Conor. These guys have no character or backbone to back it up.

Chandler, I called him out. Whatever the UFC is going to try to do to pull guys in the division over me, it’s not happening. I saw an opening that I had to take, and Dana likes fighters like that. I understand that. I was handpicked by Dana on The Ultimate Fighter. I showed up and won The Ultimate Fighter.

I’ve got love for this sport and I’ve got love for my company. But these other motherf***** don’t understand that gold is not a belt. That gold is being able to take care of your family. Being able to have insurance for them, being able to market yourself and brand yourself without putting yourself all the way f***** out there like Conor McNuggets, and then not be able to take a picture in public.

JB: How much are you driven by gold? Would you like another shot at the lightweight championship?

DF: I could keep going after belts and trophies. I’ve got an endless amount of championships, trophies, and medals. But you don’t have to be greedy, you don’t always have to have it, have to have it, have to have it. The search is different for everybody.

They’re going to keep dangling that belt in front of me. “Almost there, almost got it,” and be controlling of my life. They had six months to film me in The Ultimate Fighter house. That gold you’re talking about, I have one. I’m looking right at it, it’s badass and better looking than the new one. That gold for me is not what you think it is.

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.