Tony Ferguson and Anthony Pettis have a big opportunity tonight, but a shot at gold isn’t assured for either man at UFC 229.
It would be too easy to say that a victory however it comes will be enough for either Tony Ferguson and Anthony Pettis. Both men have endured odysseys of different forms, but neither man can look past UFC 229 on Saturday night if they want to complete the journey back to the sport’s pinnacle.
Tony “El Cucuy” Ferguson believes he should be the one defending his belt on Saturday. He is the one on a ten fight win-streak that culminated in winning the interim belt while McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov were out of action. Instead, a freak injury on the weekend before UFC 223 led to him being stripped of the title and being forced to be the odd man out in the biggest lightweight clash in several years.
He is returning from a knee procedure to fix his LCL just four months ago. Despite his confidence in his recovery, there are questions as to how he will hold up in a possibly strenuous battle. But a chance to make a statement on this stage was one he would never have allowed to pass up. He remains on a ten fight win-streak with wins over Kevin Lee and a Rafael dos Anjos who at the time was freshly removed from the title. A victory over Pettis would assert that he is still the man that the winner of the main event needs to face in order to boast that they are truly the best lightweight in the world today.
Of all the contenders in the lightweight division, Anthony Pettis has the most to gain on Saturday night. After having an inconsistent run over the last few years, Pettis notched his most impressive victory since losing the title in stopping Michael Chiesa in July. Struggling to regain his top form since losing the title, there was question if Pettis had quite simply lost some of his capabilities after several injuries and layoffs throughout his career. Going into the fight with Chiesa, Pettis was on the brink of possibly sliding out of the top ten with a loss and had a 2-5 record since 2015. Instead, he shocked everyone by submitting a tough grappler in Chiesa in dominant fashion in what many felt was a throwback to his performances when he was at the top of weight class.
The victory and his status as a former champion have propelled Pettis into a golden opportunity against Tony Ferguson on Saturday night. Defeating Ferguson would give him a complete swing in momentum to now being on the short list for a title shot. Furthermore, there is question of whether Pettis is getting Ferguson at the right time coming off an injury where he may be more compromised.
Stylistically, the bout pits the physicality of Ferguson against the dynamic striking of Pettis. Ferguson is a big athlete for the weight class and uses an unorthodox attack on the feet. His key to victory will be to use forward pressure to keep Pettis from setting up his strikes. Ferguson tends to go for spinning attacks on the feet but should focus on maintaining a disciplined attack that offers less openings for Pettis. Should he take the fight to the mat, he should look to use ground and pound to keep Pettis from setting up submissions from the bottom rather than trying to out-grapple ‘Showtime.’
Pettis should look to attack with high volume while staying on the outside. He is faster and more accurate than Ferguson and should look to outpoint him. If he is able to get in-and-out effectively then it will force Ferguson to take more chances to close the distance and open himself up for Pettis’ attacks. Should he end up on the mat, he should look to get himself back to the fence and use it to stand-up as it stands to reason that Ferguson will have the advantage on the mat.
You might think that a title shot is guaranteed for Ferguson with a victory, and for Pettis as well. However, business will play a role in the future of the lightweight division as much as performance. Dustin Poirier will meet Nate Diaz in what is expected to be a dynamic collision in a month’s time. Depending on health, timing, and marketability, there is a strong probability that the winner of that about could get into the next fight with the winner of Nurmagomedov vs. McGregor. For Ferguson and Pettis, the way to remove those men from the equation is to win as impressively as possible on a night where all eyes will be watching.