Tony Ferguson vs Justin Gaethje was one of those fights. A fight like Tito Trinidad vs Fernando Vargas, or Rafael Dos Anjos vs Anthony Pettis where the loser is clearly never the same fighter again. The sad truth is that combat sports are dangerous, and while no one really wants it to happen, some fighters take such a beating in a bout that they are never able to perform on the same level again. In the worst case scenarios such as recently Eubank Jr vs Blackwell, the loser had to retire outright.
Tony Ferguson was a whirlwind of offence, but his lack of fundamentals meant he got caught in most fights. Prior to his bout with Gaethje he was arguably the best lightweight in the world and may well could have taken the crown from Khabib Nurmagomedov. Unfortunately that fight was without a doubt cursed, and the final time the fight was cancelled, Ferguson found himself against a technically sound striker with great fundamentals and monstrous power.
Justin Gaethje had the opposite career path to most power punchers. Rather than being a fighter who discovered he hit hard, slowly devolving into a swinging mess who just tries to land a shot, regardless of technique, Gaethje instead started a brawling mess and then finally after two knockout losses realised that technical craft is probably what will make him a champion.
They fought and it was a rough beatdown for Ferguson. As mentioned before, Ferguson got caught in nearly ever fight he was in, so getting caught this often by someone with this much power was devastating.
Ferguson’s unpredictability, and aggression were what made him such a ruthless successful fighter, but if we are to try to emulate his style, we need to do it while remaining more technically sound. The best way to do that? By looking at Tony Ferguson’s strange Muay Thai, and looking at the pros who use his techniques in a more slick, controlled way.
Between him and Matt Brown (the closest thing you’ll get to a nak muay in the UFC), Ferguson is the elbow fighter in MMA. A pretty rare archetype, but a devastating one.
Ferguson’s game was built off a mix of intercepting elbows, hand traps into elbows and the ‘spinning shit’ that Somrak built his game around. Let’s look at these elbows one by one.
Sok Ngad is one of the most simple, basic elbows you can learn. Functioning like an uppercut, the strike slices up the guard, while simultaneously doing the job of shielding your face from a potential counter attack.
When Tony Ferguson uses it, it’s effective but he has the habit of lifting his head up while he throws it. One of the beautiful things about this elbow is that if you keep your head neutral, the elbow will be guarding your face as you step in. This is a big part of why it’s such a safe counter to use against opponents who like to punch.
One Thai Boxer who excels in all elbows but makes particular good use of Sok Ngad is Muangthai. Muangthai fights in an unusual range, where he’s not quite a clinch fighter, nor is he a kickboxer, but is instead perpetually hanging off his opponents guard at all times. Muangthai spends entire fights molesting his opponents forearms and looking for elbow openings, or brief pull in knee strikes.
Muangthai is by no means the most defensively sound boxer, but he makes up for it by continuously controlling his opponent’s guard. This approach is harder to do in mixed martial arts where high arms can result in an easy takedown, but for those aspiring MMA fighters out there, being able to control the guard is still important. It’s just a matter of recognising a time and a place.
We’ve already established how Muangthai traps his opponents hands in order to land uppercut elbows, but there are other techniques you can use while engaging in this type of fight. Here is Nathan Corbett hand trapping and violently elbowing his unfortunate opponents for 5 uninterrupted seconds.
Corbett is perhaps the greatest elbow technician outside of Thailand, and the closest humanity has ever got to an actual Captain America. Notice that on nearly every elbow Corbett throws, either his shoulder or elbow itself is protecting his chiselled jaw line.
Compare this to Tony Ferguson using some of the exact same techniques, and how he leaves his head exposed. Anthony Pettis actually DOES throw at Ferguson, after being elbowed. Not only this but Ferguson hugely over commits. His elbow throws him off balance and facing away from his target, meaning he has to spin in order to face his opponent again.
If Ferguson has thrown a spin elbow to recover from being out of position (which he has occasionally done) he likely would have KO’d Pettis in this exchange, despite having less than stellar form.
The technique itself is fine, the methodology is fine, it’s the lack of defensive responsibility that puts Tony at risk. Something that Ferguson does here that is particularly smart is reaching out and grabbing Pettis’ arms and pulling them down and out of the way to set up the elbow.
Of course, it being elbow related, we have a fantastic example of how to do this from Muangthai, in boxing gloves no less.
Earlier we said that uppercut elbows do a great job of guarding your face while attacking. The truth is that most elbow strikes do, especially slashing elbows. Here we see Tony trap his opponents right hand, via simply grabbing it, before bringing out a slashing elbow. Once again however we see Tony have to rely on his reflexes to avoid the punch, rather than being protected by virtue of just using an elbow.
In this video, Joe Nattawut teaches you how to use similar ideas, while remaining defensively responsible:
And finally another example of Corbett using the same trap as Tony, for a different elbow.
Ong Bak Shit
This is probably what Ferguson is most known for. Weird
elbows, weird elbows that spin. Weird elbows followed by weird elbows that
spin. It’s the sort of stuff you see only in Tony Jaa movies and the most
brutal of street fights between 7 year olds, but it works!
Here Ferguson uses Sok Kratong, better known as that weird elbow Anderson Silva knocked out Tony Fryklund with:
Yes, there was a time where Anderson Silva fought in Cage Rage, and it was wonderful.
What’s unusual about Ferguson’s version of the elbow, is that he’s actually more defensively sound on this, than he is a basic elbow. So I guess I would say it’s pretty safe to try at home.
Somrak Khamsing was perhaps the best at these crazy elbows, here he is double up on them, and finishing with a high kick, just because he can.
To summarise. While Tony Ferguson is without a doubt an all time great, and perhaps the greatest lightweight in UFC history, that still doesn’t mean we should ignore his own technical faults when trying to bring ideas from his game into our own.
He was perhaps the greatest offensive force in MMA, but his lack of defensive savvy was ultimately was led to him taking more damage in his career than he should have. We can look to other great fighters, who perform those ideas with more technical stability and hopefully find a balance between the two.
And of course if you want to emulate his grappling, there’s always 10th Planet London.