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In all of the amazing match ups that could be made between the UFC’s top lightweights, I must admit that Donald Cerrone versus Tony Ferguson blind sided me. No one spared it a thought because the two were in such different places and suddenly, a couple of incidents down the line, it all makes perfect sense. Everything about it: the styles, the attitudes, the rankings, feels perfectly matched. In fact this feels like one we should have been asking for from the very beginning.

It is always prudent hold back on declaring that Donald Cerrone is “back” or“serious now”, because we have been through the same pattern half a dozen times. The truth is that if you fight as often as Cerrone against the absolute elite of the lightweight and welterweight division you are going to lose some. But there are aspects of this new title run which are very promising even for the jaded Cowboy mark. Firstly, Cerrone is back at lightweight which has always been his best class. His length and reach aren’t nearly as imposing at welterweight and his strength is somewhat lacking there too. But more importantly, working with American kickboxing great, Joe Schilling seems to have brought out something better in Cerrone.

Cerrone’s most recent fight, against Al Iaquina, was a something of a masterclass. Jabs, combination work, good footwork, and the whole thing felt a bit subtler than the old days of Jackson / Wink style running combinations. Schilling might have had trouble with big hitters and fell victim to swinging wild from time to time, but his awkward knee fakes and teeps into combinations could undo very good kickboxers and Nak Muay alike. He is a man who has also had some mental meltdowns in the ring and seems like something of a kindred spirit to Cerrone.

Here is a clip of the two sparring a couple of years ago and it should give you an inkling as to what Schilling is good at—constant knee pumps, needling straight kicks, and flicking straights and jabs up the centre while slapping and peeling away and his opponent’s guard with his hands. It’s pretty distant from what Cerrone used to do, but there was certainly a lot more of it on show against Iaquinta.

Here’s a quick video study of Cerrone’s habits I put together ahead of that Iaquinta fight.

Then consider that Cerrone’s problems have never come from the wrestlers. It has always been aggressive striking that has undone him. His ground game is incredibly active and he is one of the few fighters routinely hitting submissions from the bottom against elite opposition, and while his offensive wrestling is one-note, his defensive wrestling has always been very solid. In spite of being in with every sort of fighter, seemingly every other weekend, Cerrone has conceded four takedowns in the last five years and twenty-one fights. In the search for Khabib Nurmagomedov’s kryptonite, that is pretty exciting.

Meanwhile, Tony Ferguson should have had a crack at the UFC lightweight title by now but because of Conor McGregor, injuries, and mental illness, he finds himself once again on the cusp of the title shot but just as someone else (Dustin Poirier) has been booked into that match first. He returned from injury to an emotional victory over Anthony Pettis back in October, then was forced onto the shelf again with mental issues that I’m sure you will have read about, but which it was encouraging to see the MMA community so understanding of.

A Question of Pressure

In Ferguson’s return against Pettis the pressure was immediately apparent, just as it had been with Edson Barboza and Josh Thompson. Donald Cerrone is infamous for faltering under pressure, and Ferguson’s style can’t help but supply it. But this isn’t an Alex Hernandez, sprint in at him and try and catch him cold pressure. Ferguson grinds his man down and, despite his devil may care attitude to defence, he does a good job of staying in front of his man and outlasting him.

Of the tools that you would expect to cause Cerrone problems the top of the list would be Ferguson’s straight hitting. Ferguson’s blows come from down by his chest and he rarely picks his shoulders up much when he throws them, removing some of the telegraph and—through bad form—allowing him to sneak through against very proficient technical strikers. Watch him snap back Pettis or Lee or Dos Anjos’ head with jabs or straights from either stance.

When Ferguson is finally knocked out or beaten up it will be very easy to say that of course the defensive vulnerabilities were always there, but so far he has made it work in spite of them. While Ferguson’s defence is all over the place, he does roll with a punch well and while his chin is often worryingly high, he slips and reacts very well. Generally his timing gets better through a fight and because he doesn’t fanny about at range trying to get a read on his opponent and instead runs his man ragged, his opponent slows down while Tony is getting his eye in. Rafael dos Anjos became a heavy bag for Ferguson to test new combinations on by the later rounds of their bout.

This is where much of the concern for Cerrone comes. When Nate Diaz stepped up the centre and piled on the pressure, Cerrone tried to fight his way out with his fists and his loopy punches with bowed out elbows saw Diaz beat him to the punch over and over. In more recent years the intercepting knee has saved Cerrone a lot of trouble as opponents try to run in on him, but when he can get his man to the fence Ferguson doesn’t really lunge in in a way that would play into that knee. Another feature of Cerrone’s game that he has used to shut down losing exchanges is to grab a collar tie and start elbowing—this will be interesting to see against Ferguson. Cerrone has typically not succeeded with this tactic against better clinch fighters like Leon Edwards.

Another peculiar Ferguson look is his front kick. It is ubiquitous, appearing in almost every round of his fights and yet many fans don’t really give it much notice. Watching Ferguson throw the kick it is apparent that he throws it for damage—he stomps on his opponent and looks furious as he does so, throwing his weight into the blow and following it in even if it puts him in danger. Not only does this give him a long range weapon with which he can close the distance, it allows him to drain his opponent’s gas tank. Tony will jab to the body and throw the odd hook to the liver, but the majority of his body work comes from his lower extremities. Cerrone’s vulnerability to body shots is well known and has always been more marked at lightweight when he is making a sizeable weight cut. Where Anthony Pettis and Rafael dos Anjos had the classical open side round kick, expect Ferguson to try to get his hurting done by stomping on Cerrone’s gut instead.

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I have always been a big proponent of low kicking against good low kickers. Provided you aren’t standing there and waiting for a return, you aren’t so much playing into their game as slapping them in the face in order to keep their mind off what you want to do—whether that be stepping in with strikes, getting to a clinch, etc. In this fight my opinion has flipped. Ferguson will happily low kick with Cerrone—he’s a thudding low kicker and he’s hardly going to be scared of Cerrone. But Duke Roufus spotted how hittable Ferguson is coming down from his kicks and had Pettis put it into practice in their fight. Cerrone isn’t a great puncher but every time Ferguson throws a low kick, Cerrone would do well to come back with the overhand or the right straight.

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It would be refreshing to see Cerrone treat the kicks as a kickboxer would and actually pick his feet up to check. A cross check could be the key technique in turning the fight back on Ferguson when he kicks. The cross check is when the lead leg comes up and checks across the body—using the left leg to check strikes from the right side. The beautiful thing about the cross check is that it goes a good way towards shutting down the front kick to the body as well as the round kick. Badr Hari’s victory against Semmy Schilt hinged on using the cross check to stop the round kicks and front kicks of Schilt, then stepping back in with the right hand as fast as possible. Ferguson was hit hard by Thompson and Barboza coming down off checks in this manner.

Ferguson also reacted rather badly to Pettis’ initial low kicks before he was able to force Pettis onto the back foot and prevent further kicking. Granted, that fight was returning from a lay off wherein Ferguson ‘recovered’ from his knee injury in half the time expected with no help from professionals, but injuries like that tend to nag on for a long time and can be brought back to mind with a good kick.

Another area in which Ferguson looked vulnerable against Pettis was after Pettis had kicked. Ferguson would drop away or retract his lead leg from the low kick, and then amble back in with his hands down and his chin up. When Pettis spun into a backfist off a missed kick he caught Tony coming in, but he was unable to make use of this idea more. While Cerrone does a lot of his kicking to end his combos, doubled up kicks like his favourite inside low kick to high switch kick, or combinations beginning with the inside low kick and following Ferguson back could set up a spectacular knockout.

In the grappling this match up becomes very hard to predict. Cerrone isn’t taken down very often, and it is hard to see Ferguson hitting a snap down on a man so much taller than most of his opponents. If you do see front headlock work, expect it to come off a Donald Cerrone shot because Cerrone’s shots are telegraphed, head down affairs once he starts struggling on the feet.

When Ferguson gets into trouble he tends to freak out like a stoat and go into spins and rolls and despite appearances it works very well. Some grappling coaches will tell you that if you are in doubt you should keep moving, and ultimately Ferguson is an extreme example of that. When Pettis stunned him Ferguson span with an elbow out (slicing Pettis open above the brow) and rolled for a leg entanglement which slowed down the pace of the fight considerably and saved him further trouble. Everyone remembers the granby rolls against Josh Thompson too. As daft as it looks, granbying or rolling either attaches Ferguson to a leg—a position where he can at least threaten the opponent’s balance and complicate their opportunities to strike him even if he cannot finish a leg attack—or projects an opponent straight over the top of him in a wild scramble should they try to stick to him.

While the match up is hard to predict, Ferguson will almost certainly attempt to keep Cerrone near the fence where he will be uncomfortable kicking, and will hope to beat up the body and to tire Cerrone with pace. For Cerrone a more measured kickboxing contest obviously sounds ideal but he will need to watch his footwork (which has always been the weakest part of his striking game) in order to do that. Finding classical kickboxing counters and counter combinations off Ferguson’s stumpy, fully committed kicks seems like an area where Cerrone can do the most damage. If he finds himself in trouble Cerrone should probably look for the long clinch and to off balance and strike rather than serving the front headlock up on a platter by shooting for a takedown.

One of the things I am having trouble with, and I suppose this fight might give us an answer, is whether Cerrone’s jab and distance control have gotten that much better, or Al Iaquinta just doesn’t know how to deal with them. Right now, having just rewathced the fight, I would lean towards more of it being on Al’s defensive flaws and lack of ideas. Certainly, Iaquinta applied almost no pressure to Cerrone and stood at jabbing range for the entire bout. Even if Cerrone’s jab itself has gotten spectacular over the last few months, it is a weapon which can only be brought to lever against good pressure fighters in conjunction in movement and, as we have already said, that has always been a big issue for Cerrone.

Beyond all of that, this one is anyone’s guess. It’s always dangerous to say but the one outcome I’m struggling to imagine is a dull contest.