Tony Ferguson opens up on mental shift for Paddy Pimblett fight: ‘I stopped believing in myself’

Tony Ferguson has seen your messages asking him to move on. He’s seen the calls for retirement that have chased his six-fight losing streak, the omnipresent hand-wringing that awaits every fight announcement, and the tearful emojis that litter his social media feeds after each setback. It was more of the same this past July, when Ferguson was choked unconscious by Bobby Green at UFC 291, and the pattern held even truer recently when the promotion announced his next dance date against Paddy Pimblett for Dec. 16 at UFC 296.

But as difficult it’s been to watch him struggle throughout what are likely the final chapters of an otherwise Hall of Fame worthy career, Ferguson is determined to right his ship.

“I’m not ready to retire,” Ferguson said on The MMA Hour. “Getting cut [from the UFC] was never in my thought process, retiring was never in my thought process. The only thing that was in my thought process is, ‘What the f*** are you doing? Get your f****** shit into gear. Do what you have to do to train the way you f****** need to train.’ Like, quit f****** horsing around. I’m trying to help so many f****** people — man, help yourself get to where you f****** need to be so that way we can help other people. And that really put myself in gear.

“It’s not easy, doing what we do inside that cage. It takes a lot of f****** balls. But we don’t have the only occupation where it takes balls, so I’m blessed to be able to do what I do, and like I said, it’s never been a thought in my head that [I should give in] to retirement.”

Ferguson, 39, is widely regarded as one of the greatest lightweights of his era. His 12-fight win streak from 2013-19 remains tied with Khabib Nurmagomedov’s undefeated reign as the longest win streak in the history of the UFC lightweight division, however the past few years have been a challenge for “El Cucuy.” Of his six consecutive losses, four have ended in violent stoppages, and nearly all of those six have been relatively one-sided affairs.

Ferguson hopes that run of bad results ends at UFC 296.

In a revealing and introspective conversation with MMA Fighting on Monday, the former UFC interim lightweight champion took accountability for his actions and said that he’s worked diligently to understand the factors that led him to his current predicament.

“I put myself in this f****** position and I’m so tired of it,” Ferguson said. “I’m so f****** tired of putting myself in these f***** up positions where it loses me a match. It’s trying new things in the fight rather than in the practice room. And it doesn’t start in the fight, it starts in the practice room. You always have to do it in the practice room, and if it doesn’t work in the practice room, you don’t do it on the f****** playing field. And I think I took my own talent for granted. Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard, and I’ve always done that — if I didn’t have more talent than the other person, my hard work was always going to show up. And these last couple of fights, I just let it slip through my hands, man.”

Ferguson admitted that much of his love of the game had been stripped out of him for most of his losing streak. A big part of that, he said, was the dissolution of his longtime team around the start of the pandemic in 2020. Ferguson has rifled through a variety of camps and training partners since, but said he never found a situation that matched the mentality and work-rate he was able to establish with his original squadmates in southern California.

That’s why Ferguson has gone back to his roots for UFC 296. He’s reunited with several of his old coaches ahead of his bout with Pimblett, and the change has been reinvigorating.

“I never really talked about it, how hard that really impacted me when my team broke apart. But it f****** sucked,” Ferguson said. “And then trying to put people together to keep that s*** going, man, it was almost kind of like a relationship. Sometimes you’ve just got to say bye and then just move on, and I think finally I did that — and I’m able to trust again, which is very hard for a guy like me, because everybody looks at me like a superhero. They always look like I have the right answer, and I usually do, I usually like to have the right answer. But this time I asked for help — and I asked for the right help.

“I’ve been as real as I possibly could with them, and my agent and my family, my wife particularly, and my kids, and I’ve just been real honest with them and myself. And I’ve been digging deep, man. I really dug deep to what I really needed to do. I’ve found myself emotionally and I’ve learned how to smile again. Especially in this sport, especially after six losses, you would think that you would just give up, go hide and be depressed, and go sleep all the time and do all this other s*** that a lot of people would do. I mean, I’ve seen these guys retire off of like maybe two f****** fight losses and say they don’t have it anymore or whatever the f***. I look at them and I’m just like, ‘Jeez, man.’ Like, what the f***? Slap yourself around a little bit and get back on the drawing board.”

“I’m unbreakable. I had to start believing that and I had to start telling myself that again, because I wasn’t telling myself that,” Ferguson continued. “I was telling everybody else that. I’m hyping everybody else up, including friends, family, whatever the f***, whoever it is, lots of loved ones. But I had to finally start telling myself that, because I started to see myself kind of go like this [downward mentally] a little bit. Not being happy doing what I’m doing, not competing with a smile, not having fun with training. Always kind of, like, bugged out.

“Every time I would go into my academy, I’d be f****** just like dreading it and pissy, and just, ‘F***, here we go again.’ Because I would have people telling me, like, ‘Why are you training all day when you’re wasting your time,’ all that fucking s*** that [clouded] up my head, where it was just kind of like I stopped believing in myself. And it was f****** terrible. It was like the worst f****** thing, dude. … I had to step back away, listen to myself, listen to some good advice from some good people, and really think. Put my thoughts down on paper — not just on Instagram, but put them on paper — think about what I could do, make some phone calls, ask some questions, ask for help. And f*** man, people were kind of like, ‘Hey, we’ve been waiting for you. Where have you been?’ That’s been an A-plus right there.”

Ferguson admitted that some of what he’s saying may sound cliche. It’s not lost on him that the trope of a fighter returning to their roots in an effort to rediscover some sort of long-lost success is one that’s been used by plenty of others in the past, including himself.

“But there’s a difference between saying and then actually doing it, and instead of partially doing it, doing it how you’re supposed to,” Ferguson explained. “And that’s where I’m at right now. And I’ve got people checking on me, making sure, they’re like, ‘Hey, when are we going to do this? What are we going to do this? What are we going to do this?’”

“I really had to open myself up to really look, to see if I still wanted to do this,” he continued. “I want to be real — I really, I do want to do this. I still want to compete. I’m not ready for boxing. Like, I’m not. I have to kind of let that go. You’re not boxing yet, stop training boxing all the time. There’s more than just throwing hands. Not to prepare MMA — it’s MMA and I used to do that. Like, I used to pick apart my fighters like it was chess. I used to go in there and do all that stuff. … So I really had to open myself up to a lot of things, and these are the steps I’m taking, man. I’m a f****** different person, thank God, and I really want to win. I really want to win. I’m not wishing — I’m making it happen. I really want to win.”