Ed. Note: This interview was done before Ferguson replaced Khamzat Chimaev in UFC 279’s main event.
After an 11-year run as one of the best lightweights in the world, “El Cucuy” makes his return to the welterweight division on Saturday in a short-notice battle against Nate Diaz. The move comes on the heels of a four-fight losing streak and marks Ferguson’s homecoming to his original division for the first time since his winning run on The Ultimate Fighter 13 in 2011.
For the veteran contender, it’s been a refreshing change of scenery.
“It’s good, man. I had a slushie this week, which was pretty cool, and I had a soda going into an elevator. … They were looking at me like, ‘You’re crazy,’ [but] 170 is home, I love it,” Ferguson said at Wednesday’s media day ahead of UFC 279.
“This is where I hang my hat. I’m 14-2 with mostly knockouts at 170, so like I said, it’s where I hang my hat, and 155 is home too. So I’m here to collect.”
Ferguson, 38, said the move back to welterweight was one he started considering shortly after his brutal knockout loss to Michael Chandler at UFC 274. But it wasn’t his only major change. After years of putting together his own camps and training under his own roof, Ferguson finally ventured outward and trained with a variety of teams and gyms, including New Mexico’s famous Jackson Wink MMA Academy and California’s Black House MMA.
It was an invigorating experience.
“I went back to the drawing board for two months, I started lifting heavy, real heavy, because I knew what I was going to do subconsciously,” Ferguson said. “So I was like OK, cool — talked to the brass, we said it was cool for 170 or 155 pounds, whatever I wanted to do, shot call, and they had an opportunity for me, so I took it. And I went to JacksonWink for this camp, I went to Black House a couple times, but most of the time all I did was I took these opportunities how I needed to. I stepped in a cage in a practice room for the first time in about five to six years. It’s been a while since I practiced in a cage, guys. I’ve always been on a mat. And it’s been the first time I’ve sparring in five or six years as well.
“So it’s a little bit more interesting. I’ve been doing this by the ‘schweaty balls,’ I guess you would say, and just going in there and doing the s***, but it’s different now — I put deodorant on, we’re cool now, we’re cleaning it up, and we’re going in there and we’re going to have some fun, man. You guys are going to see old-school T.”
Ferguson added that the process of branching out and tapping into new minds and training philosophies helped to open his eyes to what he was missing in his career.
“I went fishing and what I got was a bunch of trainers that I believe in,” Ferguson explained. “I’ve always had my eyes on a couple of people just to scout. I’m a scout, I know what the f*** to look for — I’ve been playing sports for 34 years, I’ve been playing sports a high level, and the last time I put a great team together we went on a 12-fight victory [streak] and we just made it happen.
“We were just putting all the pieces together. And this is not the final piece, but what this is is like that part of the puzzle that you just get like, ‘Oh, the frame is done. Oh cool, now I can work on the inside and I can do all the stuff.’ And I’ve got some really good people that are helping me open my eyes with some things that I cannot see, which is the trust. And it helps to be able to be in an octagon, get some sparring in, and get the great training that I really need.”
Of course, Ferguson’s welterweight return has been eventful, to say the least.
Ferguson stepped up on last-second notice on Friday to face Diaz after Khamzat Chimaev missed weight by 7.5 pounds. It’s a massive opportunity for Ferguson to cash what is likely one of the biggest paydays of his career, and one he welcomed with open arms.
“You’ve got to be ready for anything that’s out here,” Ferguson told ESPN on Friday.
“I hope you guys enjoy the show.”