LOS ANGELES — Throwing out the first pitch at a Major League Baseball game is a ceremonial honor few people refuse.
Tony Ferguson’s not most people.
Ferguson, who holds the interim UFC lightweight title, currently trains in Costa Mesa, California, which is in the heart of Orange County, the Los Angeles Angels’ stronghold.
But Ferguson grew up in Ventura County, which is Los Angeles Dodgers country, and he bleeds Dodger blue.
So when the Angels asked him to throw out a first pitch in Anaheim, he politely declined.
“They offered me to throw out the first pitch at Angels Stadium, but I had to tell them I’m a Dodgers fan,” Ferguson said Thursday. “I’m Dodgers all day, baby.”
Somewhere along the way, Ferguson (23-3), who meets Khabib Nurmagomedov (25-0) in the main event of UFC 223 on April 7 in Brooklyn, came to a conscious conclusion that he was more concerned with becoming the best fighter he could possibly be than in winning popularity contests.
A modern fighter is supposed to be a one-person marketing machine, using social media to connect with fans and increase their popularity. In turn, that should in theory open doors to earn every last dollar during the relatively short window that fighters have in the main-event limelight.
Ferguson, though, believes he didn’t fully come into his own until he stopped caring whether people love him. And he doesn’t care if you think that’s weird.
“I used to be in love with that,” Ferguson said. “But when I shed all that light, when I stopped doing all this for likes and retweets, is when I saw my numbers skyrocket. You know what I’m saying? That’s real people.”
That mindset has freed Ferguson to be the person that he wants to be when he makes public appearances. Ferguson talks in a scattershot stream of consciousness, which doesn’t lend itself to easy-to-follow sound bites, but is an approach which comes from the heart.
“I don’t want to be a cookie-cutter-fortune-cookie-bubble-gum-chewing fighter,” Ferguson said. “Absolutely not. I don’t follow anybody. If people want to follow me, it’s because they see talent. I didn’t get into here because this [expletive]. I didn’t get here because of this. This belt’s a paperweight. It’s a big, shiny paperweight. I don’t wear it around. I don’t want to get too comfortable with where I am.”
UFC 223 marks the fourth time Ferguson and Nurmagomedov have been scheduled to fight. On one of the previous occasions, Ferguson had to pull out due to a lung illness. The other two, Nurmagomedov had to withdraw, most recently in March of last year, when the Russian was pulled from the card the day before the show due to a weight cut gone awry.
The history of the two has led to testiness on more than one occasion. The duo were all over the map insulting one another during a Wednesday teleconference, with Nurmagomedov calling Ferguson’s title “fake” and Ferguson calling his opponent, among other things, “a flat-footed, duck-billed platypus.”
Ferguson believes Nurmagomedov isn’t a bad person at heart, but that he’s surrounded himself with the sort of hangers-on that Ferguson himself has shed.
“Khabib is not such a bad guy, but he surrounds himself with the wrong people who are putting stuff in his head full of [expletive] and this and that. I used to have that.”
That’s also not to say Ferguson, who brings a 10-fight winning streak into the bout, lacks respect for what Nurmagomedov, and other big guns at 155 pounds, have achieved in the cage.
“There’s the blood, sweat and tears,” Ferguson said. “A lot of people don’t get to see that. I do respect Khabib. Nate Diaz, he’s a real fighter. Conor? He’s a real fighter, too. Everybody has their ways to do their things. But just because one person says, ‘That’s the way you gotta be,’ cookie cutter, that’s not how I am.”
Ferguson’s penchant for keeping it real does come with a price. McGregor, who has yet to defend the lightweight title he won in November 2016, has more than seven million Twitter followers. Nurmagomedov has 232,000. Ferguson has 113,000. There’s been more clamor among the fans for a McGregor-Nurmagomedov fight than for McGregor-Ferguson.
But Ferguson’s approach has gotten him this far. He can’t fake it. He can’t put on an Angels jersey and pretend to be a fan when he’s rooted for the Dodgers his whole life. He won’t pretend to be someone he’s not in order to get more followers.
And during a time in which people are starting to re-examine the amount of time they waste on social media, his advice is for others to do the same.
“Everybody is so uptight worried about what everyone else thinks,” Ferguson said. “Stop. Unplug, go out. Do something with your life. Get off of this [makes hand motions like scrolling through a cellphone]. Go do something.”
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