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Tony Ferguson continues his grind toward UFC 209 and beyond

Tony Ferguson continues his grind toward UFC 209 and beyond
Tony Ferguson, left, throws a punch at Gleison Tibau on his way to victory by first-round submission during UFC 184 at Staples Center. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Tony Ferguson says when it comes time to write his book, he'll call it, "The Grinder."

If any fighter personifies the persistence and professionalism it requires to navigate an Ultimate Fighting Championship career from bottom to top, it's the Costa Mesa fighter with Oxnard roots who'll pursue the interim lightweight title in Saturday's UFC 209 co-main event.

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Winning the belt should clinch a later shot at sidelined lightweight champion Conor McGregor. It makes perfect sense for Ferguson (23-3) that such a golden opportunity must go through perhaps the strongest opponent possible, Russia's Khabib Nurmagomedov (24-0).

"Back in the day, when we didn't have too much money, I put it in my head, 'I have to earn it, nothing's given to you,'" Ferguson, 33, told The Times in an interview this week at the pay-per-view card's site, T-Mobile Arena.

That attitude carried Ferguson first to a UFC contract when he won "The Ultimate Fighter" reality television series competition among free agents in 2011, and it has propelled him to nine consecutive victories and a No. 2 lightweight ranking.

In Oxnard, Ferguson's resilience was pressed before his first kindergarten class, when his biological father left the family.

His mother later married Jeff Ferguson, a contractor, and moved the family to Michigan. Tony adopted his stepfather's last name and assisted him on home-renovation work.

"Literally, everything I've done has been with my hands," he said.

"Starting at age 6, I was helping install the Formica table tops with that strong glue. My dad was the master. I was the apprentice. I'd be in there working until I'd be telling him, 'I feel woozy,' and he'd say, 'Go outside, son.' So I'd go organize his tools. He used the best ones made.

"Sure, we bumped heads, but the one thing we always had to relate over were sports and hard work. One day, my bike tire broke miles from home and I found a way to fix it. That's what I learned: Even if you don't have all the tools, you can improvise."

Ferguson became an elite high school wrestler, playing on a strong baseball team and a state-championship football team as a cornerback.

"You know what it was that I took from all that? Not quitting," Ferguson said.

He developed a mental routine to prepare for each clash, dressing in a three-piece suit to exude professionalism and confidence on high school football game days, continuing the tradition when he entered the Las Vegas commercial building before each "The Ultimate Fighter" bout.

"People would laugh, but I've grown up with humility," Ferguson said. "Being that apprentice, I learned how to finesse. Finesse is catching the baseball on the edge of your glove when you're turning two, making the one-handed grabs and shoestring tackles by running across the field in football. And finesse is what I bring to fighting.

"The sport I'm in allows me to use my creativity."

Ferguson moved back to Oxnard in 2008 and began training in jiu-jitsu and boxing under veteran trainer Robert Garcia — adding fighting tools to the wrestling ability.

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A flexible, fast-moving puncher with sharp elbows, Ferguson suffered a broken left forearm during the second round of a 2012 fight with Michael Johnson. He lasted through the fight's conclusion and drew determination in the aftermath to fix that defensive flaw.

He hasn't lost since, with five submissions and a knockout among the nine victories.

While he and Nurmagomedov each pulled out of previously scheduled bouts due to health reasons, Ferguson opted to prepare for his November fight against former lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos in the high elevation of Mexico City by moving his entire fighting base to Big Bear.

By himself.

He did electrical work at a compound he rented for $350 a day, installing a sauna. And he set up a wrestling mat and a cage, relying on woodworking and welding skills gained along the way.

When camp finished, he packed up a U-Haul truck with his equipment, returned home to Costa Mesa and headed off to Mexico City, where he defeated Dos Anjos by decision in the fight of the night.

Next is Nurmagomedov, who's coming off a victory over Johnson. The Russian believes and assesses that Ferguson will crack under his relentless wrestling and power punching.

But Nurmagomedov hasn't fully read "The Grinder," and Ferguson said the benefits of his grounded existence are sound, revealing an inner forearm tattoo with the letters TSKYH, an acronym for his mother's oft-repeated advice: Think Strong, Keep Your Head.

"He's never seen a guy like me. I've got too much for this dude," Ferguson said.

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