His face badly bruised and his orbital bone broken, Tony Ferguson still summoned the strength to get on the mic after his crushing TKO defeat by Justin Gaethje at UFC 249. “Remember we did this for you, to bring sports back,” he said in the Octagon. It’s easy to forget that a month ago “El Cucuy” was primed for the fight his whole career had been building up to – a tilt at lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov in Brooklyn on April 18. After the coronavirus chaos put paid to it, he stepped up and risked everything to save the day for the UFC, agreeing to a rescheduled short-notice main event against Gaethje on May 9 in Florida as the promotion scrambled to put on a show. “It’s been a long camp, I’ll be real,” he said. “We’ve been preparing since November. The Khabib fight didn’t go through. I prepared for Khabib, not too much of a striker.” The gamble didn’t pay off and now Ferguson is left with nothing – a familiar story in the sport. The dream lightweight match-up against Nurmagomedov that has fallen apart five times, and the payday and potential new level of fame that go with it, now may never happen. Gaethje will challenge Nurmagomedov next to unify the titles, Dana White confirmed after the fight. But hopefully the UFC president realises he owes Ferguson a huge favour. Ferguson wouldn’t want White’s charity. To paraphrase the popular meme, Tony Ferguson is the type of guy who would want to work his way back up with a couple of big wins and earn another shot at Nurmagomedov, or Gaethje. “Let’s go back and get the consolation win back, props to Justin and his team,” Ferguson said after the fight. The 36-year-old was given a 60-day medical suspension by the Florida State Athletic Commission, but when the dust settles he has a number of fights he could jump straight back into the Octagon for. Fellow former interim champ Dustin Poirier is there, but “The Diamond” would fancy his chances of patiently piecing up Ferguson in much the same manner as Gaethje did. As might the surging Kiwi Dan Hooker, who had been set to fight Poirier before the Covid-19 outbreak. Count Ferguson out at your peril, though – on another night, things could have gone differently in Jacksonville. Had there been another 30 seconds in that second round, maybe he would have finished Gaethje after knocking him to the ground with that vicious uppercut just before the buzzer sounded. To say Gaethje was saved by the bell is unfair, given his incredible performance. But championship fights turn on a dime, as “The Highlight” would readily admit, and he got away with a mistake he has been guilty of in the past that could have been fatal. A flap of the butterfly’s wings later and we could have been looking at Khabib vs Tony, attempt No 6, later this year. Conor McGregor’s criticism that Ferguson is “not at the level perceived” is not warranted, as his 12-0 tear through the UFC’s lightweight division attests. It just wasn’t Ferguson’s night – his team got the game plan wrong, and they were too slow to adjust mid-fight before it was to late. The two weight cuts in a month probably didn’t help either . To say Ferguson is finished, that he is too old, is ludicrous. He will use those words as motivation as he gets back on the grind in his private gym for hours on end. McGregor, of course, will be in the mix whatever happens and White is likely to want to throw the Irishman in against the winner of Khabib and Gaethje. But if Nurmagomedov sees off Gaethje later this year, then Ferguson deserves to have his name in the mix. If Yoel Romero can get a middleweight title shot on a two-fight losing streak, and Jose Aldo can get a bantamweight title shot despite being 0-1 in the division, then Ferguson can get a crack at Khabib. And who still wouldn’t want to see it? Even without a win over someone like No 2-ranked Poirier, White should repay Ferguson’s loyalty with a shot at the undisputed title, whoever holds it. He’s earned it. Help us understand what you are interested in so that we can improve SCMP and provide a better experience for you. We would like to invite you to take this five-minute survey on how you engage with SCMP and the news.