01 Jan Missed Fists Theater: The pre-UFC days of Tony Ferguson, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Rose Namajunas, and more
Welcome to the latest edition of Missed Fists where we shine a light on fights from across the globe that may have been overlooked in these hectic times where it seems like there’s an MMA show every other day.
Nothing can fill the hole that was supposed to be occupied on April 18 by a star-studded UFC 249 card. First, we were robbed of Tony Ferguson vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov (again), then Ferguson vs. Justin Gaethje (at least for now), not to mention a rematch between Rose Namajunas and Jessica Andrade among several other compelling contests.
It will be until at least May 9 before we get to see matchups of this magnitude again, so until then let your fine friends at Missed Fists headquarters show you some fights from these headlining stars from before they set foot in the octagon.
It’s the “Wherefore Art Thou, UFC 249” edition of Missed Fists Theater:
AL: Even though “El Cucuy” quickly revealed himself to be a frontrunner on his season of The Ultimate Fighter, he was not a well-known prospect heading into the show. His 10-2 record at the time doesn’t immediately leap off the page, but he did have his share of notable wins.
First up, Ferguson vs. David Gardner in Ventura, Calif., March 26, 2010. And yes, that’s David Gardner of “Hello Japan” fame.
JM: “Hello Japan” is the second dumbest thing to ever happen in a professional MMA fight and I love it. (The dumbest thing is when Kazuhiro Nakamura took off his gi while standing in front of Wanderlei Silva, midfight).
AL: Somehow both of those dumb things happened in a JMMA contest. Huh.
You can see Ferguson’s trademark controlled aggression here. He’s relentless, yes, but he’s also picking his spots and brutalizing Gardner’s midsection. Ferguson has never been a one-hitter quitter striker, much to the detriment of his opponents.
JM: A few things really stand out here. First, is how much this looks like Tony Ferguson. Yes, he’s young and still developing, but the same skeleton of his style is here. Ferguson is largely the same guy he was 10 years ago, just a better, more refined version of it.
Secondly, it’s striking to me that Ferguson’s coaches are adamant that he “not look for the submission” against the guy who is desperately wrestling him. Weird to hear that considering how potent a threat his D’Arce becomes.
And finally, for a guy who won an NCWA national championship, it’s shocking how often Ferguson gets taken down. Gardner was clearly overmatched and still managed to run the pipe on him.
AL: This next clip is just a short highlight (RIP Inside MMA), it’s Ferguson vs. the then-unbeaten Brock Jardine in what would be Ferguson’s last fight before TUF.
We’ve got the fully insane — and hittable! — version of Ferguson here.
JM: The hallmark of every young fighter is a total lack of defense. It’s what makes Jose Aldo so special, that guy was always sensational in all aspects. Sadly, Tony is still often pretty hittable, but dude is otherworldly tough and fit so it hasn’t come back to really bite him in the ass yet.
Nurmagomedov’s first fight (embedding disabled)
AL: There it is. Victim number one of 28. Nurmagomedov was just a week shy of his 20th birthday when he took his first pro fight here against Vusal Bayramov at a show in Poltava, Ukraine, on Sept. 13, 2008.
To be honest, there isn’t a lot to see here outside of Bayramov throwing a few low kicks before Nurmagomedov snatches his leg and takes him down. Nurmagomedov clearly has skills on the ground as he slaps on a triangle choke that puts Bayramov to sleep. But who could have known this kid would go on to become one of the greatest fighters in MMA history?
JM: I firmly disagree! There is plenty to see here.
For one, we get to see how willing Khabib used to be to go to his back. Khabib was in mount and then dove for a triangle instead of going for any number of other submissions that would’ve kept him in top position. That’s a pretty far cry from what we see of him these days.
But though that is different, like with Ferguson, you can see the bones of his game here in his very first fight – a willingness to let opponents dictate the fight early, unreal athleticism, and total control on the ground. Given how bad his shot was, it would be hard to predict he’d become the GOAT lightweight, but then again, no one knew he didn’t need a beautiful set up to wrestle because he was stupid fast and mountain strong.
AL: Victim number five was Said Akhmed, and to this point Nurmagomedov was yet to face an opponent with a win.
JM: That’s literally how every MMA prospect should be brought along. Boxing takes tune-up fights to the extreme, fattening up records with meaningless wins so certain fighters can be sacrificed at the altar of superstars. MMA has mostly gone the other way, to the detriment of young talent.
Every young fighter sucks, that’s just a fact. Giving talented gym rats 5-10 fights against low-level opposition to just get ring time and literally learn their own style in a live environment is a genuinely good idea. Hell, look at how this worked out for Khabib! Five fights in he went from a man who dove on a triangle from top position to a guy who is just full-out Donkey Kong’ing fools.
AL: This is one of Khabib’s faster pre-UFC finishes. Also, dudes are literally just fighting on a mat.
JM: Dead serious, when I first saw this fight I thought it was some kind of weird, gi-less combat sambo.
Now granted, gi-less combat sambo would essentially be MMA, but you get my point. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen open mat MMA but I won’t lie, I’m kinda into it. Next maybe some Russian promotion will have open mats and just a bunch of people to keep the fighters in the center, lumberjack style.
AL: In Nurmagomedov’s last fight before joining the UFC, he fought Arymarcel Santos, whose 28-22 record showed he was experienced if nothing else.
AL: There’s that shovel uppercut that’s still part of Nurmagomedov’s arsenal. He really did have some pop in his hands, even if the technique wasn’t there yet.
JM: Let’s just note that a leaping shovel punch should be practically impossible to even perform and it certainly shouldn’t possess the necessary power to knock someone down. But more importantly, look at Khabib’s ground-and-pound here, it’s nearly identical to his form and technique today. He rifled punches at Conor in the exact same fashion when they fought. You can tell that 16 fights into his career, Khabib knows how he wants to fight, he’s just fine-tuning things.
Also, if you’d like to hear more about young Khabib, I highly recommend this week’s Heavy Hands podcast where they discuss the early stylistic peccadillos of Nurmagomedov in his UFC debut against Kamal Shalorus.
AL: We could do a whole post on Gaethje’s pre-UFC career — and maybe we will someday — as he was one of the most talked-about lightweights well before he made his first octagon appearance in 2017. Gaethje developed a reputation as an absolute terror not just because of his insane knockout power, but his inhuman endurance.
The latter was certainly on display in his last fight for the World Series of Fighting on Dec. 31, 2016, against Luiz Firmino.
My goodness… those leg kicks.
JM: Pre-UFC Gaethje was the most exciting fighter in the sport. Then he came to the UFC and now he’s… still the most exciting fighter in the sport. Every Gaethje fight before this most recent run is him forcing his opponent into a test of wills, and his is almost always stronger. Praise be, Gaethjesus.
AL: This is just a great fight even beyond it being a showcase for Gaethje. His dogged determination is on full display as he just walks Firmino down while eating punch after punch. The only thing this one is missing is an explosive KO finish, but there’s still enjoyment to be had in seeing Gaethje gradually break Firmino down, if you’re a sicko that is.
JM: For most of the second round Firmino is beating Gaethje’s ass like he’s the red-headed stepchild of a rented mule, but Gaethje is coffin-nail tough and just keeps coming and in the end, Firmino’s too busted up to continue. Fighting Justin Gaethje deserves hazard pay.
AL: Before we move on, let’s dip back even further to Gaethje’s pre-WSOF days. At a Rage in the Cage show on Oct. 20, 2012, in Chandler, Ariz., Gaethje met UFC veteran and MMA lifer Drew Fickett (42-18 at the time) and turned him into Thanos dust.
JM: Fickett was three rinses beyond washed at this point and Justin Gaethje is one of the biggest punchers in the division. This fight should not have happened.
AL: I did enjoy the Donald O’Connor-esque running flip off the cage.
Namajunas only had three pro fights before being cast for The Ultimate Fighter 20, and it’s pretty obvious which one put her on the map.
And at #1 is the most memorable finish in Invicta history with @rosenamajunas defeating Catron in just 12 seconds with a flying armbar! pic.twitter.com/1RcPTlWVqe
— Invicta FC (@InvictaFights) August 31, 2017
That’s Namajunas submitting Kathina Catron with a flying armbar in just 12 seconds at Invicta FC 5 on April 5, 2013, and then completely losing all of her s*it.
JM: We’ve discussed this before: I’m very supportive of insane, cool submissions but a flying armbar is usually the result of someone being bad, not someone being good.
AL: You’re the result of someone being bad, not someone being good.
JM: I’m a result of my editor, who is you. Congratulations, you played yourself.
AL: I’m definitely responsible for giving a gun to a chimpanzee too many times, metaphorically speaking.
This is also top-5 MMA victory celebration, I won’t hear any arguments against it.
There’s a couple of old fights of Andrade’s we want to look at here, mostly because you can draw a clear developmental line through them. First, there was her Sept. 8, 2012 win over Duda Yankovich.
And then five fights later she beat Milana Dudieva before signing with the UFC.
Against Yankovich, Andrade is strictly looking to grapple, which makes sense given that Yankovich is an accomplished kickboxer. It’s still weird to see that Andrade’s standup is essentially non-existent, though she does still have that attitude to impose her will on her opponent.
JM: And also remember, that’s Andrade muscling up on bantamweights. She fought at 135 for the first five years of her career and was still a specimen.
AL: The fight with Dudieva is a fun one. Now, we see that wild striking from Andrade that we know and love. She actually drops Dudieva with a winging counter during the crazy opening exchange.
JM: Correction, she drops Dudieva with a wild counter while backed up against the fence. Again, that’s power you don’t see that often and she’s doing it a full two weight-classes above her optimal weight. That is INSANE!
AL: Andrade’s jiu-jitsu is still what butters her bread here. She favors fighting off of her back and she silences the pro-Dudieva Russian crowd with another guillotine choke win after Dudieva made the unwise decision to pull guard in round two.
We can’t leave off without showing some love to the big boys (including “Bigi Boy” himself).
Amazingly, Francis Ngannou’s first fight is available to watch online in high definition. It looks like it may have been filmed as part of a larger project. Whoever it is that uploaded this, we salute you.
JM: That funny thing about Ngannou is that we don’t really know if he’s any better today than he was in this clip. He just keeps knocking people out so it’s tough to gauge what kind of a progression he is on.
What isn’t tough to gauge is how Mr. Rachid Benzina feels about fighting him and that is “pretty f*cking bad.”
AL: Against Benzina, so much of Ngannou’s raw potential is on display. He rips Benzina with a left hook that has him immediately looking for an exit, then drops him with a right hand. Remember before when I wrote that Nurmagomedov’s first fight was fairly innocuous? If you’d shown me this and told me Ngannou would be a future heavyweight title contender, I would have believed you.
JM: I’d barely need to see the fight to think that given his physique. But with him clearly having tons of athleticism and good power, I’d fully buy him as a title contender. Hell, I still think he’s going to go down as the HW GOAT, even over Fedor.
AL: We almost made it to the end without me being scalded by one of your blazing takes.
The finish to this fight is some weird modified armbar/shoulder lock thing? Whatever it is, I don’t blame Benzina for tapping. If Ngannou even came close to getting me into that position I’d be screaming a verbal submission to the rafters.
JM: The finish is “Ngannou by No Thank You.” I just looked it up, Benzina, in fact, never fought again. I wouldn’t be shocked if a lot of Ngannou’s opponents retired after facing him. Hell, we know Cain did.
AL: December 27, 2018, Paramaribo, Suriname. Rozenstruik’s last fight before joining the UFC. 10-second KO.
What else you need to know?
JM: I need to know who Robert McCarthy’s coach was because that overhand right is perhaps the most OVERHAND right I’ve ever seen in my life.
AL: Like Benzina, McCarthy never fought again, so it’s safe to say the better prospect won here.
Whose pre-UFC highlights showed the most promise?
58 votes total