Fantasy Fights

Intelligent, unique MMA analysis

UFC 135 Preview: Tony Ferguson vs. Aaron Riley

When you see the name Aaron Riley brought up in MMA circles, he’s generally spoken of in a positive way. “Tough veteran” is perhaps the most common way Riley is described. Riley is experienced, he’s tough, he’s solid… well-rounded. I don’t think this kind of analysis does Riley justice. This is a veteran of 43 fights, seven of which have taken place in the UFC. By now, we should be able to describe Riley as a fighter in something beyond vague generalities.

Now, when I wrote my piece on the nine-year rule, examining the general career arc of mixed martial artists, one of the criticisms of my piece was essentially that I “cherry-picked” examples. In other words, that I chose two examples to make a specific point, where there are presumably many counter-examples. The funny thing is that, for the debate about the point at which fighters decline, the counter-examples chosen were names like Jeff Monson.

But one of my assertions was that the starting age of a fighter’s career has little bearing on their ability to extend their career. As always, there are exceptions, such as Vitor Belfort, but if you see a 21-year-old fighter who’s been competing for four years, don’t expect that fighter to improve dramatically. In fact, I don’t think Belfort himself really improved much from his very young self; at best, he became a slightly more polished version of the same guy. But to the point: Aaron Riley is just one example of a guy I could have mentioned to support my point.

Riley started his career about 14 years ago, in 1997 as a 16-year-old fighter. Despite his young age, he started his career 11-1-1. The problem with just throwing out a guy’s record is that it really says very little about how good he actually is. As it turns out, Riley beat only one above-average opponent (Joe Merit) during that period. Since then, from the age of 19, Riley is 19-11, and 6-4 since hitting the 9-year mark. No, it hasn’t been an epic collapse along the lines of a Chuck Liddell or a Jens Pulver, but my argument wasn’t that the 9-year mark represented an imminent career collapse. The argument was that, generally speaking, MMA fighters tend to decline around that point in their careers; some fighters will collapse, some will decline gradually, and some will stay virtually the same. Very few, if any, will have any improvement at that point.

And that’s the problem for Riley. Now, he’s 30 years old. Did a promising young teenage fighter blossom into some vessel of unbridled terror, reigning over a lightweight division full of fighters who aspire to be like him? Not exactly. In fact, a grand total of one of Riley’s 30 victories has been rated as a “UFC-quality” win: his UFC 91 decision win against Jorge Gurgel, good for a 66.39 Victory Score. Riley’s overall UFC record is 3-4, although this includes a TKO loss to Shane Nelson that featured a particularly bad referee stoppage. But the larger point is this: just because a fighter is winning at a very young age doesn’t mean that said fighter will just keep improving until the age of 27. I would urge those hyping up Rory MacDonald to take notes. MacDonald is a very good welterweight fighter, but he’s a finished product now as far as I’m concerned.

Let’s talk about Tony Ferguson, the winner of the 13th season of The Ultimate Fighter. As is common with TUF participants, Ferguson has dropped a weight class immediately following his participation on the show, going from welterweight to lightweight. Even though Ferguson was SILVA’s #2 fighter going into the show, he was the most impressive by far, mixing a solid wrestling base with good fundamental boxing to methodically dispatch of all of his opponents. Ferguson didn’t show himself to be a five-star prospect or anything, but he was fun to watch, and clearly the best fighter on that show.

What’s problematic about Ferguson is that he has a loss to a very mediocre opponent in Jamie Toney on his record. Because SILVA is based on the difference between a fighter’s best win and his worst loss in estimating how good the fighter is, Ferguson’s SILVA score is held down a lot because of that loss. To make matters worse, Ferguson’s wins on TUF are not counted toward his SILVA score, because with the exception of his finale victory against Ramsey Nijem, which was counted, none of those fights are actual, official professional fights.


This is why I’m taking the risk, and going against SILVA again. Aaron Riley’s SILVA score is 24.49 because his fight history suggests that that’s how good he is. Tony Ferguson’s SILVA score is flawed, and I think he should win this fight against Aaron Riley. Now, I have no doubt that Riley will be tough, well-rounded, and ready to fight. But I think Ferguson is the better fighter.


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