After a brutal loss and facing serious doubt, Tony Ferguson is at a crossroads at UFC 256

LAS VEGAS -- Tony Ferguson believes he is a big reason the UFC resumed operations as quickly as it did in 2020, and he theorizes that everyone profited from that quick return -- except for him.

Ferguson (25-4) will face Charles Oliveira (29-8) at UFC 256 on Saturday, in his first appearance since he suffered a five-round beating at the hands of Justin Gaethje on May 9. That UFC 249 event marked the end of an eight-week stretch during which the UFC canceled five events due to the pandemic, and it came while the NBA, NFL, MLB and NCAA postponed operations.

Ferguson was supposed to fight Khabib Nurmagomedov for the undisputed lightweight championship at UFC 249, but the pandemic canceled the scheduled April date. Rather than wait for the UFC to rebook that lucrative title fight, Ferguson agreed to a new opponent and a new location. Then came another new location, when the UFC's backup plan fell through. Then there was a new date, when those plans changed again.

In the middle of it all, Ferguson elected to cut weight for an event that was already postponed. He said it was because he had committed to it and wanted to give the world something to follow. It was a move many in the MMA world second-guessed, and even ridiculed. He eventually suffered the loss and snapped a 12-fight win streak. Gaethje then lost via second-round submission to Nurmagomedov for the undisputed title on Oct 24.

So, what did Ferguson take from the whole experience? When he fights Oliveira on Saturday, Ferguson said he is fighting 100% for himself.

"I made a direct, direct, direct point to myself that I would never feel that way for everybody else again," Ferguson told ESPN. "As toxic as everybody is, f--- 'em.

"You save the world, you think you get a medal? Nah. You don't get s---. You hear, 'You didn't do it good enough. You didn't do that great. You got hit. You're never gonna be the same.' What I say to that is, 'You're welcome, everybody. You're welcome.' Because it took this guy to get everything back going."

Well, perhaps a "me against the world" mentality is exactly what Ferguson needs. Because he's right, the MMA world doesn't think he fought well in his past performance, and many do have questions about whether he'll ever be the same.

Nurmagomedov said Ferguson is done. "When you take damage like this, you're never going to be the same," he said. "Never. Even if you're Tony Ferguson." UFC commentator Jon Anik asked during the fight: ''How many shots can a human being take?'' ESPN analyst and retired UFC veteran Chael Sonnen didn't go so far as to call for Ferguson's retirement after the bout, but he admitted the possibility of it ''should be on the table'' as his next move.

Ferguson is coming off just his first loss in eight years, but he'll turn 37 in February. The amount of damage he took seven months ago, coupled with a major knee surgery in 2018, are reasons for concern moving forward. Despite winning 12 fights in a row between 2013 and 2020, he never once fought for an undisputed championship, even though he has been scheduled to do so multiple times.

Ferguson says he no longer cares about the elusive title shot. He basically says the rug has been pulled from under him too many times when it comes to championship opportunities, so he's done chasing them.

Regardless of whether that's true, the reality is that Saturday is probably a must-win for Ferguson if he's to ever fight for the undisputed title. He's right, in that the UFC doesn't hand out medals for headlining the first pay-per-view event of a pandemic. No medal -- and no title shot, either.

The clock is ticking for that, and in a crowded division, where the champion, Nurmagomedov, says he's retired but is nevertheless still holding the belt -- times are uncertain and title shots will come at a premium. For the first time in years, there are serious doubts as to whether Ferguson is capable of proving himself as the best lightweight in the UFC.

If Ferguson's fight at UFC 249 was to save the sports world, then his fight at UFC 256 is to save his career.