English featherweight Lerone Murphy may not have been the best-known name on the fight card at UFC 242 but, after turning in a promising debut performance, he believes he’s ready to swim in the shark-infested waters of the UFC’s 145-pound division.
The 28-year-old had won the featherweight title in U.K. regional promotion Full Contact Contender in May and had just returned home from his holiday when he got the call to face Zubaira Tukhugov at UFC 242. While he admitted he didn’t recognize the Russian star’s name at first, a quick Google search soon revealed the task ahead of him.
“I searched him and I knew who he was then, and I was like ‘Wow, this is a crazy opportunity for me to go out there and get my name out there and prove I’m at that level,’” he told MMA Junkie upon his return to British soil. “Obviously I knew it was going to be a hard fight. It’s a big step up in competition and it’s on one of the biggest stages. I was just scared that the stage would take away from the performance, but it kind of added to it. When I first came out and I heard the crowd screaming and stuff, it was amazing. It gave me more fire.”
Murphy (8-0-1 MMA, 0-0-1 UFC) revealed he went through a surreal experience as he made the walk from the dressing rooms to the octagon, where he was announced to the crowd by legendary octagon announcer Bruce Buffer. It felt strange to the Brit, but not because of the occasion. It felt strange because it felt like he’d already experienced it all before.
“We’re walking down the tunnel. It’s boiling hot because we had to go outside, but once we got back into the arena it was OK,” he said. “And I could see through the curtain the crowd and I was like, ‘Wow, yes. It’s time.’ And as soon as my music came on and I was walking out, I was smiling to myself thinking: ‘This is sick!’ I’m never normally like that. I’m normally focused, mind on the job. But I was enjoying myself, dancing to my music. It felt like I was meant to be there.
“I’ve been watching the UFC for years, so I’ve visualized that moment (being announced by Buffer) over and over again in my mind. Even playing the UFC video game, I created my own character. It’s all something I visualized, so it all felt normal in a weird way, like I’d been there before. It was crazy.”
Once the fight got underway, Murphy then had to adapt quickly to a much higher-level opponent than he’d faced in his previous eight career fights. Tukhugov (18-4-1 MMA, 3-1-1 UFC) had more than twice the number of fights to his name than the Brit, and Murphy admitted it took him a round to fully adapt to the situation he’d found himself in.
“It was crazy. He had a weird style, as well,” he said. “He’d be just sat there like he’s doing nothing, then he’d just explode out of nowhere. It took me a round to get used to, and that’s why I got caught.
“He was strong, he was good. I did expect him to be better on the feet, but his grappling was tremendous. He was putting his pressure on in the right places, he was hard to get off me, he was strong. You could tell he’d just drilled all that kind of stuff with Khabib’s team. He was very strong in that area.”
But after returning to his corner following a tough opening five minutes, he was met by his team of head coach Carl Prince and training partner and friend Kane Mousah, who calmed his nerves before sending him out to put his own stamp on the fight.
“Once I got that first round out of the way and I’d felt his strength and felt his speed, I knew I could do better,” he said. “I knew I’d made a few mistakes in the first round and I knew I could still win this fight. So going into the second all my confidence was back and I was ready to go.”
And after a much-improved round that saw Murphy hold his own against the Russian star, Mousah delivered an inspiring pep-talk to his friend ahead of the final round. If it had the intention of firing up Murphy to produce the best round of the fight, it certainly worked, as the Brit dominated large parts of the final frame to take the contest all the way to the judges’ scorecards.
“Going from the second to the third, I got the pump-up talk and that made me think, ‘Come on, let’s get this. Let’s do this!’ and I nearly did in the end,” he said. “I think I got taken down in the last minute, and that caused the draw.
“To be fully honest, because he was the home fighter and he did have a lot of ground control I thought that they were going to give it to him. Even though he wasn’t doing anything on the ground, I thought they might just give it to him because he’s the home fighter. But I got the split-draw in the end. When I watched it back, I think I definitely won the second and third rounds. I’m happy with a draw, though, and we’ll go again.”
Given the short-notice assignment, it would have been easy for Murphy to use the quick turnaround as a reason for not getting the win, but the modest Brit sees it differently, and instead put it down to “inexperience and a few stupid errors.”
But despite not quite capping a memorable debut with a win, the Manchester native is taking the positives away from his Abu Dhabi mission. He is now a UFC fighter, having signed a four-fight deal before his debut, and he just put in a more than creditable performance against a dangerous name in the UFC’s talent-stacked featherweight division.
Murphy says he’d happily take another fight before the end of the year, but he has his heart set on a fight on home soil, when the UFC makes its now-annual pilgrimage to The O2 in London each March. But, for now, he just wants to get back to work, splitting his time between All Powers Gym in Stockport, England and Alliance MMA in San Diego, where he trains alongside the likes of Dominick Cruz, Jeremy Stephens and fellow Brit Brendan Loughnane.
“I want to go back to America, do some more training and improve my skillset,” he said. “Then, if I get a fight in March, I’ll be 10 times better – I’ll be a different fighter. I always grow between camps. I believe that the experience from this fight, the three rounds I’ve got in the bag, will make me a better fighter automatically, as well.”
And as a man looking to make his name in arguably the most competitive weight class in the UFC, Murphy knows he will have to give it his all as he embarks on the toughest, most exciting, chapter in his athletic career.
“You can expect me to grow and grow, and hopefully in the next 12 months or so I’ll be aiming for the Top 10,” he said. “I just know now I have to be putting in the work. I always do anyway, but it needs to be more structured work and to be filling these gaps in, because the featherweight division is crazy talented. I’ve been watching all the fighters closely in that division, and there’s no easy fights. They’re all going to be at that kind of level, and better, so I need to be prepared.”