UFC 249: Ferguson vs. Gaethje Preview

UFC 249: Ferguson vs. Gaethje Preview

A preview of Saturday’s UFC 249 card, set to take place in Jacksonville, Fla.

Updated: May 7, 2020 • 9:25 AM ET

Dominick Cruz is looking to become a UFC bantamweight champion once again.

Amidst a whirlwind of controversy and speculation, the UFC will get back to business this weekend as the current COVID-19 pandemic remains present. Originally scheduled for April 18 before postponement, UFC 249 will take place this Saturday in Jacksonville, Fla. with no fans in attendance.

The event’s postponement initiated beyond the lead figureheads with UFC, going all the way up to the top executives at Disney and ESPN who battled with the organization over obvious fears regarding the coronavirus pandemic nationwide. As time has progressed, though, the UFC has found a way to revitalize the fight world with one of the best cards that could have been put together.

UFC 249’s original main event was supposed to be a lightweight title bout between champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and No. 1 contender Tony Ferguson. This was the fifth time a fight between the two had been scheduled with the first four attempts being cancelled for various reasons. However, when Nurmagomedov could not be a part of the event due to travel restrictions that continue to keep him in his native republic of Dagestan, the UFC shuffled to keep UFC 249’s main event alive and eventually inked a bout between Ferguson and “The Highlight” Justin Gaethje.

This weekend’s main event between Ferguson and Gaethje will be for the interim lightweight title, and the winner should get the next shot at Nurmagomedov. Ferguson, however, has taken a significant risk accepting the fight with Gaethje, as it’s possible he could have waited for Nurmagomedov to return to the Octagon for a title shot, even if that may not happen until later this year.

It’s difficult to envision a scenario where Ferguson is still the next to challenge for the title if he loses to Gaethje, so the risk level for his title aspirations is about as high as it can get. If he had simply waited for Nurmagomedov to return, would he still have been next to receive a title shot? Or, would another fighter have leap-frogged him, such as Gaethje or Conor McGregor? The idea of being passed over for another matchup may have something to do with Ferguson deciding to fight someone other than the champion; and he was not given an easy fight against the hard-hitting Gaethje.

Currently on a 12-fight winning streak, Ferguson is a former interim champion whose last win was a second-round TKO victory over Donald Cerrone at UFC 238 last June. During the winning streak and including Cerrone, Ferguson has defeated former champions Anthony Pettis and Rafael dos Anjos, Kevin Lee, Edson Barboza and Josh Thomson. He has not lost since dropping a decision to Michael Johnson in 2012.

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Ferguson understands the threat Gaethje brings to the fight, but he’s confident he knows how to win.

“Justin Gaethje is not a button masher like Khabib,” Ferguson recently told TSN. “He’s going to go in there and actually have some technique, he’s going to have some conditioning. He’s training at a mile high over in Denver, and he’s going to come in guns-a-blazing.”

“We’ve been preparing for this since November, December, five to six months we’ve been waiting for this dude. But nothing has changed but the name on the card. We never worry about what our opponents are going to do. We go in there and do our damage, our style…I’m going to go in and tag this dude.”

The 36-year-old Ferguson understands his opponents style and knows that it will be a hard-fought battle.

“I’m going to be real,” Ferguson said. “I don’t see any difference with Gaethje. He’s a strong opponent, he’s a very strong-willed opponent.

“I really don’t have anything bad to say about this dude. He’s a USA wrestler, he’s got a great camp over there, I have nothing but respect for them. He’s a tough-nosed opponent, but he’s got a tough fight ahead of him, I’m going to be real. I think we’re both prepared for this, we both signed on the dotted line and we’re making sure that the people are going to get what they want.”

Gaethje has won three straight fights since starting 1-2 in the UFC. He most recently defeated Cerrone by a devastating first-round TKO in September, and he also defeated Barboza and James Vick by first-round knockout. The 31-year-old is known for his hard-nose style and his ability to absorb punishment to get after his opponents. While he has taken damage in fights, he inflicted the damage in his last three fights while taking none. He says he’s prepared to collect another big finish on Saturday.

“I’m going to fight until I’m finished, or I’m going to fight until Tony’s finished,” Gaethje said on UFC 249 Countdown. “That’s what I do, that’s what I’ve always done. I possess the power to turn his lights off, and I believe I will.”

Both fighters may hold an advantage in different parts of the fight. Gaethje has shown that he’s a fast starter with the ability to end fights with one shot. Ferguson gets stronger as fights get into later rounds and simply overwhelms his opponents with his unpredictable style. The big question will be, if Ferguson is hit by big shots from Gaethje in the earlier rounds, can he withstand the punishment, or will he become Gaethje’s latest victim?

 

Co-main event

Saturday’s co-main event will be for the bantamweight title, as champion Henry Cejudo will defend against former champion Dominick Cruz.

Cejudo is a former two-weight champion, previously holding the flyweight title that he defended once against former bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw in January 2019. He relinquished the belt in December to focus on the bantamweight division.

Cejudo won the vacant bantamweight title with a third-round TKO of Marlon Moraes at UFC 238 last June. He was originally scheduled for his first defense at UFC 250, which would have taken place this Saturday against former featherweight champion Jose Aldo, but visa issues forced Aldo to withdraw from the bout. Cejudo was vocal about his desire to fight Aldo, but says Cruz was always on his list of potential opponents.

“Dominick was my first choice, since the beginning I wanted to fight him,” Cejudo recently said on a UFC 249 conference call. “I thought it was a great storyline – we’re both from Arizona, he’s a former champ, I beat the No. 1 contender Marlon Moraes, and there was really not a concrete No. 1 contender after I beat Moraes.

“My original plan was to fight him, but then I saw the fact that Jose Aldo did a good job with Marlon Moraes, who was the No. 1 contender. I decided to go with Aldo, but I always told Dominick, Dominick should stay on deck because if anything happens, you’re the guy that I want next. And it just turned out to be that Jose Aldo couldn’t get a visa, and that allowed Dominick to squeeze back in. But he was always part of the plan in the first place, and now we’re going to fight.”

Bantamweight contenders near the top of the division haven’t been shy with their criticisms of Cejudo’s most recent choices of opponents. However, Cejudo is not worried about them at all. When asked what he would say to his critics, Cejudo said, “I’m going to tell them wait for their king, wait for the king to tell them to bend the knee. Aljamain Sterling got knocked out by the guy that I knocked out, so wait in line. And Peter Yan, he needs to learn better English. He absolutely sucks, and you can’t beat a 41-year-old and expect a title shot – that’s just ridiculous. I rather fight somebody who hasn’t fight in four years.”

Critics aside, Cejudo’s UFC resume speaks for itself. Including Moraes and Dillashaw, he has wins over Jussier Formiga, Wilson Reis and Sergio Pettis. His most important victory, however, came when he defeated Demetrious Johnson to win the flyweight belt in August 2018. Johnson is arguably the greatest MMA fighter of all time, and a win over an all-time great like Cruz would cement Cejudo’s spot on the all-time great list.

Cejudo has also taken on the role of champion in a dynamic way after winning the bantamweight belt to become a double champ. With two belts to match his Olympic gold medal in wrestling, he took on the nickname “Triple C.”

Cruz has not fought since losing to Cody Garbrandt for the title at UFC 207 in 2016. He has notoriously battled injuries, which has cost him significant time away from the Octagon. Despite the injuries, Cruz is one of the greatest champions in UFC history with key victories over UFC Hall of Famer Urijah Faber (twice), Dillashaw, Demetrious Johnson, Joseph Benavidez (twice) and Ian McCall.

Since defeating Johnson in 2011, Cruz is just 4-1 in eight years because of the injuries. Cruz, however, can make history on Saturday after another three-plus years away from the Octagon by becoming a three-time UFC bantamweight champion.

The 35-year-old Cruz has proven that he can come back after multiple injuries and a long layoff to win a title. He has proven that he has a fighting style that you can try to train for, but once you are in the Octagon with him, his footwork and angles are unpredictable. Cejudo is one of the best wrestlers in the UFC and will have that advantage, but closing Cruz’s distance to make the fight a wrestling match will be a tough task for the champion. Cruz has proven that his cardio is hard to match, not to mention the movement he can display in championship rounds should the fight get there. Those factors could win Cruz a decision this weekend.

 

The rest of the main card on ESPN+ at 10 p.m. EDT

Heavyweight bout - No. 2 Francis Ngannou vs. No. 6 Jairzinho Rozenstruik

Featherweight bout - No. 7 Jeremy Stephens vs. No. 9 Calvin Kattar

Heavyweight bout - Greg Hardy vs. Yorgan de Castro

 

ESPN/ESPN+ Prelims at 8 p.m. EDT

Welterweight bout - No. 15 Anthony Pettis vs. No. 6 Donald Cerrone

Heavyweight bout - No. 12 Aleksei Oleinik vs. Fabricio Werdum

Women’s strawweight bout - No. 7 Carla Esparza vs. No. 8 Michelle Waterson

Middleweight bout - No. 10 Uriah Hall vs. No. 14 Ronaldo Souza

 

UFC Fight Pass Early Prelims at 6:30 p.m. EDT

Welterweight bout - No. 13 Vicente Luque vs. Niko Price

Featherweight bout - Bryce Mitchell vs. Charles Rosa

Light heavyweight bout - Ryan Spann vs. Sam Alvey

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