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Say what you will about late-stage capitalism, but it resulted in an outstanding card for the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s return. With dreams of Fight Island dancing in its head, the promotion on Saturday will make its way to Jacksonville, Florida, for UFC 249—the first, and best, of a series of events in everyone’s second-favorite mid-tier Sunshine State city. It offers a little bit of everything, except for Khabib Nurmagomedov. The Tony Ferguson-Justin Gaethje main event provides high stakes and guaranteed violence, with backup being provided by hardcore favorites like Calvin Kattar and Vicente Luque, heavyweight weirdness and even a Dominick Cruz appearance.
On to the UFC 249 “Ferguson vs. Gaethje” preview:
UFC Interim Lightweight ChampionshipTony Ferguson (25-3) vs. Justin Gaethje (21-2)
ODDS: Ferguson (-155), Gaethje (+135)
After multiple cancellations over four-plus years, it has become commonly accepted that the Ferguson-Nurmagomedov fight is cursed, but once you examine the numbers, it is crazy how little “El Cucuy” has to show for such a successful UFC career. Ferguson is now 16 fights deep into his Octagon tenure, and after breaking his arm in an understandably flat loss against Michael Johnson in 2012, he has spent eight years dominating strong competition and putting on entertaining performances in the process. Yet Ferguson has not even been a regular main event fighter, as this somehow marks just his third five-round headliner with the UFC. At any rate, Ferguson has remained in frustrating holding pattern since 2016, when a win over Rafael dos Anjos clearly established him and Nurmagomedov as the top two contenders for Conor McGregor, who went on to win the UFC’s lightweight title the following week. Instead, the Irishman chose Option C in the form of a boxing match with Floyd Mayweather, and weight issues forced Nurmagomedov out of a fight with Ferguson. As a result, Ferguson was left to beat Kevin Lee for an interim title that did not mean much, and he was quietly stripped after he injured himself ahead of yet another attempt to fight Nurmagomedov. That gave Nurmagomedov the opening to entrench himself as lightweight champion and forced to tread water on pay-per-view cards, as he won wars over Anthony Pettis and Donald Cerrone. Naturally, that led to another booking against Nurmagomedov that fell apart due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and gave rise to another interim title fight. On the plus side, Gaethje is a clear No. 3 in the division, which provides this match with a bit more relevance than Ferguson’s fight against Lee. Still, the question remains: If Ferguson gets past Gaethje, what will be the next obstacle that gets between him and undisputed glory?
Nurmagomedov getting stuck in Russia due to the global health crisis opens the door for Gaethje to find his own crowning moment. As the World Series of Fighting started going under and it became apparent Gaethje was headed to the UFC, the mind raced regarding how “The Highlight” would fare in his new home. Gaethje entered each fight in the WSOF with a clear game plan, constantly pressuring his opponents and committing to winning his fights in the most violent manner possible, eating their best offense with the confidence that he could hit them back harder and more often. Gaethje’s first few fights in the UFC lived up to the potential in some ways and fell short in others. On the plus side, his bouts against Johnson, Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier were all “Fight of the Year” contenders and three of the best fights in recent history, as Gaethje picked up right where he left off in terms of charging through hell to try and damage his opponents. However, he fell short in terms of results— Johnson nearly finished him because Gaethje stormed back for a knockout, and Alvarez and Poirier smartly walked along the razor’s edge to pick apart the Arizona native, stay out of trouble and eventually wear him out on route to a late victory. Since then, Gaethje looks to have retooled into a smarter—but still violent—fighter, though it is a bit hard to tell since he keeps knocking out his opponents. Cerrone, James Vick and Edson Barboza are all fighters who have historically struggled against pressure, but Gaethje has been more judicious about choosing his spots before dropping the hammer, showing actual defensive awareness before obliterating each of those men inside the first Round. Even if he loses here, Gaethje is a made man in terms of being an exciting and relevant fighter, at least until his body finally gives out. Even so, this is a huge chance to establish himself as an elite lightweight and a true money player.
This should be a ridiculous fight, and adding to the intrigue is that this might be Ferguson’s toughest test yet. “El Cucuy” does not approach his fights with much of a game plan, instead choosing to react to and build off of what his opponents offer. He is often a slow starter as a result; his fights against Pettis and Cerrone were wars despite not making it into the third round, and even Lee and Lando Vannata managed to take over early before Ferguson came back to beat them. Gaethje is the most dangerous fighter of that bunch, particularly early on, so this essentially comes down to one set of questions: Can Gaethje take advantage of Ferguson’s need to fight himself into a rhythm, and can Ferguson survive if he does? There is a lot to suggest that Gaethje can cause a ton of damage in that first round. Pettis showed that a strong leg kicking game, which Gaethje certainly possesses, can have a big effect on Ferguson’s surgically repaired knee; and Gaethje is also one of the best fighters out there as far as hunting for a finish once he has an opponent in danger. However, for as much trouble as Ferguson gets into at the beginning of his fights, there is still all the natural talent that has made his approach work thus far. He is the much faster fighter, and while Pettis and Cerrone both hit him cleanly, Ferguson still survived and avoided a decent amount from fighters who are respectively quicker and longer than Gaethje. This would have been a much more confident pick had this fight taken place in April, when Gaethje barely had any time to train, but even with the longer training camps, the pick is still for Ferguson to survive that rough first round and set a pace that Gaethje cannot maintain in subsequent frames. There is a decent chance that this pick looks very dumb very quickly, but the call is for Ferguson to win via fourth-round knockout.
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