This was MMA’s equivalent to a perfect game.
Justin Gaethje in a career-defining performance laid claim to the interim Ultimate Fighting Championship lightweight title, as he disposed of Tony Ferguson with punches in the fifth round of their UFC 249 headliner on Saturday at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida. Referee Herb Dean called for the stoppage 3:39 into Round 5, closing the book on Ferguson’s record-setting 12-fight winning streak at 155 pounds.
Gaethje was magnificent from start to finish. The Trevor Wittman protégé swung for the fences at times but did not overextend himself to the point of exhaustion. He tore into Ferguson with repeated leg kicks and power punches from both hands, maintained his composure and went about breaking down one of the toughest men in the business. Gaethje connected on a remarkable 72 percent (143-for-197) of his significant strikes against “El Cucuy,” as he handed “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 13 winner his first loss since May 5, 2012.
In the aftermath of UFC 249 “Ferguson vs. Gaethje,” here are five fights that ought to be made:
Justin Gaethje vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov: Maybe the mixed martial arts world had overlooked the most significant threat to Nurmagomedov’s reign all along. Gaethje systematically dismantled Ferguson across four-plus rounds to establish himself as the clear-cut No. 1 contender at 155 pounds, his stock now at an all-time high. The 31-year-old Safford, Arizona, native has rattled off four consecutive victories, all of them finishes, since he suffered back-to-back defeats Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier a little more than two years ago. Only Nurmagomedov, his perfect 28-0 record and the accompanying aura of invincibility stand between Gaethje and immortality. The American Kickboxing Academy ace last fought in September, when he submitted Poirier with a rear-naked choke in the third round of their UFC 242 main event.
Francis Ngannou vs. Stipe Miocic-Daniel Cormier winner: No man can withstand Ngannou at full blast—a lesson Jairzinho Rozenstruik had to learn the hard way. The Cameroon-born Frenchman wiped out the previously unbeaten Rozenstruik with a sweeping left hook and follow-up punches in the first round of their featured heavyweight affair. Ngannou drew the curtain 20 seconds into Round 1, scoring the third sub-minute finish of his current four-fight winning streak. Deadlocked at 1-1 in their head-to-head series, Miocic and Cormier are expected to wrap up their trilogy for the undisputed heavyweight crown in the second half of 2020, provided the coronavirus pandemic does not interfere with those plans.
Calvin Kattar vs. Yair Rodriguez: Kattar recorded his 13th win in 15 appearances, as he cut down Jeremy Stephens with a savage standing elbow strike and follow-up ground-and-pound in the second round of their featherweight showcase. Bleeding profusely from a diagonal gash on his forehead, Stephens succumbed to blows 2:42 into Round 2. Kattar absorbed his share of punishment, especially through repeated kicks to his lead leg, but hit his stride at the end of the first round. Midway through the middle stanza, he planted his elbow into Stephens face, followed him to the ground, opened the cut with another slashing elbow and forced the stoppage. Rodriguez last competed in October, when he took a unanimous decision from Stephens at UFC on ESPN 6.
Greg Hardy vs. Marcin Tybura: The polarizing Hardy rebounded from his Nov. 9 decision loss to former Bellator MMA champion Alexander Volkov to take a unanimous verdict from the previously unbeaten Yorgan De Castro in their three-round heavyweight showcase. All three cageside judges scored it 30-27. Hardy weathered some early damage to his lead leg and slowly but surely turned the tide in his favor. He picked up his pace in the second and third rounds, where he exploited his physical advantages, connected with heavy punches and even mixed in a few stinging leg kicks of his own. A former M-1 Global champion, Tybura last appeared at UFC Fight Night 169 in February, when he pocketed a unanimous decision over Sergey Spivak.
Vicente Luque vs. Neil Magny: Luque buried Niko Price under an avalanche of offense, prompting a doctor stoppage in the third round of their undercard rematch at 170 pounds. His right eye swollen shut, a battered and bloodied Price was deemed unfit to continue 3:37 into Round 3. Luque—who submitted “The Hybrid” with a brabo choke at UFC Fight Night 119 in their first encounter a little more than two years ago—chopped away with leg kicks and effective counters, even has his adversary tested his chin with return fire. He floored Price with a counter left hook in the third round, pounced with punches and allowed him to stand, at which point referee Jason Herzog called in the cageside physician to have a look. Herzog waved it off soon after. Magny returned from a lengthy absence at UFC 248, where he took a unanimous decision from Jingliang Li on March 7.
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