Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.
Sign up for ESPN+ right here, and you can then stream the UFC live on your smart TV, computer, phone, tablet or streaming device via the ESPN app.
After the initial adrenaline and utter delight of UFC 249 subsided, the first thing I felt about the fight between Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje was a kind of sadness. Here was Ferguson, possibly the most talented lightweight in history, on an unprecedented 12-fight winning streak and suddenly on the receiving end of a brutal and flawless Gaethje beatdown. More than any injury or any of the seemingly countless bout cancellations with Khabib Nurmagomedov, this loss obliterated the hopes of a super showdown between “El Cucuy” and the reigning champion. Even if they do eventually fight, it will never carry the same gravity as it did when they were both on record-setting runs through the sport’s toughest division.
In hindsight, perhaps Ferguson should never have taken the fight with Gaethje and instead waited for Nurmagomedov. Two things, though: (1) That doesn’t seem to be who Ferguson is as man or as a fighter, and (2) hindsight is only ever useful when a risk doesn’t pay off. Had he won, he’d be lauded for his gutsy willingness to fight whoever, whenever, even in the middle of a pandemic. That’s how the gambit works: Win and get extra glory, or lose and bear the extra weight of regret.
He could have won, too, if only he fought the Gaethje that showed up in the Ultimate Fighting Championship before this bout. The former World Series of Fighting champion was aggressive to the point of recklessness, willing to eat as many shots as necessary to connect with some of his own. That possibility was not lost on Gaethje or his coach Trevor Wittman. In the closing seconds of Round 4, Gaethje—who was clearly up on the scorecards – put his hands down and dipped just out of range of Ferguson’s 76.5-inch reach, then did a little jig as the bell sounded. He was feeling himself, as someone who is minutes away from securing the biggest win of his career should. Yet before Round 5 started, Wittman got in his fighter’s face and said: “The last time you got too comfortable, you got stopped.” Gaethje responded: “Twice.”
This was not the same Gaethje from before. This was “The Defensibly Responsible Highlight,” the most terrifying version yet. That may be strange to suggest for someone who got hit 136 times in under 24 minutes, but absorbing 5.7 significant strikes per minute against Ferguson is actually a substantial reduction from his previous average of getting hit 9.5 times per minute.
For how brazen and brainless his style may seem at first, Gaethje is a smart fighter and a thoughtful person. More than anyone, he has always understood the precarious tethering between risk and consequence. Before he made his jump from the WSOF to the UFC, he spoke about his desire to be known as the best in the world, as well as the inevitability that he would not only lose but get knocked out due to his particular brand of brawling. The two stoppage losses that hung in his corner at UFC 249 were evidence of the incompatibility of those sentiments. Either he would continue to be the same maniacal action fighter he was when he arrived, or he could get the opportunity to become champion—but not both. His performance against Ferguson showed which choice he made, and man what a wonderfully violent evolution it is. He maintained the attritive aggression and relentless pressure that has made him successful throughout his career but ditched the impatience and carelessness that led to back-to-back stoppages against Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirer. Whatever brief lapse of sadness I had at Ferguson’s loss was quickly overcome by the joy of seeing Gaethje become the best version of himself.
The main event fighters were not the only ones who took risks. Dominick Cruz understood what he was up against coming off of a 41-month layoff to challenge Henry Cejudo for his old bantamweight strap. If anything, though, the risk was well worth what was at stake, which, being winless since he defeated Urijah Faber four years ago, wasn’t much. Cejudo seemed to have taken a pretty big roll of the dice after the fight with his retirement. Like most MMA retirements, it’s worth waiting a few years before believing its legitimacy. He might as well have said, “Thanks for the cheese. Catch ya’s later.” Whatever Cejudo is angling for—more money, presumably—he’ll have to deal with the consequences of making this type of power play, favorable or unfavorable, fair or unfair as those may be.
Of course, everyone involved made the calculated risk of choosing to fight during a pandemic, which resulted in one cancelled bout and at least three potential vectors of the virus. Only time will tell if the spread was contained to Ronaldo Souza and his team.
Whatever potential fallout there may be from hosting a slew of coronavirus UFC Fight Nights, responsibility cannot be diffused across the decisions of individual fighters. The UFC took a risk hosting this event and scheduling more—a risk it hopes will make the company look like a fearless trailblazer in our Return to Normalcy. It’s too early to tell if the UFC can get that image to stick, but with its legally restricting fighters and media members from criticizing safety protocols, I’m inclined to believe it will persist in trying. Even if it doesn’t stick, spinning good PR is a perk, not the point of putting on these events. If UFC parent company Endeavor can pull itself a little bit more out of its $5.1 billion debt, that’ll have made it all worth it.
That context is a necessary reminder of the forces at play in these decisions, as elemental and essential to the experience of fighting as the sound of fists crashing into faces, unimpeded by the static roar of a live audience.
Eric Stinton is a writer from Kailua, Hawaii. His fiction, nonfiction and journalism have appeared in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat, Medium and Vice Sports, among others. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint, or find his work at ericstinton.com.
« Previous Dana White Declares Handling of ‘Jacare’ Souza Situation to be ‘A Home Run’ Next Opinion: UFC’s COVID-19 Gamble Pays Off »