Sign up for ESPN+ right here, and you can then stream UFC 249 live on your smart TV, computer, phone, tablet or streaming device via the ESPN app.
One moment, Justin Gaethje is revealing that he went into UFC 249 “ready to die” against Tony Ferguson. The next, he’s describing how much “fun” in he had stepping into the Octagon on Saturday night.
The two ideas are not mutually exclusive for the UFC’s newly-crowned interim lightweight champion. When Gaethje had too much fun, he suffered the first two losses of his MMA career. With a more focused mindset, what transpires is a violent dismantling of an opponent who hadn’t lost a fight in eight years.
Gaeethje was thoroughly dominant against Ferguson in the UFC 249 headliner, battering his foe with heavy punches to the head and vicious kicks to the legs en route to a fifth-round technical knockout stoppage. Only Ferguson’s otherworldly chin kept him upright through the assault, though referee Herb Dean finally saved “El Cucuy” after a Gaethje left jab had the fighter shaking his head and moving awkwardly around the Octagon.
“I was just ready to die. I go in there with that mindset,” Gaethje said on the UFC 249 post-fight show on ESPN+. “There’s not a second that I can retain because it’s pure reaction, It’s pure peripherals. I did see his face when I split it open, I was like, ‘Oh man, he looks like ‘El Cucuy’ now.”
Gaethje seems to be far removed from the brawler he was during his days as World Series of Fighting Champion and earlier in his UFC tenure, when his tendency to throw caution to the wind resulted in KO/TKO losses to Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier.
“I lost two times because I became so complacent in the fact that I was having so much fun,” Gaethje said. “I cannot do that at this level, especially with guys like Tony – and certainly Poirier and Alvarez.”
Gaethje wasn’t just violent on Saturday. He was efficient, too. The Genesis Training Center product landed 143 of 197 significant strikes, a 72 percent success rate. That’s an astonishing clip for a fight that nearly went five full rounds and was contested entirely on the feet. Ferguson was far less accurate at 45 percent.
“With age comes wisdom and fighting wiser,” Gaethje said. “That’s because I have the best coach on Earth. My feet are putting me in such good positions to land these shots. Tony couldn’t push me to the pace he wanted to push me because he could not find me. And that was because of my feet.
“I’ve been doing this my whole life. We call it honing your skills, and I’m really starting to trust the skills that Trevor [Wittman] has been honing for eight or nine years now.”
With evolution comes new challenges. By ending Ferguson’s 12-bout winning streak in such emphatic fashion, Gaethje is virtually assured of a title unification bout against Khabib Nurmagomedov. The Dagestani champion recently hinted that he would be ready to fight as soon as July. Gaethje would prefer a little bit more time than that.
“He’s the best in the world,” Gaethje said. “I need a couple months, I guess. My legs are sore. I want to say August-September sounds fun.”