Two months ago, Justin Gaethje was training and waiting for the UFC to find his next opponent.
On Saturday night, after accepting a short notice opportunity to compete in the UFC 249 main event, he stopped Tony Ferguson by TKO in the fifth round to become interim lightweight champion, setting up an inevitable showdown with Khabib Nurmagomedov later this year.
It was a jaw-dropping performance, as Gaethje punished Ferguson round after round before finally putting him away with less than two minutes remaining in the fight.
“I knew I was a killer stepping in here,” Gaethje said about his performance. “No better drug on Earth. Adrenaline coursing through my veins.”
Following two straight losses, Gaethje began making noticeable changes to his strategy and approach to fighting without sacrificing any of his highlight-reel finishes. It was more of the same at UFC 249 as he attacked Ferguson with devastating power behind his punches while refusing to engage in the wild exchanges that cost him so dearly in many past fights.
“I had to lose to change,” Gaethje said. “Can’t fix what’s not broken. I was getting hit too much, and I was having too much fun. At this level you absolutely cannot do that.”
While Ferguson did manage to put Gaethje down briefly at the end of the second round with a staggering uppercut, the former Ultimate Fighter winner failed to mount much offense over 25 minutes. He did display incredible durability, though, as he absorbed punches that would have likely knocked out every other lightweight on the roster.
Gaethje’s controlled aggression continued to add to his significant strike total as he cut up Ferguson’s face and left him a bloody mess by the fifth round. It was a stiff jab late in the fight that rattled Ferguson for the final time, and as he wobbled backwards toward the cage shaking his head, that forced referee Herb Dean to stop the contest.
The end came at 3:39 in the fifth round.
Afterward, UFC president Dana White put the interim title around Gaethje’s waist. But he immediately discarded it, setting his sights on the fight with Nurmagomedov to determine an undisputed champion in the lightweight division.
“I’ll wait for the real one,” Gaethje said after tossing the interim title on the ground. “Khabib is the best in the world. I’ve been working since I was 4 [years old] for challenges like this and I’m happy to represent the United States of America against Dagestan or Russia’s best.
“He’s 28-0 and there’s no other challenge I want right now. I want to fight him.”
As Gaethje celebrates his accomplishment, Ferguson has to reconcile with the end of his 12-fight win streak and a chance to finally go to war with Nurmagomedov after they’ve been previously scheduled to meet in five different occasions.
Obviously the outcome wasn’t what he wanted, but Ferguson gave Gaethje credit on a job well done after accepting the fight with him on short notice.
“It’s been a long f*cking camp,” Ferguson said following his first loss since 2012. “We’ve been preparing since November. Justin’s a tough son of a b*tch. Sh*t happens. What can you do.”