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Making the Grade: UFC 249: Ferguson vs. Gaethje

UFC 249 Ferguson v Gaethje Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

There’s a lot to be said about the UFC being the first major sports league to promote a card in the middle of a global pandemic but more than anything it was just good to see some fights again.

After nearly two months off, the UFC returned with an absolutely stacked card on Saturday night and the show delivered in just about every way imaginable.

There were jaw-dropping knockouts, a couple old fashioned dog fights and even a few star making performances over the course of the night.

Justin Gaethje finally realized his dream of becoming a UFC champion when he stopped Tony Ferguson’s incredible 12-fight win streak with a fifth round TKO. The fact that Gaethje did all this on short notice while training during a pandemic speaks volumes about his growth and development in the sport over the past couple of years.

Meanwhile, Henry Cejudo defended his bantamweight title with a stunning TKO against Dominick Cruz and he then promptly laid down his belt while announcing his retirement from the sport. Cejudo says he’s serious about calling it a career at 33 years old and if this really is the end for him, he went out on top.

With that said, there’s a lot to dissect from UFC 249 so let’s look at the passes and fails from the UFC’s return to action on Saturday night.

PASSES

Human Highlight Reel

Justin Gaethje always delivers an exciting fight but now he can truly call himself one of the best lightweights in the world.

Now make no mistake, Gaethje has been one of the top 155-pound fighters for quite some time but winning an interim lightweight title by stopping Tony Ferguson’s 12-fight win streak just solidifies that moniker. On top of that, Gaethje has made noticeable changes to his style since losing two fights in a row that didn’t damper his wow factor when fighting but it sure allowed him to win in even more impressive fashion.

When Gaethje first arrived in the UFC he lived by a code — kill or be killed.

It certainly didn’t seem like Gaethje was fighting with much strategy other than trading punches with an opponent until one of them fell over. That style worked for him during a run through World Series of Fighting and it kicked off his UFC career in dramatic fashion as well.

Unfortunately the “take a punch to give a punch” style eventually backfired when he faced off against a pair of elite lightweights in Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier. Both fighters looked like they had gone through a car crash after fighting Gaethje but it was Alvarez and Poirier who ultimately got the job done.

That’s when Gaethje and his head coach Trevor Wittman started to analyze his game and figure out a way to be just as exciting but perhaps dial down the damage he was absorbing. Gaethje then rattled off three straight finishes in a row but his magnum opus came on Saturday night.

Outside of an upper cut at the close of the second round that put him on his butt momentarily, Gaethje was able to avoid a lot of Ferguson’s best strikes while simultaneously connecting with over 70-percent accuracy with his offense on the feet. Gaethje was smart and tactical yet the fight didn’t suffer one ounce in excitement.

In the end, Gaethje walked away with his eighth and ninth post-fight bonuses — totaling $450,000 in total bonuses during his UFC career — and now he’s the interim lightweight champion. With a pedigree in college wrestling prior to his fight career, Gaethje will now move onto face Khabib Nurmagomedov in arguably the most intriguing lightweight title fight in many years.

Message Delivered

You might cringe whenever Henry Cejudo starts promoting one of his fights, but after his latest performance against Dominick Cruz, there’s no way he can’t be considered one of the greatest combat sports athletes of all time.

A crushing knee strike put Cruz down and out in the second round as Cejudo scored another victory as well as another finish against a true UFC legend. The win served as Cejudo’s first title defense at 135 pounds after he defeated Marlon Moraes in 2018 to become champion. That win followed Cejudo’s stunning 32-second knockout against T.J. Dillashaw at flyweight, which was one fight after he defeated arguably the greatest flyweight in the history of the sport in Demetrious Johnson.

Cejudo’s run over the past couple of years has been nothing short of awe-inspiring but his decision to announce his retirement after the fight definitely surprised some — although this isn’t the first time he’s walked away while on top.

Cejudo’s rapid rise up the ranks in MMA really does mirror his unexpected run to an Olympic gold medal in wrestling as well. Back in 2008, Cejudo entered the Olympic games as an unlikely candidate from the United States after he opted not to go to college but instead just focused on international competitions. He ran through the competition and became the youngest American wrestler to ever capture gold (his record was later broken by Kyle Snyder).

Cejudo ultimately walked away from wrestling in 2009 but then made his return to the mats three years later to make another run at the Olympics. When he came up short in his bid to represent the U.S. for a second time, Cejudo left his shoes on the mat and called it a career.

It’s entirely possible Cejudo’s fighting career will follow a similar trajectory now that he’s retired from the UFC as champion. Perhaps the promotion will offer up a massive payday to bring Cejudo back into the fold but considering how he was able to leave wrestling behind, don’t expect him to just come back because he doesn’t have anything better to do.

Cejudo has cemented his legacy forever even if he never fights again. He defeated arguably the greatest flyweight of all time and then did the same to arguably the best bantamweight of all time in Cruz. Tack on that Olympic gold medal and Cejudo’s claim as the greatest combat sports athlete of all time begins deserving serious consideration.

The Legend of El Cucuy

Tony Ferguson deserves a lot of credit for his 12-fight win streak as well as his decision to face Justin Gaethje on Saturday night, even if he didn’t walk away as interim champion (for the second time).

Some will say the loss proved that Ferguson shouldn’t have taken the risk in the first place after his fight with reigning UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov fell apart for the fifth time. That’s flawed logic, however, because if Ferguson was able to beat Gaethje to win his 13th fight in a row, he’d be praised beyond words for that same decision.

The fact is Ferguson took his shot and he came up short — and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

There was no guarantee his fight with Nurmagomedov was going to happen in July or September or any time in the near future, especially considering the disastrous ways that matchup has fallen apart in the past. So Ferguson decided to face Gaethje and considering the way he had sliced and diced the competition to win 12 fights in a row, there’s no doubt he was confident in victory at UFC 249.

It didn’t go his way but that doesn’t diminish Ferguson’s accomplishments over the past six-plus years that he ran roughshod over the entire lightweight division. Ferguson has fallen before and this is just another opportunity to rise up again.

FAIL

Heavy Is the Head that Wears the Crown

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The UFC has a problem in the heavyweight division that cannot be easily solved.

On Saturday night, Francis Ngannou dispatched another top contender when he blitzed Jairzinho Rozenstruik with strikes and ended his night in 20 seconds. That counted as Ngannou’s fourth straight knockout in the opening round with less than three minutes of total time spent in the cage. Those are frightening statistics and the kind of gaudy resume that should virtually guarantee Ngannou a title shot in his next fight.

Sadly that may not be the case.

Current heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic is still out of action following eye surgery after his title fight win against Daniel Cormier this past August. While he was cleared to return to training earlier this year, Miocic was then forced to deal with all of the gyms in his home state of Ohio closing due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has prevented him from training with any kind of regularity.

Most recently, Miocic speculated that he probably wouldn’t be ready to fight again until after August but he still expects to face Cormier for a third time upon his return. That leaves Ngannou out in the cold without any guarantees that he’ll get a chance to compete for the title until at least 2021.

The UFC had a chance to save themselves a lot of headaches after Ngannou requested an interim title for his fight against Rozenstruik. The promotion declined and now they’ve got to hope Ngannou is willing to wait or risk a very unhappy heavyweight contender stuck sitting on the sidelines.

With an interim title, the UFC would have put some extra coin in Ngannou’s pocket and solved a potentially bigger problem down the road.

Don’t forget, Cormier has promised that his next fight will be the last of his career. So what happens if he goes out and beats Miocic for the title and then retires? The UFC is once again left without a champion but if Ngannou was holding an interim title, that problem is already solved.

On the flipside if Miocic were to defeat Cormier a second time, then he’s set up for a rematch with Ngannou, who undoubtedly would love the chance to avenge his prior loss to the Ohio native.

Interim titles are usually a headache, especially when the UFC just fabricates a title for the sake of trying to sell a few extra pay-per-views. Sadly this is one time where an interim title actually made a lot of business sense and yet Ngannou is going home without a belt along with zero promises that he’ll get to compete for heavyweight gold any time soon.

EPIC FAIL

Cruz Control

Dominick Cruz is one of the best analysts in the sport but even he shouldn’t be expected to truly understand what exactly happened just seconds after a TKO loss. Cruz fell to Henry Cejudo by second round TKO at UFC 249 and immediately afterwards, he launched a verbal assault aimed at referee Keith Peterson for what he felt was an early stoppage.

Cruz complained that the fight was stopped too early because he was working to get back to his feet after being floored by a knee strike from Cejudo. Despite eating 11 unanswered shots while he was face down towards the canvas, Cruz was starting to get back up again but at what point does the referee need to save a fighter from absorbing further damage?

The reality is Peterson made a judgment call and upon replay it certainly looked like a justified stoppage.

Cruz was being hammered with punches in rapid-fire succession and despite his request to the referee to allow him to keep going until he’s completely unconscious before stopping the fight, that’s not how this whole thing works. A big part of a referee’s job is to protect the fighters, especially when they can’t protect themselves.

Peterson saw Cruz get blasted with a knee strike that sent him flying across the cage and he then ate several stiff shots while laying face down on the ground. If Cejudo had been allowed to continue and hypothetically pummeled Cruz into unconsciousness, Peterson would be scrutinized even more for allowing the fight to go on for far too long.

In reality we’re only talking about a matter of seconds in either scenario but Peterson did his job by protecting Cruz from further harm.

Add to that, the UFC has tried to curb interviews with fighters immediately after knockout losses yet that wasn’t the case when it came to Cruz. He certainly seemed cognizant afterwards but it’s impossible to know the extent of the damage suffered by Cruz in that exact moment.

So why not allow Cruz to go to the back, receive medical attention and then start thinking about interviews after he’s had a chance to recover or at least watch the fight back one time to understand what Peterson was seeing? Instead, Cruz blasted the referee numerous times for what he felt was a poor stoppage when it certainly appeared that Peterson did nothing more than the job that was asked of him.

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