And on the ninth day of May, he said, “Let there be fights.”
That may be over-dramatizing things a touch. But it definitely feels like UFC President Dana White moved heaven and earth to make UFC 249 happen this weekend, less than one month after seeing the pay-per-view’s original April 18 date shot down and his entire fight schedule thrown into disarray by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Whatever you think of the UFC pushing forward with a major show during a global health crisis, these fights are happening, and there’s no arguing that this is one of the strongest cards the promotion has ever put together.
At the top is an interim lightweight championship bout between Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje, a matchup that is a heck of a consolation prize after losing Ferguson vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov for a fifth time. “El Cucuy” has been as unsolvable a puzzle as his Russian rival, having won 12 straight fights. But Gaethje is arguably the most feared striker there is at 155 pounds. Will he claim a UFC belt, or will Ferguson earn the unique distinction of becoming interim champion a second time?
The co-main event sees bantamweight champion Henry Cejudo defend that title for the first time against Dominick Cruz, a man whose name is synonymous with the division. Cruz got the call when originally scheduled challenger Jose Aldo was removed from the equation due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, and he enters the contest coming off of a rare loss and having not fought since December 2016. Cejudo wants to use names like Aldo and Cruz to build his legacy, but don’t expect “The Dominator” to stick to the script and put Cejudo over.
In other main card action, heavyweight finishers Francis Ngannou and Jairzinho Rozenstruik face off, Jeremy Stephens meets budding contender Calvin Kattar in a catchweight bout, and Greg Hardy and Yorgan De Castro clash in a battle of heavyweight prospects.
What: UFC 249
Where: VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Fla.
When: Saturday, May 9. The six-fight early preliminary card begins at 6 p.m. ET and will air on ESPN and ESPN+. The five-fight pay-per-view main card begins at 10 p.m. ET and is available for purchase exclusively through ESPN+.
I think Tony Ferguson has a legitimate case to be considered the best lightweight in the world. I think he’s the man to beat Khabib Nurmagomedov, and I would have predicted as such had their fight gone down as scheduled.
And I think he’s going to lose to Justin Gaethje.
You’ve heard this before: styles make fights. Ferguson has the versatility to beat anyone (it’s what makes him the perfect foil for Nurmagomedov), but he’s also too tough for his own good. He’s a risk taker of the highest order who knows he can get away with absorbing a few shots or giving up positions. What’s made him so popular and such an indomitable force is that he can return that punishment tenfold. He has become famous for leaving his opponents disfigured after stepping into the cage with him.
That won’t intimidate Gaethje one bit. “The Highlight” will walk Ferguson down unlike anyone Ferguson has faced before, and he’s going to land early and often. His leg kicks will take their toll on Ferguson, regardless of how many steel pipes Ferguson has dented in preparation for such an occasion. The work that Gaethje puts in in the opening round will have a ripple effect for the rest of the fight.
There is a blueprint for beating Gaethje, and it’s one that’s comprised of patience and precision as evidenced by both Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier’s stoppage victories. Ferguson is a smart fighter, but I don’t know if patience is one of his virtues, especially knowing he has a dance partner who is eager to put on an exciting fight against him.
This may indeed turn out to be one of the most exciting fights in MMA history, one that will surprisingly go the distance and end with Gaethje’s hand being raised.
As loathe as I am to indulge Dominick Cruz’s insistence that Henry Cejudo is some sort of garden gnome compared to him, size does matter, and that’s one reason why I like Cruz’s chances to pull off the upset here.
Let’s not forget that when Cruz fought Demetrious Johnson—before Johnson went on to flyweight greatness—he won in convincing fashion, and his size advantage was a major factor. Now, that was an entirely different fight than what we can expect on Saturday, as Cruz relied on his wrestling to toss Johnson around when it became clear that “Mighty Mouse” was a legitimate striking matchup. But the point is that Cruz’s strength is often overlooked due to his slippery style. Of course, it won’t be wrestling offense he relies on against Cejudo, because it would be mind-blowing if he ragdolled Cejudo like he did Johnson.
Where Cruz’s length will benefit him is in sticking-and-moving Cejudo into oblivion. Yes, Cejudo’s striking has improved dramatically. His MMA career has progressed, and he was already a solid boxer when he debuted in the UFC. It just isn’t at the point where he can handle chasing Cruz down for 25 minutes. Few can.
Cody Garbrandt is the only fighter to earn a decision against Cruz. T.J. Dillashaw came close, and I don’t think Cejudo’s striking is as dynamic as either of those men. He’ll need a finish to get a decision, which is even more unlikely than beating Cruz on the scorecards.
“Triple C” is about to see another one of his Cs taken away.
Ready for Francis Ngannou vs. Derrick Lewis, part deux?
OK, that’s a horrible suggestion. But fans need to be ready for the possibility that these heavyweight sluggers bring a tactical approach to bear against one another. And “tactical” sometimes means “boring.”
Ngannou’s past three knockouts, impressive as they’ve been, have all been against opponents who’ve rushed into his range. Cain Velasquez and Curtis Blaydes aggressively shot in and paid the price, and even the technically sharp Junior dos Santos couldn’t help but test his luck against Ngannou. Unless Jairzinho Rozenstruik goes nuts and decides to just start swinging, I can’t see him falling into the same trap as others.
Rozenstruik’s counter jab has already become one of the heavyweight division’s most feared weapons, and Ngannou has to be aware of that. What we’re seeing here is two counter-minded fighters, which could result in long bouts of activity broken up by the occasional winging haymaker. One would like to give Ngannou the benefit of the doubt when it comes to making improvements since his losses to Lewis and Stipe Miocic, but he’s been finishing his fights so quickly, it’s impossible to tell if he’s developed ways to deal with a methodical striker like Rozenstruik.
Call it a reverse jinx or just an off-the-wall prediction, but I have this one going the distance and Rozenstruik winning.
Heading into UFC appearance No. 33, you know what you’re getting with Jeremy Stephens at this point, and I don’t think it’s enough to stop the surging Kattar.
Both men have good hand speed, so look for more than a few blink-and-you-missed-it exchanges. These two are going to happily stay in each other’s faces in pursuit of a knockout blow. It’s Kattar who will get it as he’s looked outstanding in his past five outings while the battle-hardened Stephens has understandably shown signs of decline.
The fact that Stephens missed weight by such a considerable amount (4.5 pounds) on Friday is reason to be concerned for Kattar, though, as that could mean that Stephens will not only be bigger on fight night, his weight cut may not have been as draining. There’s plenty of evidence to show that missing weight does not draw a rebuke from The MMA Gods.
Fortunately for Kattar, he won’t rely on divine intervention to take out Stephens. He’s an accurate striker with good defense, and it’s that second attribute that will benefit him most here. Stephens can be outworked and out-struck, and that’s what I expect Kattar to do.
Kattar by knockout in the first or second round.
It’s become reductive at this point to point out how superior Greg Hardy’s athleticism is to most heavyweights. But the fact remains that his explosiveness and agility give him a leg up on other prospects in his division. That should hold true against Yorgan De Castro.
A Dana White Contender Series contract winner, De Castro impressed in his past two wins with a calculated destruction of favored wrestler Alton Meeks and a quick finish of Justin Tafa last October. He’s got excellent power and deadly leg kicks, which will serve him well against opponents with a similar physical profile.
But at a shade under six feet, De Castro is giving up a lot of reach and speed to Hardy. That’s a difficult combination of disadvantages to overcome. Add in the fact that Hardy is likely to have grown from his experience going three rounds with Alexander Volkov, and you can understand why signs point to Hardy adding another first-round knockout to his resume.