Justin Gaethje (Phil Lambert/Combat Press)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC 249 Preview and Predictions

Editor's Note
This event preview was published prior to UFC President Dana White revealing that the event had been canceled. Since then, the organization has rescheduled UFC 249 for May 9. Combat Press has published an updated preview for the event, which can be found here.

Well, the fifth time wasn’t the charm after all.

In the midst of unprecedented domestic and international restrictions as we face a global public-health crisis, the fight between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson, originally scheduled to headline UFC 249 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., has fallen through yet again. This time it is travel limitations in Nurmagomedov’s home country of Russia that are the culprit, not a poorly placed wire or an ill-advised portion of tiramisu. Yet, against all odds — and the advice of most medical experts — UFC President Dana White has managed to put together a loaded fight card for UFC 249, which now takes place on April 18 on tribal land that isn’t held to the same strict pandemic regulations as much of the country.

Atop the card sits an interim lightweight title fight between Ferguson and Justin Gaethje. As hard as it is to swallow that the most anticipated fight in recent memory will evade fans once again, there is no doubt that this replacement showdown will be full of fireworks from start to finish. Ferguson could win the interim belt for an unprecedented second time if he comes away with a victory. Gaethje, meanwhile, is looking to add a UFC crown to his mantel, which already holds a World Series of Fighting title. The best way to categorize both of these men is to simply say to expect the unexpected.


In the co-headlining slot is a highly anticipated rematch in the women’s strawweight division between two former champions. Rose Namajunas will take on Jessica Andrade, the woman who took the title from her. It was 11 months ago when the two first met, and Namajunas has not fought since being knocked out by the Brazilian. After defeating “Thug Rose,” Andrade went on to lose the title in her first defense when she fell to current strawweight queen Weili Zhang. Both women are out to rebound emphatically in hopes that a statement win will put them at the front of the pack in the crowded line of contenders at strawweight.

With the cancellation of other recent UFC events, several fighters had already endured weeks-long training camps and were ready and more than willing to be included on this uniquely organized night of fights. In what is almost a “best of” compilation of fights that were supposed to take place over the past month, the fight card is chock-full of fan-friendly fights, including a welterweight tilt between bruising marauder Vicente Luque and unorthodox finisher Niko Price. A pair of ranked featherweights will also throw down when veteran knockout artist Jeremy Stephens squares off against the crisp boxing stylings of Calvin Kattar. Additionally, this event features a fight between perhaps the two scariest heavyweights currently on the UFC roster, as Francis “The Predator” Ngannou will stand across from Jairzinho “Bigi Boy” Rozenstruik in a fight that has the potential to end the moment these two are within an arm’s reach of each other.

With the limits placed on social gatherings and non-essential businesses, White and the UFC executives had to get creative in finding a venue for this show. The fights will take place inside the Tachi Palace Casino Resort in Lemoore, Calif. The early prelims air live on UFC Fight Pass beginning at 6:15 p.m. ET. They are followed by the televised prelims at 8 p.m ET on ESPN, and the action culminates with the main card on pay-per-view via ESPN+ at 10 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Andrew Sumian and Matt Petela react to the modified fight card and preview the action as they go Toe-to-Toe.

Once again, the long-awaited clash between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson is off. Now, Ferguson draws Justin Gaethje in a tilt for the interim lightweight belt. How does this fight play out, and who emerges with the belt?

Sumian: This is a risk by Ferguson. The former interim lightweight champ has had the next shot against Nurmagomedov wrapped up for several years, but something always seems to get in the way of this fight coming to fruition. Instead, Ferguson will be tasked with yet again fighting someone not named Khabib for a title. At first glance, this fight may seem disappointing to fans, but that should not be the case. Ferguson and Gaethje is the next best thing and will deliver a fight that fans will remember. The key to victory for both combatants is fairly straightforward.

Ferguson’s MMA resume is utterly impressive. He has extended his total winning streak to 12 by defeating the likes of Anthony Pettis, Rafael dos Anjos, Kevin Lee and Donald Cerrone. The top contender seems to find unique and unorthodox ways to further elevate his abilities and defeat any opponent the UFC has placed before him thus far. Ferguon’s path to victory lies in staying on the outside, utilizing his six and a half reach advantage, and firing off long and crafty strikes to negate Gaethje’s forward movement. Ferguson must do so by mixing up his punches and kicks, which he already does well, and stay focused on not allowing Gaethje to get close. While he may have a submission advantage on the ground, Ferguson will likely try to keep this fight on the feet and at distance rather than risk getting in range of Gaethje’s short yet thunderous punches.

Gaethje has been adamant that he deserves a title shot after rattling off three straight wins since his back-to-back losses to Dustin Poirier and Eddie Alvarez. Now, he gets his wish and will have to face the second-best UFC lightweight in order to realize his dream of becoming a UFC champion. The No. 4-ranked contender has rebounded strongly and swiftly by knocking out James Vick, Edson Barboza and the aforementioned Cerrone. The key to victory for Gathje is quite simply to get on the inside of Ferguson’s range and blast the former interim lightweight champ with powerful yet accurate combinations. Gaethje’s most effective weapons include his lead left hook, right uppercut, and, of course, the leg kicks for which he has become infamously known. Gaethje does not have the reach to match Ferguson at range. If he allows Ferguson to dictate the range and fight long, then Gaethje will likely be dominated round after round and will only have a puncher’s chance at achieving victory.

Ferguson and Gaethje will put on a good show, and the fight will be competitive. However, there is one stat that significantly hurts the chances of Gaethje winning this fight. Although he is able to average an impressive 8.50 significant strikes per minute, he also absorbs 10.23 significant strikes per minute. Gaethje takes damage to give damage. Ferguson will use his range and diverse striking arsenal to earn a unanimous decision over Gaethje and set himself up for a sixth scheduled fight with Nurmagomedov later in 2020.

Petela: It breaks my heart that we won’t be seeing “El Cucuy” take on “The Eagle” for not only the lightweight championship, but also for the title of greatest lightweight fighter in the history of the UFC. In terms of a consolation prize, however, the match-up between Ferguson and Gaethje is as good as it gets. There are so many elite fighters at 155 pounds that it’s hard not to make an exciting fight at the top of the division, but, from a stylistic and mentality standpoint, these two are bound to be perfect dance partners. Both men can wrestle, but they prefer to keep fights upright. Both of them like to move forward, too.

Gaethje will look to keep this in a phone booth, where he can show off his educated brawling. Meanwhile, Ferguson will try to push Gaethje onto his back foot and throw strikes from one of the most unique repertoires in the sport. Part of fighting in the wild style that Ferguson likes to use means that he leaves himself open to get hit. We have seen him rocked and dropped in fights before against Lando Vannata and the aforementioned Pettis. That risk is exponentially more present in a fight with Gaethje. He has shown that he not only can unleash a seemingly unfathomable amount of strikes and wear an opponent down, but recently, in the Vick and Barboza fights, flashed his ability to shut his opponent’s lights completely off with one well-placed, educated right hand.

If there is one certainty, it is that neither man will be able to break the will of their opponent. The longer the fight goes, the bigger the advantage Ferguson will have. We have seen Gaethje’s body fail after those incredible slugfests with Alvarez and Poirier, even as his mind was willing and able to continue. Fortunately for “The Highlight,” this fight won’t go longer than two rounds. Gaethje will send shockwaves through the MMA world as he becomes the first man to knock out Ferguson.

The last time Jessica Andrade met Rose Namajunas inside the Octagon, the Brazilian utilized a slam to knock out Namajunas and claim the belt. What can we expect in the rematch?

Petela: For the majority of that previous encounter, Namajunas was in control and outclassing Andrade on the feet. As the saying goes, she was winning… until she wasn’t. A simple error not to switch off the kimura grip so that her body could fully rotate left Namajunas in the unfortunate position of landing on her head and neck when Andrade lifted and slammed her onto the mat. It seems like one tactical adjustment should hold the key for Namajunas to emerge victorious in the rematch.

However, immediately after the fight, Namajunas expressed doubt over her fighting future. This doubt didn’t subside once the physical and emotional sting wore off. For months, it was unclear whether or not “Thug Rose” would ever step back into the Octagon. It takes an incredible amount of intestinal fortitude to make that walk, and I have the utmost respect for every single fighter who has the guts to do it. That being said, I have doubts on whether or not Namajunas is now — or will ever be — in the right frame of mind to take on the elite in her division.

The nerves will overwhelm Namajunas, and Andrade will come away with another emphatic knockout, this time with her fists at the end of a long exchange where Namajunas leaves herself susceptible to her opponent’s jaw-dropping power.

Sumian: A rematch between these two ladies is a fantastic way to determine who is next in line for the title, whether or not Joanna Jędrzejczyk gets a rematch against current champion Weili Zhang.

Namajunas was indeed winning the first bout convincingly up until she wasn’t. She used her range and better movement to run circles around Andrade while peppering the Brazilian with strikes and quick combinations.

Ultimately, this fight will go down in one of two ways.

Another slam knockout victory for Andrade is very unlikely, but she is a power striker who relies on landing one big shot to finish her opponent. What she lacks in cardio and style is heavily made up for in elite striking power. Andrade’s key to victory is very similar to Justin Gaethje’s game plan: Get on the inside and land as many bombs as possible. Andrade is averaging an impressive 6.58 significant strikes per minute, but she also absorbs over five significant strikes per minute. Quite similarly to Gaethje, she takes one to give one.

The game plan for Namajunas against Andrade should remain similar to the one implemented in their first bout. She needs to stick and move. “Thug Rose” needs to keep Andrade on the outside by using her kicks and range with the intent to tire out the Brazilian.

This fight should be a great co-main event to an already incredible lineup. The motivated and rejuvenated Namajunas will successfully implement her game plan and point her way to a unanimous-decision win, leading to an eventual title shot.

Francis Ngannou and Jairzinho Rozenstruik collide in a battle of heavyweight knockout artists. So, does this one end in a knockout?

Sumian: Oh. My. God. The fact that this bout is headlining the preliminary card is absolutely insane. In many ways, this fight has become the most anticipated bout of the evening since we are no longer set to see Nurmagomedov and Ferguson face off. The winner of this bout will likely be the next challenger for UFC heavyweight gold.

Ever since his UFC debut, Rozenstruik has dazzled fans with his exceptional power and physical stature. The native of Suriname is 10-0 in his MMA career and has finished all four of his wins in the UFC by knockout. After quite possibly being down four rounds to Alistair Overeem in their 2019 bout, Rozenstruik knew his only way to victory was via the finish. In the final moments of the bout, he effectively backed up Overeem toward the cage and landed a clean right hand that sent the former Strikeforce champion to the canvas. The knockout was considered one of the most brutal of the year and resulted in major damage to Overeem’s lip and facial area. However, that fight also exposed Rozenstruik’s weak ground game. It’s no secret that his success comes from his incredible knockout power and keeping the fight on the feet.

Ngannou is deserving of another title shot whether he had taken this fight or not. Since his back-to-back defeats at the hands of Stipe Miocic and Derrick Lewis, he has been on a tear. Ngannou has gone on to knock out Curtis Blaydes, Cain Valesquez and Junior dos Santos, all in the first round. The No. 2-ranked heavyweight looks better than ever and would likely give Miocic a run for his money this time around.

This fight will not end in a knockout. Rozenstruik and Ngannou will stay on the feet and exchange heavy blows for three rounds, and it will be wildly entertaining. However, the more experienced Ngannou will control the bout and do more damage en route to a unanimous decision.

Petela: This fight will go the distance, but we are in store for a snoozefest in the same vein as Ngannou’s outings against Derrick Lewis. The potential for an electric finish will be present throughout the contest, with both men having power in their hands that could unroot a tree, but we have also seen flashes of timidity when they know there is danger standing across from them.

The fight with Lewis is the perfect example of this hesitation in Ngannou. He admitted as much after the fight. He carried the fear of his loss to Miocic into the cage with him. We have also seen Rozenstruik fail to pull the trigger when he took on Overeem. It is largely overlooked because of the gruesome damage that one right hand from “Bigi Boy” caused to Overeem’s face in the show-closer, but that fight was a lackluster affair for the first 25 minutes and 45 seconds.

We are going to get a fight that has fans at the edge of their seats all the way through, because we know how instantly both of these men can separate their opponent from consciousness. However, when the final bell rings, this fight will go down with such snoozers as the Lewis/Ngannou bout and Michael Page’s disappointing clash with Paul Daley as fights that proved there is no such thing as a guarantee in this sport.

Who’s the biggest winner at UFC 249?

Petela: Obviously, this event is a big win for fight fans, who will get somewhat of a return to normalcy in these uncertain times. However, Justin Gaethje is the biggest winner of the night. A win over Tony Ferguson not only earns him a new level of respect and appreciation from fans, but it also sets him up for a title-unification bout with Khabib Nurmagomedov. “The Highlight” is a tough match-up for Nurmagomedov, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see Gaethje come out with a victory and the undisputed title. He’s on his way to being in the driver’s seat at lightweight, where before it seemed as if he would be on the outside looking in at the title picture for quite some time.

Sumian: Dana White. The man did the impossible and pulled off an event that had every reason not to happen. Although fans are bummed that Nurmagomedov is not fighting at the show, take comfort in the fact that a UFC event is even happening while all other sports are shut down. Even if Gaethje wins, he will still serve as a formidable challenge for Nurmagomedov in the future and will deliver a great fight. In addition, we can expect huge wins for guys like Marlon Vera, Calvin Kattar and Niko Price, all of whom are exceptional fighters who get to shine on a stage that will likely be viewed by a larger audience due to its status as one of the few sporting events to take place during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Who’s the biggest loser at UFC 249?

Sumian: Jeremy Stephens. “Lil Heathen” will always have a special place in the hearts of UFC fans for delivering some of the best knockouts in UFC history and consistently being a top contender. However, the former top featherweight has three losses and a no-contest over his last four fights. Now, he’s fighting a young and hungry contender in Calvin Kattar. Both Stephens and Kattar fought Zabit Magomedsharipov, but Kattar performed vastly better. Expect the fresher and more versatile Kattar to take out Stephens and knock the veteran further down the ladder.

Petela: Khabib Nurmagomedov. When you take the reaction of many fans and some fighters (including Tony Ferguson and Conor McGregor) who called into question the Dagestani’s toughness and willingness to fight amidst the circumstances and combine it with the loss of the Ferguson fight when Justin Gaethje comes out victorious, it’s a disaster for the reigning lightweight kingpin. The payday for a unification fight with Gaethje won’t be nearly the same as the purse for a showdown with Ferguson, but even more unfortunate for Nurmagomedov is that Gaethje has the ability to expose the one potential weakness in Khabib’s game: his ability to strike for an extended period of time. Gaethje was an NCAA Division I All-American wrestler. If he can keep Nurmagomedov from taking him down early and often, then the fight could turn sharply in Gaethje’s favor. Gaethje won’t be picked apart by a jab the way Al Iauquinta was, and the perceived invincibility of Nurmagomedov will be tested.

What one fighter’s UFC career is on the ropes at this event?

Petela: Michael Johnson. He is just 3-7 over his last 10 fights, and he is far removed from the fighter who once knocked out Dustin Poirier. Outside of that victory, his only two wins are lackluster performances where he eked out wins over Andre Fili and Artem Lobov, neither of whom are still on the UFC roster. When his skid started, Johnson was losing to the best of the best, including Nate Diaz, Khabib Nurmagomedov and Justin Gaethje. More recently, the setbacks have come against a lower tier of fighter, such as when he dropped a majority verdict to Stevie Ray in his most recent contest. If Johnson is unable to beat Khama Worthy, then this could — and should — be the end of the road for “The Menace.”

Sumian: Sam Alvey. The Wisconsin native has admitted himself on UFC Unfiltered that he expects to be dropped from the promotion if he suffers his fourth consecutive loss on April 18. Alvey is fighting a very dangerous opponent in Ryan Spann, who is 3-0 in the UFC and looks like a future contender. For Alvey to secure his position with the promotion, he is in dire need of an impressive win.

Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?

Sumian: Vicente Luque and Niko Price are a strong candidate to combine for “Fight of the Night” and steal the show on April 18. They have a combined 19 finishes by knockout and nine submissions. Both men are heavy-handed finishers who prefer to strike, but they are more than comfortable mixing it up on the ground as well. Expect two of the most savage welterweights in the UFC to put on a show and attempt to knock off each other’s heads at UFC 249.

Petela: Marlon Vera and Ray Borg. Vera is on a five-fight winning streak that consists entirely of stoppages. Borg has won two straight and has looked good recently, despite his inability to make weight. If Vera is able to continue his streak of finishes, it will announce his arrival into the elite club at bantamweight. If Borg is able to stifle Vera, then it goes a long way to prove that the best is yet to come for the former flyweight contender. This is of course assuming that Borg makes weight, which isn’t a very safe assumption anymore. Either way, this one will be a fun scrap.

Pair this card with…

Petela: Champagne and Sour Patch Kids. The champagne is to celebrate the return of combat sports during this unprecedented shutdown. Meanwhile, the Sour Patch Kids perfectly embody the feelings fans have about the main event. Obviously, it is soul crushing that for the fifth time we won’t see the long-awaited showdown between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson, but once the sour taste of disappointment leaves and we can soak in how incredible a fight between the two lightning factories that are Ferguson and Justin Gaethje truly is, things will get a whole lot sweeter.

Sumian: Belief. The UFC has gone through hoops and hurdles to put this event together for fans. Perhaps this can encourage the world that although times are difficult, things will get back to normal. On April 18, the UFC gives people the chance to escape and enjoy a night of fights. If you are looking for something stronger, UFC 249 is an appropriate night to bust out a nicer bottle, such as a 1942 or El Dorado Rum, and indulge.

Fight Picks

Fight Sumian’s Pick Petela’s Pick
Main Card (Pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)
Interim LW Championship: Tony Ferguson vs. Justin Gaethje Ferguson Gaethje
Women’s StrawW: Jessica Andrade vs. Rose Namajunas Namajunas Andrade
HW: Greg Hardy vs. Yorgan De Castro De Castro De Castro
WW: Vicente Luque vs. Niko Price Luque Price
FW: Jeremy Stephens vs. Calvin Kattar Kattar Kattar
Preliminary Card (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET)
HW: Francis Ngannou vs. Jairzinho Rozenstruik Ngannou Rozenstruik
MW: Uriah Hall vs. Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza Souza Souza
LW: Alexander Hernandez vs. Omar Morales Morales Hernandez
BW: Marlon Vera vs. Ray Borg Vera Vera
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 6:15 p.m. ET)
LW: Michael Johnson vs. Khama Worthy Worthy Worthy
Women’s BW: Sijara Eubanks vs. Sarah Moras Eubanks Moras
LHW: Ryan Spann vs. Sam Alvey Spann Spann