Justin Gaethje (Phil Lambert/Combat Press)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC 249 Updated Preview and Predictions

When the UFC’s original backup plan for UFC 249 fell through and the executives at ESPN’s parent company of Disney put pressure on UFC President Dana White to cancel the April 18 event, the reactions covered the entire spectrum of emotion.

What might be simultaneously the wildest and least surprising reaction to the cancellation came from headliner Tony Ferguson, who made weight for the canceled event when he hit the championship mark of 155 pounds on the nose. Ferguson proved yet again that he is a rare breed.

Now that Ferguson’s interim title fight with Justin Gaethje is back on, fans are even more excited to see these two men throwdown. 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.


The co-headlining slot features a showdown for the bantamweight title. Current champ Henry Cejudo takes on former two-time titleholder Dominick Cruz. Cruz has been out of action since December 2016, when he fell short in a title defense against Cody Garbrandt. The injury bug has bitten Cruz a couple times since that loss. He has had bouts against Jimmie Rivera and John Lineker nixed. Cruz was forced out of the Rivera bout with a broken arm and the Lineker fight with an injured shoulder. This will be the first time Cejudo tries to defend his 135-pound strap after winning it nearly a year ago with a third-round TKO of Marlon Moraes. Cejudo was on the shelf with a bad shoulder, which is part of the reason why he relinquished the flyweight title.

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 last two months, the card is chock-full of fan-friendly fights. A pair of ranked featherweights will 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.

Jacksonville, Fla., plays host to UFC 249 on May 9, as well as two subsequent cards in the week following the event. With Florida’s State Commission and their Department of Business and Professional Regulation opening the state to certain combat-sports events while adding a number of safety precautions, the Vystar Veterans Memorial Coliseum will serve as the venue. The early prelims begin at 6:30 p.m. ET on UFC Fight Pass, followed by the televised portion of preliminary action at 8 p.m. ET on both ESPN and ESPN+. The night culminates with the main card on ESPN+ pay-per-view at 10 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Andrew Sumian and Matt Petela 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: The fact that Ferguson still “weighed in” on April 18 is absolutely crazy. However, this fight remains a risk for him. 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. Now, 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 inch 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 Gaethje 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 8.5 significant strikes per minute, he also absorbs 10.23 significant strikes per minute. In other words, 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, who 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.

Former flyweight champion and reigning bantamweight kingpin Henry Cejudo is part of UFC 249’s co-headliner. He’ll defend his crown against former titleholder Dominick Cruz. Can Cruz reclaim the belt?

Petela: Cruz is the most talented bantamweight the UFC has ever seen. If he is close to peak condition, then he will come away with the belt in a lopsided decision. However, it has been over three years since Cruz has entered the Octagon. He has had two fights called off since his December 2016 loss to Cody Garbrandt. If this was any other fighter, the odds of a successful return to action would be much lower. However, Cruz has shown fans and opponents throughout his career that he means what he says when he claims that ring rust doesn’t exist.

Cejudo proved that he’s the real deal at bantamweight when he won the vacant title by defeating Marlon Moraes last June. He had always been big for the flyweight division and struggled to make the 125-pound limit. His wrestling is unparalleled as an Olympic gold medalist, but it will be interesting to see how much of an advantage it is against Cruz, who is no slouch in the wrestling department himself. Ultimately, the sophisticated striking of Cruz combined with his takedown defense and wrestling defense will be the difference. Cruz will have his hand raised in a clear unanimous decision.

Sumian: Does Cruz deserve a title shot? Absolutely not. There are a number of fighters at bantamweight more deserving than Cruz. The three and a half year hiatus doesn’t help the case either.

Is Cruz one of the worst stylistic match-ups for Cejudo? Big time. What Cejudo has accomplished in his last five fights is nothing short of amazing. In that stretch, Cejudo has registered victories over Wilson Reis, Sergio Pettis, Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson, T.J. Dillashaw and the aforementioned Moraes. This is certainly one of the most impressive streaks currently active in the UFC. The problem? None of those names are Cruz.

Cruz will enjoy a four-inch height advantage and a five-inch edge in reach against the champion which he will no doubt use to control the pace and distance throughout the bout. This is all going to come down to one thing: Cruz’s health. If Cruz comes back at least 85 percent healthy, then he will win this bout and reclaim the belt in convincing fashion. He is the bigger, faster and smoother fighter and boasts an incredibly versatile striking arsenal to use against his opponents. Cruz’s only loss in the UFC was to Garbrandt in 2016. Garbrandt used his crisp boxing and effective counter striking to land precise shots on Cruz and negate his movement and footwork for five straight rounds. Cejudo possesses a very different set of tools that more closely align with those of Urijah Faber. A close-to-healthy Cruz comes back on May 9 and reclaims the title after an entertaining five-round affair.

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. 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 face. 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 the aforementioned 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 24 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 busts 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: If this card actually happens on May 9, there are several. First and foremost, the fans. Talk about the most epic card we have seen since UFC 100. This lineup features names from top to bottom that could easily headline a UFC Fight Night show on their own. Guys like Calvin Kattar, Ryan Spann and Bryce Mitchell will also get huge exposure from the vast amount of fans watching on Saturday night.

The other big winner has to be Dominick Cruz. He does not deserve a title shot in any shape or form after being away from the game for over three years. In his last fight, Cruz was dominated by Cody Garbrandt and lost the bantamweight title. However, crazy times often lead to crazy bouts, and so Cruz gets to come back with a bang against current champion Henry Cejudo. Cruz has nothing to lose here. If he stumbles, most fans won’t be shocked. If he wins, he ends the streak of the “King of Cringe” and picks up right where he left off. Talk about a great situation for Cruz.

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: This one is tough to say, but let’s go with Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone. He is coming off three consecutive losses by way of knockout or TKO, making it seven total losses by knockout in his career. At age 37, he’s clearly on the back nine of his career. If he falls short to Anthony Pettis again, then it will clearly mark the end of his ability to compete against elite fighters. If he can’t do that, then it’s probably time for Cowboy to move on from his time in the Octagon.

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. 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: It has to be Alexei Oleinik and Fabricio Werdum. This is going to be one of the most insane fights in a long time at heavyweight. These guys are two of the most accomplished grapplers in the history of MMA. Expect a chess match between two of the best to do it.

Petela: Carla Esparza and Michelle Waterson. This match-up of top-10 contenders — one of them a former champion — is buried on the prelims. They’re coming into this fight from very different places. Esparza enters on the heels of back-to-back victories, whereas Waterson suffered a lopsided loss to Joanna Jędrzejczyk. Both women need a victory to remain relevant at strawweight, which is a division that’s becoming increasingly more competitive from top to bottom.

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: It’s time to bring out the filets to the grill and pour a glass of 1942 or Blue label. This card is absolutely incredible from start to finish. Depending on where you are, the weather should be nice as well. Grill up some steaks, drink some finer booze, and enjoy a night to remember.

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
BW Championship: Henry Cejudo vs. Dominick Cruz Cruz Cruz
HW: Francis Ngannou vs. Jairzinho Rozenstruik Ngannou Rozenstruik
FW: Jeremy Stephens vs. Calvin Kattar Kattar Kattar
HW: Greg Hardy vs. Yorgan De Castro De Castro De Castro
Preliminary Card (ESPN/ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET)
WW: Donald Cerrone vs. Anthony Pettis Pettis Pettis
HW: Aleksei Oleinik vs. Fabricio Werdum Werdum Werdum
Women’s StrawW: Carla Esparza vs. Michelle Waterson Waterson Esparza
MW: Uriah Hall vs. Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza Souza Souza
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 6:30 p.m. ET)
WW: Vicente Luque vs. Niko Price Luque Price
FW: Bryce Mitchell vs. Charles Rosa Mitchell Mitchell
LHW: Ryan Spann vs. Sam Alvey Spann Spann