The attempt to make UFC 249 happen has been nothing short of a roller-coaster ride for UFC President Dana White and company. Every single time the promotion has seemingly made progress, a new roadblock has popped up to hinder the chances of the event actually taking place on April 18.
The highly anticipated lightweight match-up between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson has been canceled for the fifth time in a matter of four years. The pair’s latest planned bout has been scrapped due to the various restrictions around the world associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. After weeks of trying to ensure the bout would remain intact, White admitted defeat on the morning of April 6 and instead announced an interim lightweight championship bout between Ferguson and Justin Gaethje.
Many fans will be disappointed to hear that Nurmagomedov and Ferguson will not fight at UFC 249. However, they can take comfort in the fact that an event will take place after almost a month-long hiatus from major MMA events across the globe. The pay-per-view show, which will still check in with a $65 price tag, still features an exciting and competitive match-up between two of the best lightweights in the world. The winner is likely to meet Nurmagomedov later in 2020.
Gaethje is arguably the most exciting fighter in the UFC right now. The Arizona native is currently averaging 8.50 significant strikes per minute while also absorbing 10.23 significant strikes per minute, making his fighting style the closest thing to a real-life Rocky movie.
Gaethje burst onto the scene in 2017 where he met Michael Johnson in a thrilling “Fight of the Night” bout that resulted in a highlight-reel knockout finish for the UFC newcomer. He went on to drop two in a row against top contenders Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier — still his only two career losses, by the way — before bouncing back with another highlight-reel knockout, this time at the expense of James Vick in 87 seconds. Gaethje built off this momentum to compile a three-fight winning streak in which he stopped Edson Barboza and Donald Cerrone by way of knockout.
The No. 4-ranked lightweight has been one of the best additions to the UFC lightweight division in recent years. Gaethje finally gets his shot to show everyone he was made to hold UFC gold. To do so, he must get through arguably the second-best lightweight of the decade.
With the UFC as competitive as ever, it’s rare when a fighter can compile a winning streak that extends beyond 10 fights. Ferguson has been the outlier. His current 12-fight winning streak dates back to October 2013. The California native got his first stint in the UFC after winning The Ultimate Fighter 13. He went on a three-fight winning streak that included victories over Aaron Riley and Yves Edwards before dropping a unanimous decision to the aforementioned former top lightweight contender Johnson. The loss apparently lit a fire under Ferguson, because the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt under Eddie Bravo has been undefeated since and shows no signs of slowing down.
Ferguson’s elite ground game, crafty striking, and unconventional training methods have helped the top lightweight contender defeat the likes of Josh Thomson, the aforementioned Barboza, Rafael dos Anjos, Kevin Lee, Anthony Pettis and Cerrone. Ferguson topped Lee in October 2017 to become the interim UFC lightweight champion, but he was later stripped of the title due to an injury suffered leading up to the fourth scheduled bout with Nurmagomedov. Now, Ferguson must once again fight for an interim belt in the hopes of challenging Nurmagomedov later in the year.
The bout between Ferguson and Gaethje is easily the next best thing after a showdown between Nurmagomedov and Ferguson. Ferguson and Gaethje are the same height, but Ferguson will enjoy a six and a half inch reach advantage. Gaethje does his best work when he gets inside his opponent’s reach and exchanges blow for blow. Gaethje tends to withstand considerable damage before finally landing a shot on his opponent that shuts out the lights. Ferguson will have to use his range, length and jab to ensure he keeps Gaethje on the outside and negates the powerful strikes and painful leg kicks that Gaethje is known to dish out.
Given his impressive grappling resume, Ferguson should have a distinct advantage on the ground. Currently, Gaethje is averaging an 80 percent takedown-defense rate. Gaethje had a prolific college-wrestling career and became a two-time Arizona state champion.
The key to victory for both fighters is quite clear. Ferguson will need to control the distance and utilize his diverse striking arsenal to batter and tire Gaethje into the later rounds. Meanwhile, Gaethje has to force Ferguson into a close-range shootout where he can land his powerful short strikes and lethal leg kicks.
On April 18, the UFC will crown a new interim champion and set up the winner for a showdown with Nurmagomedov in late 2020. It’s been a struggle to get here, but, assuming UFC 249 really does go down as planned, fans are in for a brief reprieve from the current drought of MMA action.