Masks. Social distancing. And empty arenas.
Welcome to MMA in May of 2020.
But once the fighters stepped into the Octagon at UFC 249, a degree of normalcy returned to the sports world. These weren’t documentaries or simulations, but rather first-rate fights that brought a much-needed pulse to those craving live action.
The highlight of the night took place in the main event as Justin Gaethje dominated Tony Ferguson to claim the interim Lightweight Championship. Referee Herb Dean had no choice but to stop the fight in the fifth round, especially after the relentless, constant punishment Ferguson (25-4) endured for nearly 24 minutes from Gaethje (22-2).
This instantly becomes Gaethje’s signature win, but somewhere–more specifically, over 6,000 miles away in Makhachkala, right in the heart of Russia–Khabib Nurmagomedov likely returned to bed and slept that much easier.
Yes, Gaethje was dominant. But the outcome ends any hope for the highly-anticipated Nurmagomedov-Ferguson fight. And though Nurmagomedov is super human in the Octagon, he is still human–and he is no doubt pleased that “The Boogeyman” has been removed from his life.
Whether Nurmagomedov’s next opponent is Gaethje or Conor McGregor, who could very likely jump ahead in line for a big money rematch, the matchup with Ferguson was a nightmare for Nurmagomedov. Gaethje is a talented wrestler, but he is not on the same level as Nurmagomedov.
Gaethje is a better striker than Nurmagomedov, but styles make fights and Ferguson had a style tailor-made to give Nurmagomedov his first defeat. Ferguson didn’t grapple against Gaethje, which is where he would have had an advantage in a title fight against Nurmagomedov.
The 249 card also contained controversy. The Bantamweight title fight ended with some serious questions, as Henry Cejudo retained his championship against Dominick Cruz after a premature referee stoppage in the closing moments of the second round.
Following the victory, Cejudo (16-2) announced his retirement. His remarkable career includes a gold medal and championship reigns in two different UFC divisions. But there is no doubt that an asterisk should be placed next to his victory against Cruz (22-3), who was making his way to his feet after withstanding a Cejudo onslaught when the referee Keith Peterson took the fight away from the fighters.
Cejudo told Sports Illustrated after the fight that he was satisfied with the finish.
“When I thrust my hips on these shots, and it was the same thing with TJ, they go limp,” said Cejudo. “There’s no excuses on that. Defend yourself.”
Cejudo was also asked about his retirement plans, and whether they include a stop in pro wrestling.
“WWE, if they want me to do an appearance, they can call me,” said Cejudo. “But they can bend a knee, too. I’m looking forward to getting into business and starting a new chapter in my life.”
The weakest fight of the night was the opener, which saw former NFL player Greg Hardy overcome a sluggish start to defeat Yorgan de Castro by unanimous decision. The win gives some momentum to Hardy (6-2, 1 NC), but questions still remain as to whether he is a talented enough fighter to belong in the UFC. The fight shifted in the second round when de Castro (6-1) injured his right foot, and Hardy capitalized.
The card featured one other heavyweight fight, as Francis Ngannou needed only 20 seconds to knock out Jairzinho Rozenstruik.
Rozenstruik (10-1) had called out Ngannou, challenging him to a fight, which were words he was forced to eat in the form of right and left shots to the chin.
“I’m surprised someone like him would call me out,” Ngannou (15-3) told Sports Illustrated. “To be honest, without disrespect, I hadn’t seen anything impressive from him. And I thought he wasn’t ready yet for this level, but he called me out and the UFC wanted this fight to happen. I took the fight, but I knew he wasn’t ready.”
Calvin Kattar also took a major step forward in the featherweight division with a TKO win against Jeremy Stephens.
Stephens failed to make weight, turning this into a catchweight fight. But Stephens (28-18, 1 NC) was ranked seventh in the featherweight division, and the victory is now the biggest win of Kattar’s career.
“I’m just trying to put some damn respect on my name,” said Kattar (21-4). “I’ve been in this game a long time, and I’ve been flying under the radar. But here we are. I’m hoping to be top-five now in the division, and I belong here with the best in the world. I won’t stop until I get that belt around my waist.”
Legitimate questions still remain moving forward for the UFC, which plans on continuing to run shows during the pandemic, but the card restored some normalcy to the sports world and brings a glimmer of hope that other sports will soon resume action. Led by the Ferguson-Gaethje fight in the main event, UFC 249 delivered an outstanding fight night.