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UFC 249: Merciless Gaethje Punishes Ferguson

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Violence was a near guarantee in the main event when the UFC announced an ambitious return amid the global Coronavirus pandemic. Unfortunately for the spirited Tony Ferguson, it was Justin Gaethje who dished out pretty much all of it.

Barring a second-round uppercut that had "The Highlight" reeling, Gaethje poured it on in his first taste at UFC gold to secure the interim lightweight title in the UFC 249 main event at an empty arena in Jacksonville, Florida. A monstrous collision with undefeated, undisputed champion Khabib Nurmagomedov is now on the horizon.

That chaotic five rounds followed a couple of stanzas which would prove to be the last of Henry Cejudo's storied career. "The Messenger", and arguably the most decorated combat athlete of all time, bowed out after stopping Dominick Cruz in the second round of their bantamweight title tilt.

Image: CBS Sports
While the two title fight stoppages were protested and potentially debatable, Francis Ngannou's win certainly wasn't. He obliterated Jairzinho Rozenstruik in 20 seconds to set aim at the top of the heavyweight pile.

A unique evening in the midst of unique times in the world, and the UFC delivered. Live sports returned with a bang.

No turns, just twists in the early prelims

Ryan Spann was perhaps a minute away from being on the losing end of a stunning comeback, but it was "Superman" who got his hand raised in an action-packed opener. Breaking in the Octagon after what had seemed like an eternity, Spann wasn't too far away from an early submission - his standing arm-triangle choke had Sam Alvey a distressed shade of red. He pushed the pace over the course of the first two rounds, coming close but unable to put the eccentric Alvey away. Knowing he was behind on the scorecards, Alvey had to go for broke in the final round and had a fatigued Spann stumbling and in danger, but the DWTCS veteran saw it off to get the nod on the judges scorecards.


Bryce Mitchell delivered another standout performance, keeping his unbeaten record intact as he left Charles Rosa with absolutely no answer in as one-sided a 15 minutes of UFC action that you can get. The increasingly popular "Thug Nasty" synced in an early arm-triangle that had Rosa fading, and although he would survive that he was on the backfoot for the entire 3 rounds, almost falling to a twister submission and a variety of other chokes as Mitchell had his way on the mats. The judges agreed - one scorecard had it 30-24 in favour of the unbeaten 25-year-old. Not only did he get the win, but his crusade for custom Reebok camouflage shorts was answered - he'll get them in his next outing.

Image: ESPN

Prelims show why you don't leave it to the judges after Luque and Price steal the show


Vicente Luque and Niko Price certainly spent the quarantine period pacing around eager to get back into the cage, and when they did all hell broke loose in a brutal war that would end in the third-round due to a doctor stoppage. Vicente Luque would get his hand raised after toe-to-toe combat which saw both combatants showing battle scars early on, with some superb chins on display. A rematch almost 3 years in the making, Price made a great start to the final round but the fight would come to an end when he was floored with a thunderous left hook. After the fighters were stood up again, the referee called the doctor in who soon waved the fight off after Price's eye was swelled shut. A $50,000 bonus and a bit of ice should alleviate the pain.

Image: CBS Sports

Social distancing measures were being observed everywhere, including the Octagon it seemed for the next fight of the night, as Carla Esparza secured a controversial and mostly dull split decision win over Michelle Waterson. Esparza stayed on the outside for most of the three rounds with a takedown in there, and while the action did liven up towards the end, Esparza stepped off the pressure and took the W. It always does seem to be the fights with less action that create a pickle for the judges.

Image: MyMMANews

Aleksei Oleinik spoiled the returning party of Fabricio Werdum, after the former heavyweight champion sunk to a split decision loss in his first fight in over 2 years. The Brazilian was reeling in the first stanza, buckled by a right hand and eating shots inside the clinch. He managed to take some control with a well-timed takedown in the second round and he exerted plenty of effort into a standing choke which the experienced European saw off. Later in the fight, he showed further submission mastery to fend off a kimura and armbar attempt, and once again cracked Werdum, doing enough on two scorecards to get back-to-back wins.

Image: MMA Junkie

You know a card is stacked when you have Donald Cerrone and Anthony Pettis on the prelims. Closing out that portion of the card, the touchpaper would eventually be lighted and it made for some final round fireworks in their rematch. Cerrone looked to close the distance early on getting out of kicking range, but Pettis would crack him with a head kick not too long afterwards. As they warmed up further, both would exchange big shots, and Pettis ate a monstrous head kick in the final minutes of the bout. Anthony Pettis was bemused as most to get the nod on the scorecards.


Image: Getty Images

De Castro slows down, Hardy doesn't

The most active fighter on the roster last year got his 2020 off to a winning start, outworking Yorgan De Castro for the unanimous decision to kick off the main card.

De Castro came out aggressively, and the former NFL defensive end obliged by throwing bombs himself. When the leg kicks got going, Hardy did some damage but he was left with some redness on the thigh after De Castro repeatedly went for the low kick. Midway through the second round, the Cape Verde native damaged his foot attempting a kick and his workrate declined from there on.

Hardy came through the leg pain and worked his jab, mixing in some low kicks and keeping De Castro at bay. When he hit the mat, he added some punches to his legs on the ground and his corner demanded him to be more urgent - but it wasn't enough, as he backed up to the final bell as Greg Hardy picked up the unanimous decision win - his third under the promotion in 15 months.

Image: Getty ImagesA hands 

Kattar the cutter leaves Stephens drenched in blood

Calvin Kattar switched things up after a turbulent first round to brutally stop Jeremy Stephens in the second round.

Image: Jeff Bottari / UFC / Getty Images

Jeremy Stephens came out aggressive and sharp having missed weight by four-and-a-half pounds, chopping up the lead leg of Kattar who struggled to get into a rhythm. He took control for the vast majority of the first round, but Kattar proved he wasn't out of it with a strong ending to the first round.

Exchanges were more even in the second round, and halfway through the fight Kattar landed right on the button with a crushing lead elbow followed by a dangerous second elbow on the ground to bust Stephens wide open, seconds before the referee stopped the fight.

Ngannou blitzes through Rozenstruik

Francis Ngannou further cemented his spot as next in line for the held-up heavyweight division as he obliterated Jairzinho Rozenstruik in 20 seconds.

Rozenstruik peppered some inside leg kicks to try and subdue the Cameroonian, but within seconds he was being charged down in a blitz. Ngannou followed up as his opponent backed down and he hit the mark with a massive left hook that crumpled Rozenstruik, and some follow-up strikes put the fight to an end, all within the space of half-a-minute.

Currently Stipe Miocic is out of action as he helps on the frontline for the COVID-19 crisis, but with the sport kicking off again, Ngannou and a DC clash for the vacant or interim heavyweight title may be the next step.

Image: Getty Images

"Triple C" retires on top

Henry Cejudo stopped the consensus greatest bantamweight of all time in the second round to retain his 135 lbs championship, before shockingly announcing his retirement from the sport.

Image: Las Vegas Review Journal

The movement of Dominick Cruz was quickly hindered as "Triple C" aggressively went for the legs with big low kicks. Dominick was struggling to find some success barring a straight right down the pipe.

Improvements were shown by the former champion as the second round began, but Cruz was still hunting for them legs. Towards the end of the round both men clashed heads resulting in a big forehead cut for Cejudo - he was good to continue though, and within seconds of the restart he floored Cruz with a knee, and some follow-up strikes as the challenger tried to get back up forced a stoppage - one in which Dominick appealed was premature.

"I'm happy with my career, I've done enough in the sport. I want to walk away," Cejudo told Joe Rogan after the fight. At 33 years old he appears to hang them up with one of the most decorated accolade lists in combat sports history.


Gaethje punishes brave Ferguson in stunning performance

In the evening's main event, violence was guaranteed, and it was Justin Gaethje dishing out pretty much all of it. With the exception of a second-round kncokdown from "El Cucuy", Justin Gaethje landed clean and picked his shots over five rounds before a merciful referee stoppage to take the interim lightweight title.

Justin Gaethje made a hot start, pouring it on with some big leg kicks and landing clean shots on Ferguson. "El Cucuy" was already showing some damage as he headed back to his corner, with only a handful of combinations in his favour.

Image: MMA Junkie

Tony was relentlessly eating shots as second round continued, as the former WSOF champion threw everything behind his right hands and left hooks. It was becoming increasingly difficult for Ferguson to mount some offence until the late seconds of the second stanza when the divsional boogeyman beat his opponent to the punch for a crushing uppercut that dropped Gaethje.

We're used to seeing the opponent bloody and bruised but this time Ferguson was showing the damage. All the damage was taking its toll as a right hand buckled Tony, and again he would get just a mere glimpse in the third round with "The Highlight" in full command.

There was some inspirational spirit on show, but the leg kicks were also taking their toll when the championship rounds begun. Ferguson was no longer springing around and light on his feet, but rather bemused and gunshy, with the fight looking like it could be finished at any point.

Somehow, they made it to the final round but the writing was on the wall. Ferguson tried going for broke and even tried an Imanari roll but Gaethje remained mature, picking his shots throughout the fight. The ending sequence unfolded when a jab rocked Ferguson, who tried shaking it off but backed up and retreated towards the fence. As Justin tried to do more damage, referee Herb Dean called the fight off, crowning Gaethje the new interim lightweight champion - with a showdown with one of the best lightweights of all time, the undefeated Khabib Nurmagomedov.



Image: NZ Herald

Ferguson showed incredible spirit and heart but it wasn't enough this time round. After a historic run where he would not be denied, Gaethje brought that same fire and was not put out - "El Cucuy" will be back to reclaim what is his, but for now it is Gaethje's moment. Both are a credit to the sport.

A performance that will go down in the annuls of UFC history. Justin Gaethje stepped up, remained disciplined and ended the longest win streak at 155 lbs. We may have said goodbye to the dream Khabib vs. Ferguson matchup, but the one we have now may be even more enticing. Gaethje gets his shot at The Eagle, and it's going to be fireworks.

Fights are back. As we try to navigate our way through these challenging, uncertain times, the future may have just got a little clearer. But it definitely is a whole lot more exciting. There is light at the end of the tunnel.

Image: CBS Sports

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SportingMatrix • We Live For Sport: UFC 249: Merciless Gaethje Punishes Ferguson
UFC 249: Merciless Gaethje Punishes Ferguson
UFC 249 report
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SportingMatrix • We Live For Sport
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