MMA Review: #719: UFC 249: Ferguson vs. Gaethje

-Okay, where to start with this one? After March 14th’s Fight Night 170 took place behind closed doors, the next 3 events were quickly cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. That left April 18th’s UFC 249, which Dana White seemed determined to go ahead with.

The show was initially planned to take place in Brooklyn, but when the pandemic prevented that, the promotion decided to move it to an undisclosed location – reportedly the Tachi Palace in Lemoore, California – and keep to the 04/18 date, albeit with a heavily changed card.

Of course, that horrified everyone from the MMA media right up to the ESPN brass, and so the plug ended up being pulled on April 9th, with all future shows being postponed.

Eventually, a month later it was decided that the promotion could restart their shows in Jacksonville, Florida – basically the only place that would allow them to take place, behind closed doors of course. And so we finally ended up with UFC 249, albeit without the Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Tony Ferguson main event. To be fair though, that felt like a small price to pay given the horrific events of the pandemic.

UFC 249: Ferguson vs. Gaethje

Jacksonville, Florida

-Your hosts are Jon Anik, Joe Rogan and Daniel Cormier, who are apparently seated apart but decide to forgo any kind of social distancing for the opening segment.

Heavyweight Fight: Greg Hardy vs Yorgan De Castro

The last time we’d seen Hardy was in his loss to Alexander Volkov, and this seemed like a much more winnable fight for him, as De Castro only had 6 fights to his name – albeit all wins – and was giving up a ton of size to the former NFL man.

First round begins and ha, it’s the first time Hardy’s not been booed in his UFC career! Good low kick opens things for him as De Castro wings some big punches. He doesn’t land cleanly, but does connect on a low kick. These guys are trading early. Another low kick lands for De Castro. Couple of big swings miss for him but he does land a left hook on Hardy. Low kick and a jab answer for the former NFL man. Leg kicks land for both men. Right hand from Hardy is answered by a left from De Castro. Really nice leg kick from Hardy. He’s leaning back to avoid punches though which is worrying. Couple more good strikes land for De Castro. He’s really working the leg kicks. Wild exchange sees both men land bombs and De Castro looks rocked for a second. Couple of clean jabs land for Hardy but his left leg is badly marked up. Round ends with Hardy continuing to stalk forward. 10-9 De Castro for the leg kicks.

Second round and De Castro opens with a vicious leg kick. Hardy’s leg is in bad shape. He does return with one of his own though, but then takes another one back. Wild rush from De Castro doesn’t land any clean punches. Action really slows down from there as Hardy pushes forward and lands a low kick. De Castro seems to have stopped the low kicks which is bizarre given how well they were doing. Looks like he may have hurt his foot on one that was checked. Couple of jabs and a decent leg kick land for Hardy. De Castro seems to have nearly stopped fighting altogether now. Hardy continues to connect on shots from the outside and that’s the round. 10-9 Hardy.

Third round and Hardy charges out and nails De Castro with a thudding right hand. De Castro comes forward swinging some more, but doesn’t land cleanly before finally connecting on another leg kick. Good inside leg kick from Hardy and he slides back to avoid a right hand. Chopping leg kick connects for Hardy. Looks like De Castro’s slowed down again as Hardy lands with a couple more low kicks. This is pretty dull now as Hardy is just connecting on shots from the outside while De Castro isn’t doing a lot in return. Slip sees De Castro hit the deck, and Hardy punches the right thigh while standing over him. He switches to kicks to the leg as De Castro won’t get up, and ref Herb Dean seems content to allow it. Finally Hardy waves him up, and lands a stiff right hand. More of the same follows until the round ends, basically. Got to be a 29-28 for Greg Hardy.

Official scores are 30-27 all round for Greg Hardy. Pretty dull fight as the first round started okay, but once De Castro picked up that foot injury in the second round he basically stopped fighting and it meant that Hardy just had a bit of target practice.

Featherweight Fight: Jeremy Stephens vs Calvin Kattar

This one looked like a great fight on paper, as although both men were coming off losses they were still amongst the best – and most aggressive – 145lbers on the roster. My pick was Kattar as he’d actually looked great in his loss to Zabit Magomedsharipov – particularly after Stephens missed weight by 5lbs.

Fight begins and Stephens presses forward early on as Kattar circles. Low blow appears to land for Stephens and he follows with a bit of a flurry, but Kattar seems okay. Another flurry backs Kattar up into the fence but he’s doing a good job of covering up when Stephens does throw. Quick combo answers back for Kattar. Strong combinations land for both guys as they’re really going for it early on. Trade continues and this is a super-even round thus far. Stephens is really ripping to the body when he gets into range. He seems to be landing the slightly harder shots overall too. Hard left from Kattar but Stephens comes back with a body kick. Beautiful combination connects for Kattar to the head and body. Low kick answers well for Stephens. He’s really working Kattar’s left leg here. Front kick into a BIG RIGHT HAND lands for Kattar and Stephens looks rocked, but he recovers well and fires back. This is an awesome round. Round ends with a heavy combo to the body from Stephens. 10-9 Stephens in a close one to call.

Into the 2nd and Stephens again comes out swinging. Good leg kick again lands for him. Kattar is switching stances a lot due to those kicks. Big trade sees Kattar land a hard right, but Stephens eats it up. Kattar’s using more low kicks now too and Stephens’ left leg is marked up. Neither man is slowing down at all here as they continue to exchange. Huge combination lands for Kattar. He’s beginning to land cleanly. Big flurry has Stephens going for a takedown, but Kattar blocks it and breaks off. Big exchange sees both men land. HUGE RIGHT ELBOW suddenly drops Stephens and Kattar pounces and PUTS HIM AWAY!

Post-fight Stephens is POURING WITH BLOOD as the elbow evidently opened a huge cut on his forehead. That was seriously violent, and a pretty amazing fight too as both guys just went to WAR until Kattar landed the finishing shots. One of the best fights I’ve seen in a long time and I can’t wait to see Kattar in action again. Dude is awesome.

Heavyweight Fight: Francis Ngannou vs Jairzinho Rozenstruik

This one was essentially a top contender’s match after Ngannou had reeled off three straight wins in 2018-19 and Rozenstruik had taken out Alistair Overeem in the biggest win of his career. It was also supposed to main event a show earlier in the year, but obviously Covid-19 put paid to that. My pick? The brute force of Ngannou.

Round One begins and Rozenstruik throws a low kick from the outside. They circle and suddenly Ngannou RUSHES HIM WITH A FLURRY AND KILLS HIM DEAD! Holy fuck. Whole fight took 15 seconds.

Replay shows the flurry Ngannou threw was horribly sloppy and only one punch actually landed, but it was a BOMB of a left hand and knocked Rozenstruik out instantly. I just can’t see anyone stopping this guy this time around and if he’s not the Heavyweight champion by the end of 2021 I’d be shocked. This was one of the most brutal KO’s in UFC history.

UFC World Bantamweight Title: Henry Cejudo vs Dominick Cruz

Well, the initial plan for Cejudo’s first Bantamweight title defense was for him to face Jose Aldo in Brazil in what was a bit of a questionable title shot for Aldo, but of course, when Covid-19 hit those plans went up in smoke. Obvious call would’ve been to put Cejudo against Aljamain Sterling, but of course this is the UFC in 2020 and so they took Cruz out of mothballs – nearly four years since his last win and almost as long since his last fight – and gave him a bizarre shot instead. To me this was like a modern-day version of Ortiz vs. Shamrock – no offense to Cruz – and I figured the current champ would simply run through the broken down legend.

Round One begins and indeed, Cruz looks OLD to me. He tries to dance around on the outside in his traditional manner, throwing some feints, but Cejudo opens with a hard leg kick. Another big one connects for the champ as Cruz fires back with one of his own. Another leg kick lands for Cejudo and he’s chopping Cruz down. Another one connects to the inside leg this time. Cruz catches one and tries to take him down, but Cejudo pops back up easily. Nice step-in knee from Cruz but Cejudo uses it to dump him to the ground. Scramble allows Cruz to escape to his feet though. Another nice leg kick from Henry and he stops a takedown in response. Two minutes to go and Cruz lands a couple of decent counter shots as Cejudo pushes forward. Big left hand comes over the top for Cejudo but it doesn’t land cleanly. They exchange momentarily and Cejudo lands a left, but Cruz fires back with a quick combo. Another big leg kick lands for the champ. Takedown is avoided easily by Cejudo and the round ends just after. 10-9 Cejudo.

Round Two and Cruz continues to dance and feint from the outside before landing a couple of early glancing blows. Leg kick lands for Cejudo. Body kick follows as he backs Cruz up for a second. Leg kick fires back for Cruz. Another good low kick lands for Cejudo. Left hand glances over the top for the champ and then he lands a counter right before hitting another low kick. Quick combination from Cruz but Cejudo catches him with a right hand counter. Takedown is blocked by Cruz. Cejudo is just chewing up the legs with his kicks. Head kick narrowly misses for him too. Takedown is once again avoided by Cruz. Big combo to the head and body lands for Cejudo. He looks quite a lot quicker than Cruz here. The challenger comes back with a solid right hand, and then clocks Cejudo with a combination as he steps in with another leg kick. Clinch from Cejudo and they exchange with Cruz landing a strong right. Big shot answers back for the champ. This is a hell of a fight. 1:30 to go and the exchange continues. Nasty low kicks land for both men. Takedown is avoided by Cruz. He tries one of his own but Cejudo stuffs it, only to eat a left. Clash of heads appears to open a cut on Cejudo and the ref calls time. He’s bleeding badly over his right eye. Doctor decides he’s fine to continue and they restart, and Cejudo looks ANGRY. He comes forward and catches Cruz with a BIG RIGHT KNEE that drops him, and some follow-up punches have him done and Keith Peterson calls it off there.

Post-fight Cruz tries to claim an early stoppage but I’m not buying that, he wasn’t defending and was taking a ton of nasty punches to the head. Good stop from Peterson in my opinion. Hell of a fight too, Cruz made it more competitive than I expected but Cejudo always appeared to be a step ahead and it felt like once he got angry he quickly finished things off.

And the craziness continues in the interviews, as Cejudo promptly retires from MMA, vacating the title. Two months later and that still feels like a weird move to me, as if he’d stuck around and beaten like, Sterling, Aldo and Petr Yan he could’ve been considered one of the best ever. I mean, he probably should be considered that anyway, but there’s also a feel of “what if?” around him assuming he doesn’t come back.

UFC Interim Lightweight Title: Tony Ferguson vs Justin Gaethje

Well, when the pandemic kicked in it was pretty clear that the curse surrounding the possible Khabib/Ferguson fight would continue, and sure enough despite the UFC’s best efforts to salvage this show, it soon became clear that the Russian simply wasn’t going to be able to make it into the US to fight any time soon. Rather than hold off on the fight, the promotion decided to put Ferguson into his second interim title fight – this time with arguably the most dangerous guy in the division in the form of Gaethje, who’d knocked out his past three opponents. I was picking Ferguson to come through, but it was more out of hope for the Khabib fight more than anything else, particularly given that this was the FIFTH time it’d been scrapped.

Round One and they circle around with Ferguson using a ton of random movement. Good low kick connects for Gaethje. Couple of shots glance for Ferguson but Gaethje lands on him with a right to the body. Right hand lands for Gaethje but a low kick stumbles him. Clean left hook lands for Gaethje but Tony takes it well. Big shots miss for both men before a hard left hand and a leg kick land for Gaethje. Head kick into a jab connect for Ferguson in return. Body kick follows. Huge right hand lands cleanly for Gaethje but somehow it has no effect. That’s insane. Another big combo follows but Ferguson just smiles at him. Less than a minute to go now and Gaethje still looks like the sharper striker here. Another powerful right lands cleanly for him. Big exchange sees Gaethje nail Ferguson with two left hooks but he somehow takes them. Round ends there. 10-9 Gaethje.

Round Two and Ferguson tries a superman punch but gets stung by a right hand on the counter. Huge left hand again lands for Gaethje in an exchange. Ferguson’s chin is ridiculous. More big punches follow for both and the left hand connects again for Gaethje. You can really hear the shots landing due to the lack of crowd, too. Nasty leg kicks land for both. Gaethje is just landing brutal punches in literally every exchange. One-two does fire back for Tony though. Trio of ridiculous shots land for Gaethje. He’s chopping Tony’s legs up too. Few decent strikes fire back for Ferguson but he eats the big left yet again. Gaethje is looking incredibly measured too. Both guys keep on throwing big shots and while Gaethje’s landing, Ferguson is walking through them to land shots of his own. Seconds to go and the exchange continues, and Ferguson DECKS GAETHJE WITH A HUGE UPPERCUT! Buzzer sounds to save him a second later, but I’d say that knockdown stole the round for Ferguson.

Round Three and Gaethje lands a big counter right as Ferguson presses forward. Ferguson doesn’t look tired at all here. He takes a couple more big shots and he’s cut over his left eye, but he then comes back with another nasty uppercut. Beautiful counter left connects for Gaethje. Right hand follows but Ferguson completely no-sells it again. His right eye is looking bad now though, all sliced up underneath. Looks like it might be swelling shut too. Ferguson keeps on pressing forward, but a big right hand finally buckles him and he has to back up. He fires back with a strong right of his own, but some more haymakers connect for Gaethje in response. Ferguson literally has the best chin in MMA to be taking all of these shots. More power shots land for Gaethje but Ferguson keeps on stalking forward. He’s like a zombie in there. He’s still landing good shots of his own too, but just not at the same clip as Gaethje. Crazy Mortal Kombat-style foot sweep connects for Ferguson and almost takes Gaethje off his feet, insane. He keeps on coming forward, but another spearing right hand stops him in his tracks. Left hook follows for Gaethje but Ferguson keeps on stalking. Round ends with another left from Gaethje. 10-9 Gaethje.

Round Four and holy shit Ferguson’s face is a MESS. Gaethje opens the round with a brutal leg kick. Front kick to the body responds for Ferguson. He’s STILL pushing forward. Tornado kick misses for him as Gaethje seems to have slowed his output down. He does land the clean left hook another two times, though. Left hand connects yet again for Gaethje, wow. It just doesn’t make sense for Ferguson to be able to take so many of these shots. Pair of big leg kicks also land for Gaethje but Ferguson isn’t even moving badly. Big exchange sees both men land big shots. Another one sees Gaethje appear to hurt Ferguson badly, but he comes back yet again despite looking completely broken. This could be an example of more guts than brains here. Ferguson’s doing a bunch of weird movement now but it’s just not working as Gaethje hits the left hook yet again. Low blow from Ferguson sees Herb Dean call time, but Gaethje quickly decides to continue. Uppercut to the body from Ferguson. More shots land for him as Gaethje stands off, but then hurts him bad with a low kick. High kick answers back for Tony but Gaethje stings him with a right. Combo from Ferguson follows and he continues to push forward before eating a head kick as the round ends. 10-9 Gaethje.

Round Five and Ferguson tries an ankle pick (!) but Gaethje shrugs it off, lands a combo and then nails him with a leg kick. Ferguson’s shins are now bleeding as well as his face, lord. Left hook hurts Tony again and then a HUGE COMBINATION follows but somehow he’s still standing. Vicious leg kick spins him right around. This is basically over but Ferguson just won’t go down. He’s still coming forward firing, but taking brutal punches in return. Huge combo staggers Ferguson but somehow he still won’t go down. Gaethje isn’t swarming him either, just resetting to land more bombs. His jab is snapping Tony’s head back too. Imanari roll misses for Ferguson. More jabs and the counter left hook land for Gaethje and he just shoves Ferguson away at one stage as he tries to return fire. Jab drops Tony to a knee but he pops back up. How he’s taking these shots I’ll never know. It’s becoming disturbing at this point. More ridiculous shots land for Gaethje. Ferguson’s face appears to have been struck by a baseball bat. Big left has Ferguson shaking his head around and he backs up, and Herb Dean decides to call it there.

Weird stoppage but it’s hard to disagree with it, Ferguson was basically a dead man walking from the third round onwards as Gaethje just landed bomb after bomb, and how Tony ever stayed vertical is a mystery given Gaethje’s usual face-melting power. This was an incredible performance from Gaethje though, as he turned down the wild aggression and just focused on landing his bombs in a more measured way, and in the end Ferguson just had no answer for him.

And you know what? While it’s shitty that we’re likely never to see Ferguson/Khabib, I can’t wait for Khabib/Gaethje after this one, as with Gaethje’s punching power, leg kicks, this measured approach AND his excellent wrestling, he might actually have a chance! As for this fight? It was a hell of a war but it was also disturbing to watch in the end. I wouldn’t want to watch it again, you know?

-Show ends with the announcers discussing the night’s action and that’s it.

Final Thoughts….

Weirdness of the Covid-hit atmosphere aside, this was an AMAZING show, up there with the very best the UFC’s ever put on in fact. Sure, the Greg Hardy opener was no good, but everything from then onwards was brilliant, from the insane violence of Kattar/Stephens to Ngannou’s wild knockout, right up to the two title fights which delivered in spades. Thumbs way up for this one and if you missed it, you need to see it NOW.

Best Fight: Gaethje vs. Ferguson
Worst Fight: Hardy vs. De Castro

Overall Rating: ****3/4

Until next time,

Scott Newman: