Nothing has ever gone as planned when it comes to trying to align Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson in the Octagon. And hopes of them fighting any time soon took another setback on Saturday.
Justin Gaethje stepped in for a locked down Nurmagomedov to face Ferguson in the UFC 249 main event on Saturday in Jacksonville, Fla. He made the most of the opportunity, brutalizing a game Ferguson over their five-round war to capture the interim UFC lightweight championship and secure a future date with Nurmagomedov.
It was a rocky road to the UFC 249 main event. What began as a bout featuring Ferguson challenging Nurmagomedov on April 18 later shifted to Ferguson vs. Gaethje for an interim belt on May 9 thanks to the coronavirus pandemic that engulfed the world.
Despite the scares of COVID-19, UFC President Dana White tried with all his might to pull off UFC 249 on April 18, even after Nurmagomedov was stranded in Russia. White was ready to go on April 18, but his broadcast partner ESPN and its parent company Disney weren’t. After receiving political pressure, they asked White to stand down and he did.
Days later, he announced that UFC 249 would take place on May 9 in Florida. Despite losing the Jacare Souza vs. Uriah Hall bout after Jacare and his cornermen tested positive for COVID-19, UFC 249 moved forward in Jacksonville.
Ferguson used a number of different looks in the opening minute to try and get Gaethje to give him a read. Gaethje didn’t bite.
While Ferguson offered many different angles, and landed a variety of shots from many of them, Gaethje did a good job remaining calm and falling back on his counterpunching and chopping low kicks, particularly landing the left hook to great effect.
In the second round, Gaethje landed power shot after power shot, but couldn’t seem to do much damage. All the while, he continued chopping at the legs.
Ferguson ate the shots and kept plodding forward. His output slowed, or perhaps he tried to goad Gaethje into punching himself out, but Ferguson was still floating by the end of the round and landed a brutal uppercut in the final seconds.
Gaethje’s coach, Trevor Wittman, told him to lose about 10-percent of the power in his punches and throw cleaner shots instead of swinging for the fences. He listened and it paid off.
Gaethje landed shot after shot in round three, this time staggering Ferguson when he landed his left hook, but he also mixed in a head kick, right hand combination that left Ferguson looking a bit off his game by the end of the frame.
Ferguson stepped up his unorthodox angles and attacks in round four, but couldn’t throw Gaethje off his game. Gaethje held his ground, patiently waited to see what Ferguson was throwing, and then countered with laser precision.
His efforts paid huge dividends in round four. Gaethje rocked Ferguson on several occasions, sending him backward on wobbly legs more than once. He also continued to build upon the chopping leg kicks in the early rounds, this time nearly folding Ferguson’s leg in half with a brutal kick.
The arena was silent, but Gaethje’s actions spoke loudly.
Ferguson tried to push the pace, surely knowing he was behind on the scorecards, but he couldn’t crack the code.
Gaethje’s ring generalship was the best we’ve ever seen out of him. He seemed to know what Ferguson – one of the most unorthodox fighters in the game – was going to do before he did.
Gaethje continued landing shot after brutal shot, snapping Ferguson’s head from side to side and front to back. He eventually landed a left hand that caused Ferguson to shake his head repeatedly as he staggered backward. Gaethje stayed on him, hit him again, and referee Herb Dean stopped the fight.
— UFC (@ufc) May 10, 2020
It was a lifetime of work that allowed Gaethje to end Ferguson’s 12-fight winning streak and push him off course for a potential sixth booking with Nurmagomedov.
“This was hard work. I’ve been working for this since I was four years old,” Gaethje told interview Joe Rogan, leading to him to take aim at his ultimate target: Khabib Nurmagomedov.
Gaethje even tossed the interim belt aside, telling Rogan, “I’m waiting for the real belt.
“I’m proud to represent America against Dagestan’s best. He’s 28-0 and there’s no other challenge I want right now.”