Despite the controversy around the show going in – and whether the UFC should’ve been allowed to go ahead with it in the first place – UFC 249 turned out to be a pretty amazing show. A couple of slower fights didn’t take away from what was a fantastic selection of fights, and safety issues aside, MMA fans will surely have welcomed the return of live-action after so long – 8 weeks – with nothing to watch.
The likelihood is that we’ll look upon this show in the future as historic, but whether that’ll be for a good or bad reason, we likely won’t know for some time.
Here are the best and worst moments from UFC 249: Ferguson vs. Gaethje -
#1 Best: Gaethje steps up in the best showing of his career
When he joined the UFC in 2017, many people suggested that Justin Gaethje would have a pretty short shelf life in the promotion. He’d established himself under the WSOF – now PFL – banner as a reckless fighter who relied on his chin and punching power to get through, something that just didn’t seem likely to work under the brighter lights of the UFC.
Indeed, his first handful of fights seemed to fulfill that prophecy; he TKO’d Michael Johnson and then put on wars with Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier, but the latter two men finished him after avoiding his wild offense and waiting for him to slow down.
Going into last night’s fight with Tony Ferguson, there was no real evidence to suggest he’d changed his game. His last 3 victims – James Vick, Edson Barboza, and Donald Cerrone – all played into his hands, after all. Instead though, last night we saw a brand new Gaethje.
‘The Highlight’ was measured and patient throughout the fight. He mixed up his offense perfectly – using his right hand, his left hook and his leg kick to slowly break ‘El Cucuy’ down over 5 rounds. He never blew out his gas tank even attempting to finish his opponent, and outside of a bad uppercut in the second round, he never left himself open for any major counter-offense.
His win – a strange but fair 5th round stoppage – now puts him in line for a fight with Khabib Nurmagomedov, and based on his strong takedown defense, as well as this performance, it’s safe to say he may well have a shot. This was the best performance of his career by far.
#1 Worst: Say goodbye to Ferguson vs. Khabib
The UFC might not see this as a bad thing; it felt at times like the promotion wasn’t overly invested in attempting to put together a fight between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson anyway, likely because ‘El Cucuy’ hasn’t been a big drawing card.
The truth, though, is that the Lightweight clash was the most highly anticipated fight in years from a hardcore fan’s perspective – and so the fact that we’re never likely to see it after Ferguson’s loss to Justin Gaethje is unbelievably disappointing.
What went wrong for Ferguson? It’s hard to pinpoint; essentially, it looked like he was outgunned by a harder hitter, and where he’d expected that Gaethje would get wild and fade, he never did. And while the stoppage was somewhat strange, as Ferguson wasn’t out, the fight had already become disturbing at that stage due to the sheer damage ‘El Cucuy’ had taken.
Should the UFC have done anything differently? Personally, I’d have pulled Ferguson as soon as it was clear that Khabib would not be available to fight. Surely the promotion could’ve made the fight for later in 2020 – perhaps even on ‘Fight Island’? Regardless, Khabib vs. Ferguson now joins the likes of Fedor vs. Lesnar and Silva vs. GSP as dream matches we’ll probably never get.
#2 Best: Ngannou reaffirms his spot in scary fashion
Many fans – myself included – were worried that the Heavyweight clash between Francis Ngannou and Jairzinho Rozenstruik would turn into a staring contest that resembled Ngannou’s infamous 2018 fight with Derrick Lewis. Less than a minute into the fight, it was painfully clear that thankfully, that wouldn’t be the case.
Ngannou just didn’t mess around here. He came charging out with a series of wild – but incredibly powerful – punches and had ‘Bigi Boy’ sleeping against the fence after just 20 seconds. It was perhaps one of the scariest knockouts in UFC history.
Post-fight, Joe Rogan mentioned Ngannou’s recent claims that he’s the “uncrowned champion” at Heavyweight. That could well be the case; sure, ‘The Predator’ looked a little sloppy last night, but I don’t think there’s a man alive that can stand up to his punching power.
And while Stipe Miocic got the better of him last time, it seems likely that the current champion won’t be back in the Octagon any time soon.
If that is the case, then the UFC should look to crown an interim champion as quickly as possible – and the most obvious path would be to match Ngannou with Daniel Cormier for that title. If Cormier isn’t up for the fight, then Alexander Volkov would probably make a solid opponent. Either way, the UFC should try to get ‘The Predator’ back in the Octagon as quickly as possible.
#2 Worst: Cejudo’s surprising retirement throws a spanner into the works
Okay, so I need to put a caveat on this by saying that there’s no way anyone should be criticizing Henry Cejudo’s fight with Dominick Cruz. The UFC Bantamweight title clash was fantastic, with Cejudo using his speed and power to nullify Cruz’s footwork, and I thought both men looked pretty good until the second-round stoppage.
I also didn’t have any issue with the stoppage itself. Cruz looked done once Cejudo’s big knee landed, and while he was attempting to get up, ‘Triple C’ had also hit him with several thudding punches on the ground with little response from ‘The Dominator’. To me, the fight was over.
So why does this find its way into the ‘Worst’ column? Well, because of Cejudo’s shocking decision to retire after the fight. A fighter should be able to retire at any time and given that he essentially went from a career as a hugely successful Olympic wrestler directly into MMA, it’s understandable that he’d feel burned out.
Despite this, it’s still hard not to feel disappointed that we didn’t get to see ‘Triple C’ face the likes of Petr Yan, Aljamain Sterling, and – if his statements were correct – perhaps even Alexander Volkanovski.
Maybe he’ll go back on his decision shortly, but if not, even with his accomplishments it’ll be hard to see him as anything but a huge “what if?” question in MMA history. Could he have gone onto become one of the all-time greats? Possibly, and it’s sad that we’ll never see him try.
#3 Best: The overall quality of the card
One dull fight notwithstanding – we’ll get onto that in a second – UFC 249 was a great card. The main event delivered hugely – even if the fight became a little disturbing late on – and the co-main event between Henry Cejudo and Dominick Cruz was fantastic.
Underneath those fights though, Francis Ngannou uncorked a truly scary knockout, but equally scary was Calvin Kattar’s brutal elbow-based finish of Jeremy Stephens. And on the undercard, we were treated to a trio of highly exciting fights that all would’ve had a packed crowd going crazy.
No offense to Anthony Pettis vs. Donald Cerrone or Aleksei Oleinik vs. Fabricio Werdum, but the best of the bunch, in my opinion, was Vicente Luque vs. Niko Price. These two fought previously in 2017 in what was a fun fight, but they eclipsed that here, going to war for nearly all 3 rounds before ‘The Silent Assassin’ landed enough damage to finally stop Price.
For me, UFC 249 should be living proof that when the UFC loads up a card in this way, the results can be dramatic and provide fans with a night of incredible action.
Due to the UFC’s tendency to spread its fight cards thinly, it’s not often that we get such a stacked show (3 former champions on the prelims) but maybe this one – assuming it’s successful on pay-per-view – should make the promotion consider how it does things in the future. Stronger pay-per-views and slightly weaker ‘Fight Night’ cards should be the rule, not the exception, going forward.
#3 Worst: The continuation of the Greg Hardy experiment
The UFC’s treatment of former NFL star Greg Hardy has been a point of contention ever since he was signed in 2018. The huge Heavyweight is perhaps the least popular fighter on the promotion’s roster due to a chequered past involving domestic violence allegations, and so the UFC’s attempts to build him up as a potential contender simply seem unproductive.
It’d help if ‘The Prince of War’ looked like a prospect to watch, but in all honesty, he doesn’t. His fight last night with Yorgan de Castro was the worst on the show by some distance, and it felt like de Castro had things in the bag until a foot injury caused him to stop fighting altogether.
For all the announcers talk up Hardy’s athleticism, it hasn’t helped him all that much yet. Sure, he’s only a couple of years into his career, but look what the likes of Cain Velasquez and Brock Lesnar were doing at a similar point in their careers.
Simply put, the former NFL man isn’t a blue-chip prospect and so when you add in his unpopularity, there’s no way he belongs on the main card of a top-level show like this. In all honesty, I feel like the UFC would be better off without him.