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UFC 249: What's next for the show's biggest stars?

  • UFC 249 saw plenty of big winners and losers - but what should be next for the show's biggest stars?
  • Who should Justin Gaethje, Tony Ferguson, Dominick Cruz and Francis Ngannou face off with next?
Scott Newman
SENIOR ANALYST
Feature
Modified 10 May 2020, 16:47 IST

Justin Gaethje was last night
Justin Gaethje was last night's biggest winner

UFC 249 is in the books, and a fantastic show saw various fighters – Justin Gaethje, Henry Cejudo, Francis Ngannou - come out as the big winners – and others such as Tony Ferguson and Dominick Cruz come away with losses that could well alter their careers. With the UFC looking likely to continue regular shows from this point onwards, it’s time to ask that all-important question: what’s next for UFC 249’s top stars?

#1 Justin Gaethje

Gaethje
Gaethje's win over Tony Ferguson should put him in line for a fight with Khabib Nurmagomedov

The night’s biggest winner naturally has the most obvious fight lined up for him next. Now the holder of the UFC’s interim Lightweight title, Justin Gaethje should fight current UFC Lightweight champ Khabib Nurmagomedov in a unification bout later in 2020.

When will that be? Well, right now Khabib is observing Ramadan, which finishes later this month. He’ll need at least some time to prepare, while Gaethje will need time to recover from last night’s fight. Usually, that’d mean September would be the obvious date, but the Covid-19 pandemic could change that – as could the potential of the UFC’s ‘Fight Island’.

How will the fight go? Well, it’s hard to pick against Nurmagomedov, who has come through a ridiculous 28 fights unscathed, but this one is interesting. ‘The Eagle’ will almost certainly be outgunned on the feet – and Gaethje has a strong wrestling background and great takedown defense.

That means that if ‘The Highlight’ can stop the takedown, then an upset could well be on the cards. Essentially, this should now be the year’s most highly anticipated fight.

#2 Tony Ferguson

Tony Ferguson came up short last night, so would a fight with Dustin Poirier work for him next?
Tony Ferguson came up short last night, so would a fight with Dustin Poirier work for him next?

Tony Ferguson was undoubtedly UFC 249's biggest loser. He saw a 12-fight winning streak – and his chances of a fight with reigning UFC Lightweight champion, Khabib Nurmagomedov – go down the tubes when he lost to Justin Gaethje. More worryingly, the amount of damage he took from ‘The Highlight’ makes you wonder if he’ll ever be the same again.

A long period on the shelf is probably the best thing for ‘El Cucuy’ right now, but when he’s ready to return, a great opponent for him would be Dustin Poirier. ‘The Diamond’ was last seen in his loss to Nurmagomedov last September at UFC 242, but his winning streak before that – which included wins over Gaethje and Eddie Alvarez – means he’s still highly ranked in the division.

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A Ferguson/Poirier fight would be a must-win for both men; and if ‘El Cucuy’ could come through, he could well be in line for that Khabib fight again. And if Poirier wins, it’d be hard not to make him the top contender – particularly if Gaethje were to dethrone Khabib.

Add in the fact that the style of both men would almost guarantee a war, and this would be an absolutely must-see clash.

#3 Henry Cejudo (and the UFC Bantamweight title)

Petr Yan should fight for the Bantamweight title vacated by Henry Cejudo
Petr Yan should fight for the Bantamweight title vacated by Henry Cejudo

Well, based on his post-fight promo, it looks like reigning UFC Bantamweight champion Henry Cejudo has officially hung up his gloves. That essentially means he will be vacating the UFC Bantamweight title. It’s a disappointing decision – but for hardcore fans, it could be somewhat of a blessing in disguise.

Why? Because prior to UFC 249, Cejudo was talking about defending his title against Jose Aldo and then attempting to move up to 145lbs to challenge UFC Featherweight champ Alexander Volkanovski. Simply put, that would’ve been a ludicrous course of action and would’ve been unfair to several Bantamweight contenders – but no doubt, the UFC would’ve gone for it.

Now though, with Cejudo stepping away, the UFC should look to put together a fight between the most deserving contenders for the vacant title. In my mind, those two men are Petr Yan and Aljamain Sterling.

Sure, Marlon Moraes is ranked above both, but he arguably lost to Aldo in his last appearance and also missed out on the title when he lost to Cejudo last year. Yan meanwhile is unbeaten at 6-0 in the UFC and is arguably the best boxer in the division, while Sterling has won 6 of his last 7 fights and is clearly on the best form of his career.

This classic striker vs. grappler match would be a tremendous clash of styles, and either man would make a worthy successor to Cejudo’s crown.

#4 Dominick Cruz

A fight between Dominick Cruz and Jose Aldo could be fascinating
A fight between Dominick Cruz and Jose Aldo could be fascinating

Dominick Cruz may have come up short in his attempt to reclaim the UFC Bantamweight title in his first fight in well over 3 years, but he didn’t look completely shot in that fight either. He did well in parts against Henry Cejudo, but in the end, the champion’s speed and striking skill were able to nullify his fantastic footwork.

Due to his TKO loss, it seems unlikely that he’d be put directly into a fight for the vacant title, but another shot – assuming he can stay healthy – isn’t out of the realm of possibility in the future. With that in mind, why not match ‘The Dominator’ with Jose Aldo?

The Brazilian legend edged out Marlon Moraes in his debut at 135lbs in December, and although many people didn’t feel he deserved the nod, he was all set for his shot at Cejudo and the title before Covid-19 struck.

Given ‘Junior’ is an all-time great in his own right, similarly to Cruz, this seems like a great chance to put together this unlikely clash of former champions. If the UFC were to put together Yan vs. Sterling for the vacant title, then the winner of Cruz vs. Aldo – which would be a fantastic battle of wits on the feet – would make the perfect first challenger for the new champ.

#5 Francis Ngannou

Francis Ngannou should fight for the UFC Heavyweight title next
Francis Ngannou should fight for the UFC Heavyweight title next

In one of the scariest KO’s in recent memory, Francis Ngannou took just 20 seconds to turn the lights out on Jairzinho Rozenstruik after catching him with some heavy punches in a wild rush. The win was Ngannou’s 4th in a row, and considering his previous victims included top contender Curtis Blaydes and former champions Cain Velasquez and Junior Dos Santos, there’s no doubt that a title shot must be next for ‘The Predator’.

The big question now is whether it’ll be a fight with the actual UFC Heavyweight champion – Stipe Miocic – next, or whether Ngannou will have to fight for an interim title instead. That probably depends on Miocic, who doesn’t seem willing to fight right now due to his other job as a Cleveland-based firefighter.

Assuming Miocic isn’t willing to return soon, the next best fight for Ngannou would be former Heavyweight champ, Daniel Cormier. However, there’s every chance that ‘DC’ chooses to sit out and wait for Miocic, too.

If that’s the case, then the best fight for ‘The Predator’ would probably be Alexander Volkov. The giant Russian most recently beat Greg Hardy, and he’s lost just once in the UFC – in a fight he was winning against Derrick Lewis. Regardless, it feels like Ngannou is the uncrowned champ right now – and it’s only a matter of time before he holds the title properly.

#6 Calvin Kattar

There are numerous options for Calvin Kattar at 145lbs
There are numerous options for Calvin Kattar at 145lbs

‘The Boston Finisher’ Calvin Kattar lived up to that nickname last night with a brutal elbow-based knockout of Jeremy Stephens. The win should move Kattar up into the upper echelon of the top ten at 145lbs, but who should be next for him?

For me, there are 3 options: Brian Ortega, Chan Sung Jung, and Yair Rodriguez. Any of those three men would make an excellent opponent for Kattar, who is undoubtedly a genuine title contender these days. However, I suspect that the UFC will try to match Jung with Ortega due to their beef and the fact that the fight fell apart when it was first supposed to take place.

That leaves Rodriguez, and in all honesty, pitting his mix of wild striking and underrated grappling against the pressuring, heavy-hitting style of Kattar would make for a truly fantastic fight.

A win for Kattar there would put him in line for a potential title shot – while if Rodriguez was to win, it’d be hard to deny him a shot of his own. Either way, this sounds like an excellent fight for the UFC to make – so let’s hope it can happen in 2020.


Published 10 May 2020, 16:47 IST
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