The UFC 249 main event is crucial for Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje. Here’s what’s at stake for the two lightweights when they clash for the interim title on May 9.

Tony Ferguson: The Khabib fight

Jeff Bottari / UFC / Getty

Ferguson has been paired up with lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov five times now, and on each occurrence the fight has been canceled for various reasons. Even if it is indeed cursed, Nurmagomedov-Ferguson remains one of the most anticipated bouts in UFC history.

UFC president Dana White said the winner of Ferguson-Gaethje will meet Nurmagomedov later in 2020, so the promotion isn’t moving on from the fight entirely. But to make it happen, Ferguson has to get past Gaethje, and that’s no easy task.

If “El Cucuy” loses, there’s no telling whether or not he’d be able to bounce back and earn a shot at Nurmagomedov. He hasn’t lost since 2012, but at 36 years old, it’ll be tough for Ferguson to continue his dominance. Sometimes, it only takes one loss to put a fighter on a downward trajectory for the rest of his or her career.

Even if Ferguson managed to scrape together a few wins and get a title shot, it wouldn’t be the same. As it stands right now, Nurmagomedov is undefeated at 28-0 and Ferguson is riding a 12-fight winning streak. It can’t be any more perfect, and the stakes can’t get any higher.

A Gaethje win would not only ruin the Nurmagomedov-Ferguson fight for the foreseeable future, but possibly forever.

Justin Gaethje: First UFC belt

Drew Hallowell / UFC / Getty

Gaethje has been waiting for a shot at UFC gold ever since he entered the Octagon for the first time in 2017.

Of course, losing to Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier in back-to-back fights between December 2017 and April 2018 didn’t help his case. But since then, “The Highlight” has looked unstoppable, picking up three straight wins in the first round.

Gaethje used to be a brawl-until-you-fall kind of fighter. That style generally served him well, as his opponents would wilt under his pressure. But as soon as he ran into an elite lightweight who wouldn’t back down, Gaethje was the one who fell.

He’s since altered his game quite drastically. The 31-year-old has shown in his recent victories he’s now a lot more technical and composed while still bringing the same level of excitement to his fights.

Gaethje has clearly deserved a title shot since his knockout win over Donald Cerrone last September, but with Nurmagomedov-Ferguson still scheduled and Conor McGregor preparing for his return at the time, nothing was guaranteed.

Additionally, White claimed Gaethje turned down several offers to instead wait for a title shot, which didn’t exactly put him in the UFC’s good books.

However, agreeing to fight Ferguson sure did. White loves when fighters step up on short notice. Gaethje said it was an opportunity he couldn’t refuse, even during the coronavirus pandemic – a victory will mean a UFC belt finally around his waist.

Both: Bigger audience

The winner of Ferguson-Gaethje won’t necessarily walk away a superstar, but he’ll absolutely gain some new fans at UFC 249.

The UFC is essentially the only major sports organization continuing operations amid the pandemic. Regardless of how you morally feel about that, it could benefit the promotion – and the fighters on the card – if the event turns out to be a slam dunk.

Quarantine life started well over a month ago, and at this point, many people are simply looking for things to do. Sports fans have nothing to watch. UFC 249 is the only show in town, and it could garner some pretty absurd viewership numbers as a result of that.

Being the only sport on could theoretically attract new fans to the UFC. In terms of getting them to stick around and tune in a second time, if Ferguson-Gaethje ends up being an all-time classic – which, given both of their styles, is absolutely a possibility – who wouldn’t want to see the winner, or maybe even both of them, fight again? The two lightweights may not be household names today, but whoever captures the interim belt could very well be one after May 9.

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