Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje are set to meet for the UFC interim lightweight title in the UFC 249 main event on Saturday. With the coronavirus pandemic putting most of the sports world on pause, the promotion has needed to jump over several hurdles to reach this point.
Now that it’s fight week, here are seven key questions surrounding the pay-per-view event.
Will the event even happen?
I had my doubts about the original UFC 249 card on April 18 because the California government wasn’t on board with the show taking place. That proved to be a hurdle the promotion couldn’t get over. All it reportedly took to shut down the event was a call to Disney, the parent company of UFC broadcast partner ESPN, from California Gov. Gavin Newsom.
But there’s a far greater chance the UFC will succeed in holding an event amid the COVID-19 crisis this weekend. UFC 249 is slated to go down behind closed doors at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, and the UFC has already gotten past all the big obstacles. The Florida State Athletic Commission has agreed to sanction the event, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has signed off on pro sports taking place in the state.
With seemingly no politician in Florida concerned about the UFC operating during the pandemic, UFC president Dana White won’t be asked to stand down like he was in California.
Additionally, the fighters slated for UFC 249 have all agreed to compete. Unless the pandemic somehow gets extremely worse in Florida over the next few days and changes the governor’s mind about whether sports should be going on, it appears likely those fighters will indeed step into the Octagon on Saturday.
Should Ferguson have agreed to fight Gaethje?
Ferguson is the kind of guy who’s down for just about anything, and that apparently includes facing an ultra-dangerous fighter in Gaethje amid a global health crisis.
Yes, “El Cucuy” will get a paycheck that he otherwise likely wouldn’t have, but it’s still not worth the risk. Gaethje isn’t an easy matchup for him, and it wouldn’t be shocking to see Ferguson fall short for the first time since 2012.
If Gaethje wins, it would take the Khabib Nurmagomedov bout away from Ferguson for the foreseeable future, and possibly forever. Ferguson, 36, isn’t getting any younger, and sometimes all it takes is one loss to put a fighter on a downward trajectory for the rest of their career.
Nurmagomedov-Ferguson has been one of the most anticipated bouts in UFC history. If Ferguson upsets the undefeated Russian, he’d be the UFC lightweight champion, arguably the best 155-pound fighter ever, and would always be able to say he was the first to beat Nurmagomedov.
Ferguson could’ve bowed out of UFC 249, waited for the pandemic to subside and for Nurmagomedov to observe Ramadan, and then do the fight in the fall. But instead, he’s putting the matchup at risk of never happening by fighting Gaethje.
Does Gaethje have anything to lose on short notice?
He does, but not nearly as much as Ferguson.
Gaethje wasn’t supposed to be fighting at UFC 249, and he wasn’t supposed to be competing for UFC gold (even though he deserved a title shot long ago). It all fell into his lap because Nuramgomedov was forced out of the contest.
If Gaethje falls short on Saturday, he won’t be meeting Nurmagomedov for the undisputed title anytime soon. And that’s an opportunity he probably could’ve gotten by simply waiting or (at most) taking one more fight – one that would involve a full camp and likely come against an easier opponent than Ferguson.
If Gaethje loses at UFC 249, fans would quickly forget about it because he stepped up on short notice, so that’s a positive. He’s also the underdog. But at the end of the day, Gaethje needs to get past “El Cucuy” if he wants to even think about ending 2020 as the real champion.
Should Ferguson-Gaethje be for the interim title?
There are some instances where introducing an interim title is called for, but this is not one of them.
Interim titles should be used when a champion has caused a major backlog in his or her division by not defending the undisputed belt for more than a year and pulling out of more than one fight. Nurmagomedov defended the lightweight strap seven months ago – more recently than three other UFC champions.
He withdrew from UFC 249 because he’s stuck in Russia due to travel restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only is the withdrawal not Nurmagomedov’s fault, but the event probably shouldn’t be happening in the first place.
Even if it doesn’t seem like it, introducing an interim title to a division punishes the real champion, as it temporarily takes away their undisputed status. And punishing Nurmagomedov for not being able to fight during a global pandemic is absurd.
Why is Cruz fighting for the title after a 3-year layoff?
It comes down to former bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz’s name value.
He’s much more notable than top contenders Petr Yan, Aljamain Sterling, and Cory Sandhagen, while current titleholder Henry Cejudo has made it clear he wants his first title defense to come against a legend. Even though Cruz hasn’t fought since December 2016 and is coming off a loss, he fits the bill as arguably the greatest bantamweight of all time.
While Cejudo-Cruz is absolutely questionable matchmaking, it’s the perfect time for the promotion to get away with it. No. 1 contender Marlon Moraes faced Cejudo just last year, Sterling’s in no rush to fight during the health crisis, Yan can’t travel to the U.S., and Sandhagen arguably needs one more victory before earning a title shot.
Is Ngannou-Rozenstruik a No. 1 contender bout?
If these were regular times, absolutely. In those times, there would be no one more deserving of a title shot than the winner of Francis Ngannou versus Jairzinho Rozenstruik.
But heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic won’t fight during the pandemic and there’s no timeline for when his planned trilogy bout against former titleholder Daniel Cormier could happen. Unless Cormier suddenly forgoes the Miocic fight and retires, which I don’t see happening, it’ll be a while before the winner of Ngannou-Rozenstruik will get the chance to fight for the belt.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see the winner of Saturday’s bout go on to fight someone else – perhaps Curtis Blaydes, Alexander Volkov, or Derrick Lewis – simply to stay active while Miocic-Cormier 3 plays out.
Will it pay off to hold UFC 249 while no other sports are active?
This will come down to what happens Saturday and in the weeks following the event.
If the actual fights are entertaining and no one tests positive for COVID-19, then it could pay off. After all, lots of people are sitting at home and looking for things to do. There’s a good chance UFC 249 will open up the sport to many new eyes – and win a lot of people over – by being the only show in town.
It goes both ways, though. This isn’t the best time to be charging $65 for a pay-per-view event. UFC 249 should still do solid numbers because the card is stacked, but there’s no telling for sure.
And, if something does go wrong – a fighter, coach, UFC staff member, or other personnel contracts COVID-19 due to the event – it would be a disaster for the promotion, from which it could struggle to bounce back.
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