Tony Ferguson vs. Justin Gaethje: A Head-to-Toe Breakdown

Kelsey McCarsonFeatured ColumnistApril 8, 2020

Tony Ferguson vs. Justin Gaethje: A Head-to-Toe Breakdown

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    Jeff Bottari/Getty Images

    UFC 249 will feature two of the most exciting MMA athletes in the world. While it's not quite the riveting superfight that the original main event between UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson would have been, the replacement battle between Ferguson and hard-hitting lightweight contender Justin Gaethje is nothing short of a tremendous short-notice spectacle.

    UFC 249: Ferguson vs. Gaethje takes place April 18 at a secret location. The card will be available in the U.S. exclusively on ESPN+ pay-per-view.

    But how do the two principle main event competitors stack up against each other?

    And which of the violent 155-pound stalwarts will end up winning the UFC interim lightweight title that's up for grabs?

    Here's a head-to-toe breakdown of UFC 249: Ferguson vs. Gaethje.


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    Justin Gaethje knocks out Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone.
    Justin Gaethje knocks out Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone.Jeff Bottari/Getty Images

    Both Ferguson and Gaethje are solid stand-up fighters.

    Ferguson's otherworldly endurance, relentless aggression and unorthodox fighting style are just some of the amazing attributes that have helped the 36-year-old American reel off 12 straight UFC wins. He's not suffered a loss since way back in 2012, and he is a vicious striker who switches stances on the regular to constantly keep his opponents guessing.

    But Gaethje is one of the most terrifying strikers in the company right now. Perhaps the scariest part about the mauling brawler is that he's proved over his last three fights that he's no longer just a come-forward stalker.

    In fact, since suffering his fourth-round stoppage loss to Dustin Poirier back in April 2018, Gaethje has re-emerged as a fighter who's willing to be patient as a striker. The result of that slight change in approach has amazingly helped Gaethje notch three straight first-round stoppage victories.

    So there are two ways to look at who might have the edge when it comes to striking. Ferguson's been so dominant for so long that maybe his long stretch of wins combined with him possessing such a unique style could reasonably earn him the nod.

    But Gaethje's power would seem to be the thing that might matter most in the bout. Both are excellent strikers but Gaethje probably has a slight edge in terms of needing to land fewer of them to win the fight.

    Edge: Gaethje


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    Tony Ferguson KOs Anthony Pettis.
    Tony Ferguson KOs Anthony Pettis.Associated Press/Associated Press

    Both Ferguson and Gaethje entered the MMA world with solid credentials as grapplers. Both were standouts on their high school wrestling teams and competed in the collegiate ranks.

    While both fighters enjoyed success as college wrestlers, Gaethje's All-American status at Northern Colorado surely trumps what Ferguson achieved at Grand Valley State University in Michigan.

    Still, Ferguson's grappling seems to have better translated into what goes on inside the Octagon on fight night. That, or maybe Gaethje simply enjoys striking more than he does wrestling. Whatever the case, Ferguson seems more capable of using his grappling skills in fights, whereas Gaethje almost never seems interested in such matters.

    That surely gives Ferguson the edge in grappling at UFC 249.

    Edge: Ferguson


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    Tony Ferguson has eight career submissions.
    Tony Ferguson has eight career submissions.Associated Press/Associated Press

    Ferguson has scored eight submissions over the course of his MMA career, and he's done it at the highest levels of the UFC. In fact, Ferguson's won three of his last six fights via submission.

    He defeated Edson Barboza and Lando Vannata via Brabo chokes in 2015 and 2016. He also scored his victory over Kevin Lee at UFC 216 in October 2017 via triangle choke.

    Meanwhile, Gaethje has only scored one win via submission in his MMA career, and that happened way before he was plying the trade under the UFC banner.

    Like any UFC athlete, Gaethje surely knows some jiu-jitsu techniques. But Ferguson is a black belt who regularly employs submissions to win at the highest levels of the sport.

    Edge: Ferguson


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    Will Justin Gaethje's timing be a factor?
    Will Justin Gaethje's timing be a factor?Jeff Bottari/Getty Images

    Ferguson's X-Factor: Adaptability

    Ferguson is maybe the only fighter in the UFC who could successfully go from preparing for a mauling wrestler like Khabib Nurmagomedov to a hard-hitting striker like Gaethje. He's ranked as the No. 1 contender in the UFC's deepest division for a reason, and at least part of that is because he's the type of elite fighting force that is always able to adapt to whatever is standing in front of him on fight night.

    Ferguson is one of the most unique fighters in the entire world of combat sports. But what makes him different also makes him special. Ferguson isn't likely to miss a beat in terms of now facing Gaethje at UFC 249.


    Gaethje's X-Factor: Timing

    Two kinds of timing will be key if Gaethje hopes to grab UFC gold against Ferguson at UFC 249. First, it's entirely possible that Gaethje is just now entering his best years as a fighter. The 31-year-old is five years Ferguson's junior, and where the older fighter might be slipping away from his athletic prime, Gaethje's best years might have just begun. If that's true, perhaps UFC 249 came along at the perfect time for Gaethje.

    Additionally, Gaethje's stikes will need some fairly perfect timing on them if the fighter hopes to beat Ferguson. Part of what makes Ferguson so tough is he's constantly switching stances to disrupt his opponent's timing for counter-attacks. But if Gaethje can land something big, he absolutely has the power to put Ferguson's lights out.

    So the second type of timing that might play into Gaethje's hands come fight night is the kind that comes with the simple act of throwing and landing punches.


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    Chris Unger/Getty Images

    Both fighters should be given credit for taking this fight on such short notice. In facing Gaethje at UFC 249, Ferguson is risking his chance to finally get his hands on Khabib Nurmagomedov later this year. It would have been completely reasonable for Ferguson to simply pull out of UFC 249 and wait for Nurmagomedov. Instead, Ferguson is facing one of the hottest lightweights in the world right now.

    And Gaethje was considered the front-runner to be Conor McGregor's next opponent. Moreover, Gaethje wasn't even training all this time with the idea that he'd be in the Octagon anytime soon. Now, he's heading into UFC 249 against an elite pound-for-pound superstar on just about two weeks notice.

    The most important prediction about UFC 249 is that Ferguson and Gaethje should put on a great show. I expect the two stars to wage a bloody battle truly worthy of being the only elite-level live sporting event going on in the world that weekend. It's not hyperbole to suggest that the main event at UFC 249 could produce a Fight of the Year candidate.

    As for who actually wins the fight, I think Ferguson's slightly better craft and absurdly high work rate give him the edge on at least two of the three judges' cards.

    Prediction: Ferguson beats Gaethje via split decision.