UFC 249: Previewing Ferguson-Gaethje and Other Matches on the Card
To some, UFC President Dana White is a tone-deaf opportunist. To others, he's an envelope-stretching maverick.
Regardless, it's clear the combat sports lightning rod is doing his best to keep his brand relevant and afloat, even as others teeter and flounder under the calendar-crushing weight of a pandemic.
With that as a backdrop, White has pressed forward with a remixed and remastered UFC 249, a pay-per-view event set for May 9 in Jacksonville, Florida, to be broadcast by ESPN+.
It was initially set for Brooklyn, New York, and then Lemoore, California, before circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak intervened.
Top lightweight contender Tony Ferguson retains his spot in the main event, even in the absence of hamstrung rival Khabib Nurmagomedov, whom the crisis rendered unable to leave his native Russia.
Stepping in for the unbeaten 155-pound champ is Justin Gaethje, the fourth-ranked contender who's erased three straight foes within a single round and has been steadily upping the volume on claims that he belongs in a spotlight fight with a big-name opponent.
White said the winner May 9 will get Nurmagomedov in the fall.
The interim title match tops a 12-bout card that will proceed in front of the near-empty Veterans Memorial Arena, but there are still plenty of reasons—morbid curiosity among them, perhaps—to tune in to get your live sports fix in the midst of a quarantine-racked spring season.
Click through for a full preview of the goings-on, from the headliner to early prelims.
UFC 249: Ferguson-Gaethje Fight Card and Info
UFC 249: Ferguson vs. Gaethje is scheduled to take place May 9 in Jacksonville.
The main card ESPN+ pay-per-view is scheduled to begin at 10 pm ET.
The prelims are scheduled for ESPN/ESPN+ beginning at 8 pm ET.
The early prelims are set for UFC Fight Pass at 6:30 pm ET.
The fight card listed below is per UFC.com and is subject to change.
UFC 249 Main Card (ESPN+ PPV)
Tony Ferguson vs. Justin Gaethje
Henry Cejudo vs. Dominick Cruz
Francis Ngannou vs. Jairzinho Rozenstruik
Jeremy Stephens vs. Calvin Kattar
Greg Hardy vs. Yorgan De Castro
UFC 249 Prelims (ESPN/ESPN+)
Donald Cerrone vs. Anthony Pettis
Aleksei Oleinik vs. Fabricio Werdum
Carla Esparza vs. Michelle Waterson
Uriah Hall vs. Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza
UFC 249 Early Prelims (UFC Fight Pass)
Vicente Luque vs. Niko Price
Bryce Mitchell vs. Charles Rosa
Ryan Spann vs. Sam Alvey
The Main Event: Tony Ferguson vs. Justin Gaethje
This is not the main event everyone wanted.
But if White is hell-bent on staging a show that eludes the long arm of governmental mandate, then putting the world's No. 2 lightweight in the Octagon with an aggressive, ambitious contender isn't his worst choice.
Ferguson is what everyone says he is. He's not lost in nearly eight full years—ironically, the man who last beat him, Michael Johnson, was initially relegated to this show's early prelims—and he would have come fully equipped to give the great Nurmagomedov all he wanted had that bout not encountered its fifth detour.
His penchant for applying almost constant pressure while trying to land strikes is among his calling cards, as is an equally relentless grappling game that's yielded six submission wins—all by choke—during the 12 victories he's strung together since losing to Johnson.
Not surprisingly given the style, he's shared Fight of the Night proceeds in five of his past six outings and taken home either top performance or top submission bonuses four additional times across the win streak.
Still, Gaethje is unlikely to simply stand by for a non-competitive destruction.
He's five years younger than his celebrated foe and has all the second-tier credentials you could ask for given his near-three-year run as lightweight champion with the World Series of Fighting through 2016.
And while his UFC shine quickly dimmed upon arrival thanks to losses against Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier, the three quick erasures since have put him on the map as one of the sport's best and most exciting combatants.
If Ferguson comes in with anything resembling a Khabib hangover or wakes up one morning and suddenly feels like a 36-year-old with 12 years of professional combat on his treads, a surprise could happen.
The Co-Main Event: Henry Cejudo vs. Dominick Cruz
A two-time champion returning to face a titleholder.
Sounds like a fantasy fight proposition, but it's a UFC 249 reality. Because of course it is.
Given Dominick Cruz's prodigious resume of 22 wins in 24 pro fights—including five in title fights and the aforementioned two belted reigns—he would certainly be considered a dream opponent for an incumbent as dominant as bantamweight king Henry Cejudo.
After all, because Cejudo's been a champion in two weight classes, hasn't lost a fight in nearly three years and sits third on the UFC's updated pound-for-pound rankings, credible opponents aren't so easy to find.
Upon closer inspection, however, the Cruz dream needle drifts in the other direction.
Turns out the most recent of those 22 wins will be 1,435 days ago by the time fight night with Cejudo arrives, with the intervening time having been filled by a unanimous-decision loss, myriad injuries (a broken arm and a shredded shoulder among them) and a recurring gig as an ESPN announcer.
Still, White is steadfast in selling the bout as a worthwhile co-main event in Jacksonville.
"He's still one of the best in the world," he told ESPN (via MMA Junkie). "He's one of the best in the world. He's a guy who has been incredibly plagued with injuries throughout his career. But he's still looked at as one of the best in the world."
Fight to Keep an Eye On: Vicente Luque vs. Niko Price
Niko Price isn't quite a sure thing, as evidenced by three losses in 18 career fights.
But when the Southwest Floridian does win, it's quite often in memorable fashion.
The 30-year-old welterweight has racked up four Performance of the Night bonuses in 10 appearances since debuting in the UFC a little more than three years ago, most recently grabbing cash for an abruptly violent up-kick KO of James Vick after just 104 seconds of their Fight Night get-together in October.
He was stopped by Abdul Razak Alhassan and Geoff Neal in two PPV main-card outings, however, and takes the early prelim walk from the locker room this time against another former conqueror—fellow jiu-jitsu ace Vicente Luque, who submitted him via D'Arce choke in their Fight Night matchup in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in October 2017.
Luque was a late sub for Luan Chagas, who bowed out with a fractured foot just 11 days before that fight.
He has bonus street cred of his own, winning Performance of the Night loot twice in 2015 and 2016 and sharing Fight of the Night honors in three of his four outings in 2019—including two wins.
Luque lost a spirited decision to Stephen Thompson on the main show at UFC 244 in November.
Best of the Rest
Jeremy Stevens vs. Calvin Kattar
The second fight on the card's PPV portion features featherweights for whom a win is almost mandatory.
Stephens, nearing birthday No. 34, hasn't had his hand raised in victory since a UFC on Fox main event more than two years ago. That's a span of four fights, including two losses by decision, one by stoppage and an bout that ended after just 15 seconds thanks to an inadvertent eye poke.
He faces an only slightly less desperate Kattar, who's dropped two of four since opening his UFC run with consecutive defeats Andre Fili and Shane Burgos—the latter of which earned him a share of Fight of the Night bonus money at UFC 220.
Stephens enters the bout ranked seventh at 145 pounds, two spots ahead of Kattar.
Uriah Hall vs. Ronaldo 'Jacare' Souza
As curtain-raising prelim fights go, this one packs a lot of talent.
Souza, a 40-year-old with wins over three former UFC champions, is moving back to middleweight after competing as a light heavyweight and dropping a split five-round decision to Jan Blachowicz in a Fight Night main event in Brazil in November.
He defeated ex-welterweight champ Robbie Lawler while campaigning with the Strikeforce promotion in 2011 and has since beaten former light heavyweight king Vitor Belfort (at UFC 198) and deposed middleweight title claimant Chris Weidman in a Fight of the Night winner at UFC 230.
Meanwhile, Hall risks his No. 10 position in the 185-pound rankings. He's won two straight fights and three of his past four. Most recently, he defeated Antonio Carlos Junior by split decision on the undercard of Gaethje's bout with Cerrone in September.
Greg Hardy vs. Yorgan De Castro
UFC is putting on a fight card during a global health crisis unlike any in recent history, so of course there's got to be room for the Hardy circus to make an appearance.
Now 31, the pass-rusher turned NFL exile is eight bouts into an MMA career that's already seen him disqualified for an illegal knee and chastised for inappropriate between-rounds use of an inhaler.
The latter infraction resulted in October's win over Ben Sosoli reduced to a no-contest, and Hardy returned only 22 days later to lose a decision to Alexander Volkov at a Fight Night event in Moscow.
In relative newcomer Yorgan De Castro, Hardy faces a 33-year-old who's unbeaten in six career fights and made a memorable debut at UFC 243 with a first-round KO of Justin Tafa.