UFC 249 Couldn't Evade the Coronavirus, but Gaethje vs. Ferguson Still DeliveredMay 10, 2020
We'll get to that epic main event soon, I promise. That was the object of the whole exercise, after all. On Saturday night, if only for a moment, sports came back—MMA came back!—to give us fans a hard-earned opportunity to forget our troubles and enjoy something.
But every story written right now is burying the lede if the lede isn't the coronavirus pandemic. On this front, UFC officials said and did what they had to in order to stage UFC 249 at a crowdless VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in the heart of northwest Florida. No matter how you slice it, that surely took a herculean effort, one UFC President Dana White opined this week could serve as the "blueprint" for a national resumption of sporting events and so on.
Vexingly, however, the virus was totally disrespectful of said effort, bearing the audacity to asymptomatically infect ranked light heavyweight Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza and two of his cornermen, forcing "off-premises" quarantines and the cancellation of Souza's bout with Uriah Hall.
On the bright side, at least the UFC had snapped up about 600 diagnostic tests for the event and the next two in Jacksonville. For perspective, that's about two-thirds of the total number conducted Friday in the entire state of Delaware, on the same day the state announced 11 new COVID-19 fatalities. All this thoughtful preparation ensured fans everywhere never lost the opportunity to pay the standard $64.99 for the event pay-per-view. Talk about a return to normalcy!
Sarcasm aside, yes, the event indeed went off, but not before demonstrating why its very existence posed a threat. (Social distancing also fell just a tad shy of the gold standard, both during and before the event.)
OK, OK, now on to the UFC 249 main event: It was one for the books in the 155-pound division. Justin Gaethje (22-2, 5-2 UFC) brutalized the demonically tough Tony Ferguson (25-4, 15-2 UFC) for a fifth-round TKO that earned him the interim lightweight title and an eventual shot at lineal champion Khabib Nurmagomedov.
"I knew I was a killer stepping in here," Gaethje told broadcaster Joe Rogan in the cage after the fight. "I'm good, bro. There's no better drug on earth: adrenaline."
The interesting thing about Gaethje's game is its efficiency. He has a dangerous right hook; his left hook bats cleanup. He throws a heavy leg kick with minimal windup. He'll mix in a head kick here and there. Backstopping all of this is an 80 percent takedown defense rate, per UFC statistics.
All of it was on display Saturday night. Ferguson had moments of offense, including a vicious uppercut to close the second. For anyone who saw this fight, though, it was easily his defense that stood out most. If you Google "too tough for his own good," Ferguson takes up the first three pages of results.
Plenty of other fighters wouldn't have lasted past the second. Gaethje just hits so freaking hard. For all his big swinging, he's noticeably precise; they all seem to land. And Ferguson no-sold each and every one and simply continued to move forward. Combine that with his famous cardio, and after two, he looked as fresh as he did at the outset.
That changed in the third, though, when Ferguson's body slowly began to falter under Gaethje's withering barrage. He began to bleed and swell under his eye. The leg kicks added up, and he began to hobble. In the fourth, the left hands started to land flush. Ferguson was teetering. Gaethje hammered at the injured leg.
In the fifth round, Ferguson was all but a sitting duck. A jab broke Ferguson's nose, and he seemed to start fading away. It was easy to recall Rory MacDonald after his second fight with Robbie Lawler, when a broken nose was the final straw for his own otherworldly toughness. Referee Herb Dean stepped in just after the jab—a good and humane stoppage, regardless of Ferguson's protests. And despite the beating, Ferguson never once hit the canvas. I don't know whether there's anyone tougher on the UFC roster.
Throughout it all, the echoes of the empty arena were a constant reminder of the real world. In the cage, you could hear the breathing and foot-shuffling. Actually, now that we're discussing ambience, I'm not sure I heard any member of the UFC broadcast team utter the word "coronavirus" at any point during the event, much less address what occurred with Souza. No PSAs, no fundraisers, no nothing. Not that they're obligated to, but it might have been nice. Why not give a health update on Souza and his coaches? How about a remote interview?
Sorry, I got back into it, didn't I? Gaethje vs. Nurmagomedov has a chance to be a true epic. Gaethje's power and takedown defense are simple but so effective—and make a very interesting foil for the true champ. Whenever it happens, it could be special. But for now, appreciate and respect the memorable scrap that UFC 249 provided, and remember why it doesn't tell the whole story.