The Real Winners and Losers from UFC 249

Lyle Fitzsimmons@@fitzbitzFeatured ColumnistMay 10, 2020

The Real Winners and Losers from UFC 249

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    The UFC was in Florida's largest city Saturday night, but it was hardly a routine weekend date.

    The seats at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville were empty as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which left ESPN+ broadcasters Jon Anik, Joe Rogan, Daniel Cormier and Megan Olivi in uncharted territory when it came to an 11-fight show—including the final five on pay-per-view.

    Case in point: There were supposed to be 12 fights before one scheduled combatant, Ronaldo Souza, tested positive for the virus on the day of the weigh-ins.

    Whaddaya know, the goings-on in the cage didn't always stay on script, either.

    Two fights essentially ended in one-shot knockouts, and a third fight was cut short suddenly when one man's eye was reduced to a bloody pulp by cuts both high on his cheek and on his eyelid.

    Three other fights were up in the air, with Bruce Buffer reading the cards as split decisions.

    And just when it looked like things were getting back to normal, a high-profile star retired and a fighter who hadn't lost for eight years encountered a challenge that few would have expected.

    Naturally, such tumult creates a number of winners and losers in its wake. Take a look at our list to see where you agree and disagree, and where your suggestions might land.

Winner: An Ascending Star

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    Everyone knew Justin Gaethje was terrific.

    Everyone knew that if the Highlight Reel landed big shots, he'd have a successful night.

    But no one beyond his family and his corner team could have imagined how Saturday would end up.

    Gaethje is the world's fourth-ranked lightweight and a sub who was only called in when the pandemic pushed Khabib Nurmagomedov to the sidelines. But he came into Jacksonville and beat ex-interim champ Tony Ferguson to a bloody, stumbling pulp, ending the bout in dangerously one-sided style with 81 seconds remaining.

    "That is the most amazing performance of Justin Gaethje's career," Rogan said. "Nobody could've expected that level of dominance. He became a star. People love a fight. And now when they hear Justin Gaethje is fighting, they will tune in. He made Tony human. He beat him up."

    It started off with Gaethje landing the sort of sharp, powerful jabs and right hands that had propelled him to a three-fight win streak, but Ferguson took each shot without wobbling and appeared content to let the Colorado resident work his gas tank to empty before unleashing a rally in the fight's latter stages.

    But the gas tank never got below full, and Ferguson's engine never started.

    The power shots continued to land round after round, and even though Ferguson never appeared in serious trouble, he was showing the effects of the beating in the form of a jagged cut on his left eyelid and a wide gash below his right eye. Additionally, his legs were showing signs of abuse from Gaethje's intermittent but clearly hurtful kicks.

    Gaethje continued his measured aggression into the fifth and continued landing brutal shots to the head, with less and less response from Ferguson. Finally, a Gaethje jab prompted Ferguson to stumble backward and teeter awkwardly as he shook his head, which led referee Herb Dean to wave it off at 3:39.

    "I knew I was a killer stepping in here," Gaethje told Rogan. "I'm good. This is hard work. I've worked for this since I was four years old. I feel bad for [Ferguson]. If that had been me, I'd have been pissed."

    He initially allowed the interim belt to be strapped on him but then quickly took it off.

    "I want the real one," he said.

    Nurmagomedov instantly went to social media to congratulate his newest suitor.

    "There's no other challenge I want right now," Gaethje said. "I want to fight him."

    Ferguson, who'd not lost since May 2012, conceded defeat with little issue.

    "Justin's a tough son of a b---h," he said. "But s--t happens. Now it's like a consolation round. You've got to win your way back and earn it."

Loser: Henry Cejudo's Future Opponents

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    It would have been hard to imagine a higher peak for Henry Cejudo.

    Already an Olympic gold medalist and a two-division UFC champion, the 33-year-old collected perhaps the highest-profile victim of a seven-year pro career with a sudden second-round stoppage of two-time bantamweight title claimant Dominick Cruz.

    But when it seemed the main takeaway from the fight would be whether referee Keith Peterson moved in to quickly to rescue Cruz from a follow-up barrage after Cejudo landed a brutal knee to the head, the decorated winner went rogue during his post-fight interview with Rogan.

    "We stuck to the game plan, and that's all she wrote," he said, referring to the quick stop. "I'm ruthless. I may be cringey, corny. But, boy, can I fight. I am the greatest combat sports athlete of all time."

    He then paused, sought the attention of president Dana White at ringside and dropped a bombshell.

    "I'm happy with my career. I've done enough in the sport," he said. "Since I was 11, I sacrificed my whole life to get where I am tonight. I'm not going to let anyone take that from me.

    "I'm retiring tonight."

Winner: Smart Money

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    A sports landscape bereft of sports created a feeding frenzy for the wagering types.

    So once Saturday's show was up and running, some attention to the numbers was a must.

    Turns out that even with the upset in the main event, the favorites carried the show, with chalk holding firm in nine of the 11 bouts across the card.

    Gaethje and heavyweight Aleksei Oleinik were the only two underdogs to come through, with the former paying out at a plus-185 proposition and the latter a plus-250 opportunity, according to pre-fight odds posted at Oleinik defeated former heavyweight champ Fabricio Werdum by split decision in a prelim bout.

    The biggest favorite of the night, light heavyweight Ryan Spann, went off as a minus-450 choice in the card's first early-prelim bout and won a split decision over Sam Alvey.

    In all, a bet on each of the 11 favorites would have yielded a combined $350 profit at night's end, while a similar wager on each of the 11 underdogs would have meant a combined $465 loss.

Loser: Ex-Champs on the Rebound

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    It's a common theme on a lot of UFC shows: ex-champions coming back to erase past failures in an effort to once again approach belted status.

    But when it came to Jacksonville, things didn't always go so well for the old guard.

    Though former strawweight queen Carla Esparza did emerge from a three-rounder against Michelle Waterson with a split three-round decision, two of her male counterparts in the same roles fared badly.

    Esparza became the strawweight champ in 2014 and lost in her first title defense. Saturday's fourth ex-champ, former lightweight king Anthony Pettis, was a winner by unanimous decision against Donald Cerrone.

    But the aforementioned Werdum, who also lost in his first defense in 2016, was outworked and outstruck for much of his three-rounder with fellow 42-year-old Oleinik, while Cruz felt wronged by what he thought was a too-quick-to-act referee in his return against reigning champ Cejudo.

    Cruz was dumped late in the second round with a hard knee to the head and then went to the mat and took 12 unanswered blows of varying severity before Peterson intervened. The ESPN broadcast crew initially considered it a quick stop as well but backed off after viewing the replay several times. Cruz, though, didn't waver in his belief that he was cheated out of a full performance.

    He is a two-time bantamweight champion, defending twice in a first reign in 2010-11 and once in a follow-up reign in 2016.

    "I was definitely still aware of what was going on. If I'm standing up to my feet, I'm in the fight," he said, insisting to Rogan that he was beginning to get to his knees when the end came. "Give me a fighting chance. This is for a world title. This ain't some backyard fight."

Winner: Unusual Ambience

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    It wasn't the first time the UFC put on a show in front of an empty house. But it was certainly the most noticeable.

    Though a Fight Night card in Brazil went off without fans in the company's final show before the pandemic halted live events, the goings-on in a cavernous Jacksonville arena made the crowd far more conspicuous by its absence.

    Ring announcer Bruce Buffer's booming voice rattled like dice in a cup when he first grabbed the mic shortly after 7 p.m. for the beginning of the early-prelim show, and both the fighters and the ESPN broadcast team made several references to the unusual circumstances throughout the night.

    Light heavyweight Sam Alvey gestured and waved to the empty seats as he walked to the ring for the opening bout, and at the end of his interview with the bout's winner, Ryan Spann, Rogan congratulated him by bellowing "Ryan no one in the audience" in a spot where he'd typically elicit cheers.

    "It's so weird with no audience sound at all," Rogan said. "I can't begin to explain how strange this feels."

    Indeed, none of the announcers on hand Saturday had worked the fan-free card in Brazil. As the night wore on, TV microphones clearly picked up the sounds of corner instructions during the bouts, as well as the sounds of grunting and breathing from the fighters.

    The corners reacted to the broadcasters' commentary as well, and the fighters and corners interacted during the bouts, too. "You hear everything," Cormier said. "Talking to the coaches and the breathing. That's the weird part for me. We've had multiple fights where the fans would be losing their minds."

Loser: Calling Your Shot

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    Jairzinho Rozenstruik is a giant of a man.

    And most of the time, when a guy who stands 6'2" and weighs better than 250 pounds calls someone out, it's the target of the call-out who ends up regretting things.

    But as he proved Saturday night, Francis Ngannou isn't exactly a shrinking violet.

    The Cameroonian responded to the unbeaten prospect's challenge in the most visceral way imaginable, putting the big man's lights out with a single left hand in scoring a lightning-quick first-round KO.

    The official clock was at 20 seconds by the time Dan Miragliotta pushed Ngannou off Rozenstruik's slumped, motionless frame up against the cage, but it was probably closer to 15 when it ended.

    "He's got a bazooka, and you've got a pistol," former two-division champ Daniel Cormier said. "A lot of people want to see Francis Ngannou fight for a heavyweight title. I'm one of those people. Just not against me."

    Neither man landed a meaningful blow in the fight's earliest stages before Ngannou charged forward and missed with looping left and right hands as Rozenstruik backed toward the cage.

    Ngannou continued charging forward with another wide left, this time clipping his rival on the end of the chin and sending him down to his knees against the fence. Ngannou followed with five more shots against a defenseless foe before Miragliotta got between the two behemoths.

    The victor entered the fight ranked No. 2 in the heavyweight division to Rozenstruik's No. 6.

    "When I heard he called me out, I know that he didn’t know what he was doing," Ngannou said. "He’s not ready. He has to take a step back and get ready to fight someone like me."

Winner: Sudden Stoppage

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    It was shaping up to be a compelling three-round slugfest.

    Then, suddenly, it was in the books as a KO of the Year-caliber ending.

    Staying sturdy in the pocket as featherweight rival Jeremy Stephens came forward with a right hand, Calvin Kattar landed quicker and harder with a pinpoint right elbow, dumping the veteran on his back and setting up a stoppage by referee Jason Herzog just a few seconds later.

    The right elbow split Stephens' lip, and a subsequent left elbow shot while Stephens was on the floor opened a deep, bloody gash high on his forehead. Kattar continued with a flurry of seven strikes before Herzog pulled him away and ended the fight at 2:42 of the second round.

    Stephens remained on his back for several seconds and still appeared woozy as he sat up and was attended to by event physicians. In fact, he didn't regain his feet until the official announcement minutes later.

    "I've been learning as I've been going. And I've been doing it all with tough fights," Kattar told Rogan. "These featherweights are in big trouble when I put all this s--t together."

Loser: The Cowboy's Play

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    Cerrone is a UFC legend.

    And leading into his prelim feature against Pettis, it seemed no other storylines existed.

    The pre-fight highlight package discussed Cerrone's loss to Pettis in their first meeting seven years ago and the new and improved version of the Cowboy that the ex-lightweight champ was fixing to see this time.

    A "new, totally different Cowboy" was in store, according to Anik, and the highlights that accompanied the words were unanimous in heralding the 37-year-old's list of victories over nearly a decade in the UFC.

    Conspicuous by its absence was the name Conor McGregor.

    Lest anyone forget, the caustic Irishman erased Cerrone is an eye-blink-quality 40 seconds earlier this year, pushing his pre-Saturday loss streak to three in a row—all by TKO in two rounds or less.

    Just how many more congratulatory highlight packages remain after yet another loss, this time by a narrow but unanimous decision against Pettis, is an interesting question.

    He's only lost 12 of 35 overall bouts in the UFC, but eight of those L's have come in his past 11 fights—which doesn't stop the suggestions that he's still a high-ender in name (and popularity) only.

    That said, even Pettis wasn't locked-in on the suggestion he had won the second go-round.

    Not exactly a full-throat call for Cerrone's retirement.

    "I’ll take it. I thought it was close," he told Rogan. "He’s a legend. We’re friends. He hit me. I hit him. He landed some big shots. I landed some big stuff. It could've went either way. I don’t know."

Winner: Calling for Camo Shorts

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    More often than not, call-outs target prospective opponents.

    But for country boy Bryce Mitchell, it's all about the outfit.

    The 25-year-old featherweight has spent much of the nationwide quarantine staying shape in down-home style, including doing cardio by rolling around family members in wheelbarrows. And he showed the results of that cardio across 15 full minutes with featherweight rival Charles Rosa, spending nearly all of the three-round stretch twisting and turning his foe into a grappling pretzel.

    Mitchell swept the scorecards and earned a unanimous-decision win. Then he topped off his post-fight interview with Rogan by again insisting it was time for Reebok to come through with personalized camouflage shorts.

    It was a follow-up to a recent social media appeal to the apparel company from Mitchell and his followers, prompting the fighter to go to Twitter to say, "My people won't leave them alone. But I can't call off the hounds, they're savages. I'm tryna get @reebok sum peace and quiet. Just need the camo."

    The victory apparently put Mitchell over the top because Anik reported shortly after that UFC czar Dana White had signed off on the request and would make it happen.

Loser: Rematch Revenge

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    Vicente Luque clearly brings the best out of Niko Price.

    The familiar welterweights got together for a second time in three years on the prelim card in Jacksonville, but the result remained essentially the same, with the Brazilian this time earning a third-round TKO after beating the Floridian's right eye into a swollen mess.

    Luque won the first encounter on a Fight Night card in Brazil by second-round submission.

    As mentioned earlier, Cerrone was also a second-time loser in the night's other rematch against Pettis.

    "I got ready for the best Niko Price ever," Luque told Rogan. "He brought the fight and it became a brawl. I'm an entertainer. I wanted to give a show. I think I brought it."

    An understatement of pay-per-view-sized proportions.

    Both men landed powerful kicks and strikes throughout the abbreviated three rounds, with Price also taking the fight to the ground as a follow-up to his landed punches. He was cut under the right eye early on, however, and then had the right eyelid ripped open by a left hook that sent him to the mat in the third.

    He was able to land elbow strikes from a prone position, but the action was halted shortly after he got back to his feet, and the fight was stopped upon recommendation by the cageside doctor.

    Price didn't protest the decision and gave Luque his props after the official announcement, telling him, "Great f--king fight, man. You're my greatest opponent."

    The finish was Luque's 10th in the UFC, moving him within three of the promotion's all-time best at 170 pounds.

    "I worked a lot on my left hook. I saw it," Luque said. "He just took it. I had to keep on punishing him until I got it."

UFC 249 Full Card Results

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    Main Card

    Justin Gaethje def. Tony Ferguson by TKO, 3:39, Round 5.

    Henry Cejudo def. Dominick Cruz by TKO, 4:58, Round 2.

    Francis Ngannou def. Jairzinho Rozenstruik by KO, 0:20, Round 1.

    Calvin Kattar def. Jeremy Stephens by KO, 2:42, Round 2.

    Greg Hardy def. Yorgan De Castro by unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 30-27).


    Preliminary Card

    Anthony Pettis def. Donald Cerrone by unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28, 29-28).

    Aleksei Oleinik def. Fabricio Werdum by split decision (29-28, 29-28, 28-29).

    Carla Esparza def. Michelle Waterson by split decision (29-28, 30-27, 27-30).

    Vicente Luque def. Niko Price by TKO, 3:37, Round 3.

    Bryce Mitchell def. Charles Rosa by unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 30-27).

    Ryan Spann def. Sam Alvey by split decision (29-28, 29-28, 28-29).