Matches to Make for the Winners and Losers from UFC 249

Tom TaylorContributor IMay 10, 2020

Matches to Make for the Winners and Losers from UFC 249

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    Dana White vowed to make the UFC the first major sports league to resume business during the coronavirus pandemic. For better or for worse, the UFC president made good on that promise with Saturday night’s UFC 249 card in Jacksonville, Florida.

    UFC 249 was originally expected to go down on April 18 in Brooklyn, but after a series of shake-ups related to the ongoing pandemic, the card was ultimately moved to the Sunshine State.

    The event was initially supposed to be headlined by a lightweight title fight between champ Khabib Nurmagomedov and challenger Tony Ferguson, but when Nurmagomedov got stuck in Russia because of travel restrictions associated with the coronavirus, Ferguson was transplanted into a short-notice interim lightweight title fight with Justin Gaethje, which headlined the revamped Jacksonville event.

    The co-main of this card was also a championship fight, as former UFC bantamweight champ Dominick Cruz stepped into the cage for the first time since a late 2016 loss to Cody Garbrandt to challenge the division’s current king, Henry Cejudo. 

    Other highlights of the main card included a heavyweight showdown between Francis Ngannou and Jairzinho Rozenstruik, a featherweight fight between Jeremy Stephens and Calvin Kattar, and a heavyweight fight between Greg Hardy and Yorgan De Castro. The undercard, meanwhile, was no less stacked, as former champs and title challengers like Anthony Pettis, Donald Cerrone, Fabricio Werdum and Carla Esparza all stepped into the cage before the main card even began. 

    It was a dynamite card from top to bottom, and it had major implications for seven of the UFC’s 13 divisions. But where do the stars of the event go from here?

    Well, assuming the UFC is able to keep things running during the pandemic, and that White’s plans for a Fight Island will allow international fighters to compete, here are the fights we’d like to see next.

Preliminary Fights Quick Hits

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    Ryan Spann def. Sam Alvey via split decision

    • Spann vs. Da Un Jung
    • Alvey vs. Vinicius Moreira 

    Bryce Mitchell def. Charles Rosa via unanimous decision

    • Mitchell vs. Ryan Hall
    • Rosa vs. Makwan Amirkhani 

    Vicente Luque def. Niko Price via (3:37, R3)

    • Luque vs. Geoff Neal
    • Price vs. Emil Meek

    Carla Esparza def. Michelle Waterson via split decision

    • Esparza vs. the Claudia Gadelha vs. Angela Hill winner  
    • Waterson vs. Randa Markos

    Alexey Oleinik def. Fabricio Werdum via split decision

    • Oleinik vs. Alexander Volkov
    • Werdum vs. Stefan Struve 

    Anthony Pettis def. Donald Cerrone via unanimous decision

    • Pettis vs. Robbie Lawler
    • Cerrone vs. Demian Maia

Greg Hardy vs. Yorgan De Castro

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    Greg Hardy def. Yorgan De Castro via unanimous decision

    The main card was opened up with a heavyweight tilt between former NFL player Greg Hardy and undefeated Cape Verde native Yorgan de Castro. From the early vantage point, the expectation was this one would be over quickly. Instead, De Castro started strong, only to fade into near-suspended animation through Rounds 2 and 3, clearing the path for Hardy to pick up a big unanimous-decision win on the basis of his activity alone.

    It wasn't exactly a showcase win for Hardy, but he did show some definite improvements, particularly with his ability to make adjustments mid-fight. Once purely a knockout puncher, he's now looking like a far more refined striker.

    After a decision loss to former Bellator heavyweight champion Alexander Volkov late last year, Hardy will now likely be herded back in the direction of the heavyweight top 15. While he hasn't earned a ranked foe just yet, a win over somebody like Todd Duffee would push him in that direction. 

    Duffee returned to the Octagon against Jeff Hughes in September 2019. The fight, which was his first since 2015, ended with a no-contest after an eye poke. Like Hardy, he once showed a tremendous amount of promise. Pit them against each other to see if either man can prove they belong among the best.

    De Castro, meanwhile, will head back to his adopted home of Massachusetts with his first professional loss. When he's ready to get back in there, he should be matched up with Canada's Tanner Boser, who will be keen to rebound from a decision setback again Ciryl Gane.

Calvin Kattar vs. Jeremy Stephens

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    Calvin Kattar def. Jeremy Stephens via TKO (2:42, R2)

    Ninth-ranked featherweight contender Calvin Kattar picked up the biggest victory of his career on the UFC 249 main card, short-circuiting veteran Jeremy Stephens—who missed weight for the bout by five pounds—with an elbow to the jaw in the second round. 

    With this stoppage win over Stephens, who is known for his durability, Kattar reasserted himself as one of the most dangerous fighters in the UFC featherweight division. He's earned a big opportunity in his next fight. A clash with Josh Emmett, who sits one spot above him the featherweight rankings at No. 8, would be just that.

    Emmett has already had two bouts fall through this year—fights with Arnold Allen and Edson Barboza—and is no doubt champing at the bit to get back into the cage. Pencil these two on a pay-per-view main card and rest assured the winner will be banging on the door of the featherweight top five.

    While the sky looks like the limit for Kattar at this point, his vanquished foe, Stephens, has stumbled onto a five-fight winless streak—the kind of skid that has resulted in many fighters being released from the UFC roster over the years.

    Given Stephens' accomplishments in the Octagon and the fact that he's pretty much never in a boring fight, he's likely to be given at least one more chance to turn his ship around. A fight with Andre Fili, who is not currently ranked at featherweight, would be both a credible challenge for the aging veteran and the kind of fight he's capable of winning. Book it, and see if the 33-year-old can justify his spot on the increasingly crowded UFC roster.

Francis Ngannou vs. Jairzinho Rozenstruik

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    Francis Ngannou def. Jairzinho Rozenstruik via KO (0:20, R1) 

    Jairzinho Rozenstruik asked to fight Francis Ngannou. While he deserves some props for his bravery, he's surely regretting his decision-making today.

    Here's how the fight went, in case you missed it.

    The fight began. Rozenstruik landed a leg kick. Ngannou, who is not paid by the hour, then charged forward and removed his foe's batteries in one of the most destructive displays of punching power we've seen in some time. 

    Just like that, Ngannou is now on a four-fight win streak. Two of those victories came over former heavyweight champions in Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos, and all four came by way of knockout in less than a minute and a half apiece. At this stage, there is no denying that Ngannou resides among the likes of Mike Tyson, Earnie Shavers and Deontay Wilder in the pantheon of the hardest punchers in combat sports history.

    There's also no denying that he has earned another shot at the UFC heavyweight title.

    While he'll have to wait for reigning champion Stipe Miocic to settle his score with former champion Daniel Cormier, there is simply no other option at this point. He needs to contend for gold as soon as possible.

    As for poor, poor Rozenstruik?

    Well, contrary to the nap he took at the hands of Ngannou, he remains one of the best heavyweights in the UFC. From here, he should be paired up with Ngannou's next most recent victim, the former champion Dos Santos. While they both currently train at American Top Team, they do not seem to have the kind of friendship that will stop them from fighting, and their Florida training home is big enough for them to prepare without crossing paths.

Henry Cejudo vs. Dominick Cruz

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    Henry Cejudo def. Dominick Cruz via TKO (4:58, R2)

    Of all the storylines interwoven into the UFC 249 lineup, none were as compelling as the one that drove the co-main event: a bantamweight title fight between champ Henry Cejudo and former champ Dominick Cruz. 

    Cejudo, a former Olympic gold medalist and two-division UFC champ, sought to cement himself as one of the greatest fighters alive. Cruz, who is widely regarded as the best bantamweight mixed martial artist ever, looked to reclaim the title he once guarded so ferociously and complete one of the greatest comebacks in UFC history. No matter the outcome of the fight, it seemed history would be written. 

    In the end, the history was written by Cejudo, who picked up a slightly controversial but undeniably impressive TKO victory over the returning former champ in the second round.

    In a shocking twist, however, Cejudo announced his retirement in his post-fight interview with commentator Joe Rogan. If this announcement was sincere, then he's hanging up his gloves at the top of his game—which is simultaneously commendable and disappointing. 

    That being said, MMA retirements are infamous for their impermanence. If Cejudo decides to walk back his retirement, then it would be great to see him defend his title against the division's top contender, Petr Yan. It's not the kind of big-money fight he's been campaigning for, but it's precisely the kind of fight a champion should take. 

    As for Cruz, his future also seems uncertain. While he didn't retire in the Octagon after his loss, he didn't give any firm answers with respect to his plans. If he does decide to fight again, there is one option that stands out for his next fight: a showdown with former UFC featherweight champion Jose Aldo. Aldo recently came up short in his bantamweight debut, losing a hotly contested decision to Marlon Moraes. Like Cruz, he's a product of the now-defunct WEC promotion and one of the greatest champs in UFC history. The story writes itself. If Cruz elects to fight again, Aldo should be the man he enters the cage with.

Tony Ferguson vs. Justin Gaethje

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    Justin Gaethje def. Tony Ferguson via TKO (3:39, R5)

    Tony Ferguson risked his long-awaited crack at undisputed UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov for a shot at interim gold opposite Gaethje in the UFC 249 main event. The risk did not pay off. 

    Although Ferguson showed unbelievable toughness in this fight, he was brutalized by the former World Series of Fighting Champion, absorbing a barrage of leg kicks and hooks that would have turned most other fighters into a pile of mangled flesh and bone fragments. Ferguson's toughness carried him through four-and-a-half violent rounds, but he finally met his end in the fifth, when referee Herb Dean could watch no more. 

    Just like that, the Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson fight we've all been waiting to see is off the table. 

    The good news is we now have a fresh, new matchup in Nurmagomedov vs. Gaethje.  

    Gaethje, now the interim champion, can look ahead to a shot at the undisputed champion, perhaps as soon as this summer. On paper, it's as compelling a matchup as Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson was—perhaps even more so.

    While it's abundantly clear what's next for the new interim champion Gaethje, however, it's less clear for his vanquished foe, Ferguson.

    With his incredible, 12-fight win streak derailed, Ferguson's first priority should be rest. A long rest. When he's healthy enough to return, he should be matched up with Dustin Poirier, who is one of the few top-ranked lightweights he's yet to fight. Poirier has not fought since he came up short against Nurmagomedov last September. Matching him up with Ferguson would give both men the opportunity to get right back into title contention.