The disappointment of Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Tony Ferguson falling apart for a fifth time can’t be understated, although the new UFC 249 main event is just about the best consolation prize fight fans could’ve asked for from a pure entertainment value standpoint.
Ferguson takes on Justin Gaethje with an interim lightweight title on the line in what promises to be a riveting main event this weekend.
It’s easy to make the case these two combatants are the top two pound-for-pound most exciting fighters on the entire UFC roster.
All offence all the time. Down to fight whoever, whenever and wherever be it in a packed arena or an empty VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Fla., like we’ll see Saturday night.
The sports world has been pining for some normalcy in the form of a meaningful live sporting event during the COVID-19 pandemic and UFC president Dana White was more than willing to take on the challenge.
“I would imagine that live sports are watching us right now saying, ‘Let’s see how this thing plays out for them and maybe we’ll take some risks,’” White told BT Sport earlier this week. “Nobody ever wants to take risks. Nobody really wants to be first. Nobody wants to assume the responsibility of being first. My team, my athletes, we’re built for this [expletive].”
With that in mind, here’s a head-to-toe look at how Ferguson and Gaethje stack up heading into what could be an instant classic.
TALE OF THE TAPE
Nickname: El Cucuy
Fighting out of: Ventura, California
Weight: 155 pounds
Arm reach: 76.5 inches
Leg reach: 40.5 inches
Background: Wrestling, jiu-jitsu
MMA record: 25-3
UFC record: 15-1
Notable wins: Rafael dos Anjos, Anthony Pettis, Kevin Lee, Donald Cerrone, Edson Barboza, Josh Thomson
Notable Accomplishments: Won season 13 of The Ultimate Fighter; jiu-jitsu black belt under Eddie Bravo; 10 post-fight bonuses (five Fight of the Night, five Performance of the Night); longest winning streak in UFC lightweight history (12); won interim UFC lightweight title in 2017
Nickname: The Highlight
Fighting out of: Arvada, Colorado
Weight: 155 pounds
Arm reach: 70 inches
Leg reach: 40 inches
MMA record: 21-2
UFC record: 4-2
Notable wins: Donald Cerrone, Edson Barboza, Michael Johnson
Notable Accomplishments: Division 1 All-American wrestler at University of Northern Colorado (2010); former World Series of Fight lightweight champion; seven post-fight bonuses (four Fight of the Night, three Performance of the Night)
The main reason this matchup is so fantastic is that both fighters have incredible offensive output while relying on their toughness as a form of defence opposed to avoiding damage altogether. That is to say both Ferguson and Gaethje are there to be hit, which means this has the potential to be an all-time action fight – if their chins can hold up.
Ferguson lands 5.82 strikes per minute and his 915 significant strikes landed are the eighth-most all-time in the UFC’s deep lightweight division. It’s not merely that he’s an active striker. Ferguson does real damage. Breaking noses, swelling eyes shut, carving up opponents with slicing elbows. It’s rare Ferguson gets to the end of a fight where he’s not covered in his foe’s blood.
— ESPN MMA (@espnmma) May 6, 2020
Regardless of the many unconventional techniques he uses on a regular basis – he routinely works spinning elbows into his combinations for example – he still relies on solid boxing fundamentals. His jab is more effective than he’s given credit for and he usually keeps his head off the centre line.
While Ferguson is a pressure fighter and always stays intelligently aggressive on the feet and in the clinch, no one compares to Gaethje when it comes to volume of violence.
Gaethje lands 8.57 strikes per minute, which ranks first all-time in any weight class. He’s literally the most aggressive fighter in UFC history. Gaethje is pedal to the metal from the moment the fight starts but still manages to land 55.6 per cent of his significant strikes, which is the best mark in lightweight history.
Overall, his 9.67 significant strikes absorbed per minute is quite concerning on many levels. He has, however, toned down his recklessness during his current three-fight winning streak and that makes him much more of a threat.
His first three fights in the UFC (a win over Michael Johnson and back-to-back TKO losses to Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier) saw him absorb 420 significant strikes, 317 of which were to the head. During his current three-fight winning streak he has been hit with just 40 significant strikes.
One way Gaethje can finish the fight is by forcing Ferguson’s back to the cage and steering him into a punch the way he did with both Edson Barboza and James Vick.
Also, both fighters throw a brutal onslaught of kicks. It’s likely we see and hear their shins clash together frequently and violently. In a quiet cage with no spectators, the sounds produced won’t be for the faint of heart. Ferguson also prods with front kicks to the midsection. A technique like this helps him land strikes at range and should be effective against Gaethje.
The power in Gaethje’s right hand is the real difference maker in this matchup. If he can avoid getting hit clean by Gaethje’s right then Ferguson has many more ways to win this fight because of the plethora of offensive weapons he has at his disposal.
WRESTLING, GRAPPLING, SUBMISSIONS
Gaethje uses his All-American wrestling to keep his fights on the feet, attempting only one takedown in his UFC career. Considering how dangerous Ferguson has proven to be on the ground, don’t expect Gaethje to shoot unless it’s out of sheer desperation to buy himself some time or attempt to recover after being rocked.
If Ferguson wants the fight on the mat, he can get it there in several ways. If a traditional takedown isn’t working – and it’s not likely to against Gaethje – he’ll pull guard, attempt a submission on the feet then work to the canvas, heck, he’ll even attempt multiple imanari rolls and attack a leg lock.
Gaethje only has one submission win on his record where Ferguson has 12, three of which are D’Arce chokes over UFC opponents.
DURABILITY, CONDITIONING, PSYCHE
Both men have been rocked and done the stanky leg in several of their fights. Ferguson’s recoverability, in particular, is beyond comprehension. You really don’t get much tougher than these two lightweights, but you have to give Ferguson the slight edge here given the fact Gaethje has been finished twice in the UFC and Ferguson has never been finished with strikes in his 12-year career.
If Ferguson can get Gaethje to swing at air due to his effective feints, it’ll help sap Gaethje’s gas tank, as will the front kicks mentioned above.
Gaethje tends to finish his fights early and likes how he matches up with Ferguson.
“I don’t think I would have taken the fight against Khabib on short notice,” Gaethje recently said in an interview with BT Sport. “Matchup-wise, I think I have a much better chance of touching Tony’s chin than Khabib’s, in the first two, three rounds.”
The longer this fight goes, the more Ferguson should have the advantage.
Both headliners made weight Friday morning, something Ferguson also did three weeks ago just to prove a point. Ferguson decided to cut down to 155 pounds even after the April 18 version of UFC 249 had been cancelled. This speaks to the mental fortitude Ferguson brings to the table. He’s simply a different breed.
Ferguson has more tools in his toolbox and simply has more avenues to victory. He has a more impressive list of victims as well. He’s rightfully the favourite with Gaethje listed as a +150 underdog. Gaethje’s best chance to win is by knockout or TKO. If you bet on this fight going the distance and it actually goes five rounds you’d triple your investment, but Ferguson has only seen the judges’ scorecards once in the past five years and Gaethje has seen a decision only twice in his 23-fight MMA career.