It’s been nearly two months since we watched a move executed in the octagon, a stretch of inactivity that will remind longtime fans of the early days of the UFC, when such spans were normal. This is nothing like that though; it was hardly by design. The UFC, like many sports organizations, was forced to the sidelines by the COVID-19 global pandemic.
On Saturday night, it’s back with a bang, Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje bringing the chaos to a sports-starved world from a nearly-empty arena in Jacksonville, Florida. Whether or not you think now is an ideal time to restart normal living around the world, UFC 249 may be just the right kind of diversion to put aside such debating for a few hours of fun.
For that, we can thank Ferguson, who made it possible by agreeing to risk a UFC lightweight championship match for an interim title fight with the dangerous Gaethje. But throwing himself into the fire is just what Ferguson does. For nearly a decade, he’s been one of the most entertaining and riveting fighters on the roster, a self-described “El Cucuy” — a Mexican boogeyman — who delivers the mayhem promised by his nickname.
In the last few years, he’s been knocking on the door of the champion, Khabib Nurmagomedov. For various reasons—a whole bunch of them that get progressively weirder with time—the two have never been able to find their way into a cage together, and while there is still some hope that might eventually occur, Ferguson decided he wasn’t going to wait around to see when that might happen.
It’s one thing to take another fight when you’re stuck in a sort of purgatory the way he is. It’s another entirely to take that fight against Gaethje, a man who is one of the most violent finishers in the sport. Gaethje has put the lights out on studs like Edson Barboza and has stopped longtime contenders like Donald Cerrone and Michael Johnson. Even when you beat him, he’ll force you through a couple of circles of hell to get there. Ask Dustin Poirier, who hobbled to his post-fight press conference on crutches, and with stitches in his face. Ask Eddie Alvarez, who left with a swollen cheekbone and cuts orbiting his eye. With Gaethje, danger lurks around every corner.
But we expect nothing less from Ferguson, a beautifully unconventional fighter and person. This is a guy who designs his own training camps, who makes weight when he doesn’t have to, who improvises his art like a jazz musician. To him, fighting isn’t a vocation, it’s a mood. He’s not going to do what’s expected, or maybe even what is tactically correct. He’s going to do what feels right.
Ferguson scrambles and flurries and batters. He throws reverse upward elbows, Imanari rolls into leg locks, and dances—literally dances— during exchanges. He once knocked out a fighter from his back! He often carries a baseball for no discernible reason. He once continued fighting Michael Johnson despite a broken arm. He’s a wild man. The right kind of wild man for these wild times.
Who knows what that will look like against Gaethje? These are two men who not only fight fire with fire, but bring their own accelerant to ensure an inferno.
It’s a night where they’ll have plenty of help. Dominick Cruz is back after over three years away, attempting to recapture the bantamweight belt again. Francis Ngannou and Jairzinho Rozenstruik are primed for a clash of titans. Cerrone and Anthony Pettis will provide both steak and sizzle. Jeremy Stephens and Calvin Kattar are destined to have a certifiable banger. It’s a great little card. Still, few would argue with the premise that the make-or-break fight is the headliner, and that Ferguson’s participation vaulted it to the next level. This, despite the fact that he has nothing to gain and much to lose by signing on the dotted line.
By winning, the best he can do is hold his spot in the queue while he waits for the UFC to try to set him up with Nurmagomedov a sixth time. By losing, that matchup may well disappear forever. Ferguson, after all, is no young man athletically. At age 36, he’s still excelling, making him a rarity in a division that has historically seemed to prize youth. Only 37-year-old Cerrone is older among the top 15 lightweights, and Ferguson beat the bejesus out of him just last year, the latest of his 12 consecutive victims.
Thirteen is a traditionally cursed number, but of course the boogeyman has no qualms in chasing it. He embraces it. Even with Conor McGregor waiting in the shadows to pounce at any opportunity that arises to rematch Nurmagomedov, even with Gaethje at the ready to play spoiler and vault himself to the front of the line.
Nope, that’s just what Tony Ferguson does. When he sees danger, his eyes light up. These are those kind of times, and he’s that kind of dude.