Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) is about to uncork a slam-bang main event in the form of Tony Ferguson vs. Justin Gaethje, two savage lightweight fighters with a reputation for blood, violence, and everything that made legislators afraid to legalize mixed martial arts (MMA) in the first place.
I expect their interim 155-pound showdown to be nothing short of glorious delirium.
But there’s something about the UFC 249 pay-per-view (PPV) main event that has me thinking about those old Chinese food jokes (pig out now, get hungry in an hour) because the winner is ... well, the owner of the substitute strap.
Even if you try to discredit current lightweight champion, Khabib Nurmagomedov, we still can’t overlook the fact that whoever wins the Ferguson-Gaethje headliner this Sat. night (May 9) in Jacksonville, Florida, will spend more time talking about “The Eagle” than they will about their performance in the UFC 249 main event.
That’s why the word “undisputed” is so important in Bruce Buffer’s dramatic (but entertaining) introduction to championship title fights. I know it sounds stupid to have to say it aloud, but undisputed means there is no disputing who is the rightful champion, and I’m not sure we can say that about either Ferguson or Gaethje, regardless of the hardware bestowed upon them this weekend in “The Sunshine State.”
To that end, I find the bantamweight championship co-main event to be far more compelling because it’s far more definitive. It also has, to date, the best storyline of 2020 and maybe the best “comeback” in MMA history. There have been others, like the time Randy Couture whooped Tim Sylvia for the heavyweight title back in early 2007, but “The Natural” agreed to that contest less than a year after his hasty retirement at UFC 57.
Georges St-Pierre vs. Michael Bisping is up there as well, but the French-Canadian’s decision to vacate the title with killers like Robert Whittaker and Yoel Romero hot on his trail, takes some of the bravado away from his upset victory over “The Count.” In fact, Dominick Cruz may face the biggest competition from himself, having already staged an improbable comeback at UFC Fight Night 81, taking the title from then-champion TJ Dillashaw after spending 16 months on the bench and registering just one fight across a span of four-plus years.
Against Dillashaw, Cruz was the +125 underdog. Against Henry Cejudo, who abandoned his post (and his belt) at 125 pounds to wreak havoc in the bantamweight division, “The Dominator” will clock in around +175 (Cejudo stands at -245). Those are appropriate odds for an athlete who failed to register a bout in over three years and was last seen looking befuddled against a much younger — and much better prepared — Cody Garbrandt.
There’s a very strong chance that Cruz, 34, is still the same fighter he was in 2016. That might sound like a good thing, considering how dominant he was as both challenger and champion. It’s actually a major concern, because the division has pretty much collapsed during his absence. Dillashaw popped for Erythropoietin (EPO) and will spend two years in detention, Garbrandt has been knocked out in three straight fights, and longtime nemesis, Urijah Faber, has long since dropped out of the Top 15.
The new guard consists of Top 5 contenders Aljamain Sterling, Petr Yan, and Cory Sandhagen, just a few of the big names at 135 pounds who patiently await the outcome of this fight. Partly because Cejudo has kept the division on hold after his shoulder surgery before complicating matters with a charitable donation to the career of Jose Aldo. Had “Junior” not been bounced from this fight as a result of travel restrictions, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
Since we are, it’s a good time to point out that Cruz (22-2) is also coming into this contest on short notice, yet another disadvantage as he prepares to face Cejudo across five rounds of action. Even if you’re unimpressed with his shtick, there is no denying “Triple C” is the real deal after winning five straight and capturing titles in two different weight classes. For Cruz, it’s a far cry from his 2014 comeback, when he was generously paired with Takeya Mizugaki after three years on the disabled list.
The good news is, we can expect the best version of Cruz we’ve seen in years.
“I feel like money,” the former champ told the media on Thursday (via MMA Junkie). “My body is healthy. I was fighting with a shoulder injury for about three title fights, I had that shoulder injury. I just put stem cells in my body and just tried to make do. I was constantly aching, constantly sore. I don’t have to do any of that anymore. My knees are stronger than ever; my hands are completely rebuilt. I feel great. To be honest, I really do. I feel stronger than I have in a long time.”
What Cruz is trying to accomplish at UFC 249 cannot be overstated. It's hard to stand in awe of the mountain he’s attempting to climb because Cejudo is such a goofball. But this isn’t just athletic competition, it’s cage combat, and the margin for error is so small that any number of minor mistakes ... a slip-on the canvas, a zig instead of a zag, an overextended punch, can be the difference between victory and defeat.
All while someone is trying to knock your block off.
With that in mind, imagine being so incredibly gifted as a fighter that you can just come off the bench after three years — on just a few weeks’ notice — and beat the No. 1 guy in the world to capture the crown. Simply put, Cruz may be on the verge of what is arguably the greatest comeback in the history of MMA.
MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 249 fight card RIGHT HERE, starting with the ESPN+/Fight Pass “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m. ET, then the remaining undercard balance on ESPN+/ESPN at 8 p.m. ET, before the PPV main card start time at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN+.
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