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UFC 249 predictions, preview, and analysis

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Are they doing the right thing?

Maybe ... maybe not. But even if you were against the return of mixed martial arts (MMA) while the rest of the sporting world is honoring the nationwide lockdown, it really doesn’t matter at this point. UFC 249 is going to happen this Sat. night (May 9, 2020) in Jacksonville, Florida, whether you choose to tune in or not.

You can watch the ESPN+ pay-per-view (PPV) and still be against the decision to hold the show, as the two can exist independently of one another. Besides, this is a pretty good line up for a card that will take place without fans inside VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena, which typically seats upwards of 15,000 spectators.

Welcome to history, folks.

As with every PPV breakdown, we’re going to take a look at the stellar five-fight main card, including the interim lightweight title fight between Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje, as well as the bantamweight championship co-main event pitting Henry Cejudo (champion) opposite former titleholder Dominick Cruz (challenger).

Before we go any further, remember to have a look at what combat sports connoisseur, Patrick Stumberg, had to say about the equally-stacked UFC 249 “Prelims” card, split across ESPN+ and ESPN, by clicking here and here. Latest odds and betting lines for all the “Ferguson vs. Gaethje” action can be dissected here.

Let’s get to work:

155 lbs.: Tony “El Cucuy” Ferguson (25-3) vs. Justin “The Highlight” Gaethje (21-2) for interim lightweight championship

I don't want to waste any more time talking about “the curse” and all the reasons we should be butthurt that Tony Ferguson (still) isn’t fighting Khabib Nurmagomedov. As far as Justin Gaethje is concerned, you can’t do much better in terms of replacement fighters and I’m expecting yet another “Fight of the Year” candidate from “The Highlight,” who squandered some of his best years competing in World Series of Fighting (WSOF). Now 31, Gaethje will look to sink a dagger into the heart of “El Cucuy” and finish what fate started — winning the interim lightweight strap in the process. Despite all the pre-fight hype, this fight has as much merit as it does spectacle. Gaethje is ranked in the Top 5 and coming off three straight knockout victories over formidable opponents, including Top 10 veterans Donald Cerrone and Edson Barboza. For better or worse, Gaethje is the model of consistency and you can expect the same style of offense in every fight, which features punishing leg kicks and relentless pressure. I don't want to turn this into a different conversation, but there’s a reason “The Highlight” was passed over when Conor McGregor was looking for a comeback fight. A savage like Gaethje is not the kind of fighter contenders want to fight, he’s the kind of fighter they have to fight in order to get closer to the lightweight title. Unless of course you’re McGregor, but when you can draw money like “Notorious,” you can do whatever the hell you want.

Ferguson has put together one of the greatest runs in the history of the lightweight division, racking up 12 straight victories with nine violent finishes. That streak includes wins over two former UFC champions and one ex-Strikeforce titleholder. I thought a McGregor showdown was a virtual lock, but the power-punching Irishman had other ideas, opting for fatherhood — and a billion-dollar payday against Floyd Mayweather — instead of a storybook reign atop one of the most competitive divisions in the sport. What has made Ferguson so successful over the last several years is his fearless ability to adjust on the fly, because any good fighter will tell you that gameplans are hard to adhere to if your opponent doesn’t stick to the script. Fortunately for “El Cucuy,” he sports one of the deepest toolboxes at 155 pounds and can demonstrate world-class abilities wherever the fight goes. Like Gaethje, Ferguson entered the promotion with an impressive background in collegiate wrestling, but prefers to make hay blood while the sun shines. Ordinarily I would scoff at some of those goofy training videos he uploads to social media except that really is how the former TUF champion prepares. Good for his never-ending cardio, bad for our collective anxiety. At age 36, Ferguson can’t afford another injury timeout, particularly the way the assembly line moves in the lightweight division.

I’ve seen a lot of talk about Ferguson’s defense and how some of the shots he’s accustomed to taking won’t fly with a bricklayer like Gaethje, but that argument works both ways. Let’s not pretend “The Highlight” wasn’t on rubber legs against Michael Johnson prior to losing consecutive fights by knockout. And those losses aren’t ancient history, either. My concern for Ferguson, aside from his age (36) and his surgically-repaired knee, is how long it takes for him to find his rhythm. Gaethje is not going to give Ferguson a round to warm up, nor will he provide any space for “El Cucuy” to adjust and adapt. If he does, then his corner should be fired on the spot. Similarly, “The Highlight” will need to avoid his own bad habit of giving away free samples. Rushing in for the kill shot against a crafty veteran like Ferguson — who has underrated power — will put him on the canvas fairly quickly. We’ve seen a smarter approach in Gaethje’s last couple of wins and it’s almost a sort of cruel irony that the one strategy that puts him in the most danger will be the same strategy most likely to win him the fight. As far as I’m concerned, Ferguson has to survive the first frame — which may even see him get dropped — before taking over in the championship rounds. His cardio is better, his skills are superior, and dammit ... fans deserve to see the Nurmagomedov fight!

Prediction: Ferguson def. Gaethje by submission

135 lbs.: Bantamweight champion Henry “Triple C” Cejudo (15-2) vs. Dominick “The Dominator” Cruz (22-2)

After more than three years on the disabled list, former UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz makes his way back to the Octagon, in a title fight no less, and if it was any other combatant, I would probably be laughing at this match up. But this is the same Cruz who was benched for more than a year with (duh) injuries only to come back and recapture the 135-pound crown against TJ Dillashaw. I should also mention “The Dominator” returned from a three-year layoff in 2014 to write, produce, and direct his own snuff film opposite Takeya Mizugaki. I understand that Mizugaki is not Cejudo, nor was he Dillashaw, but Cruz has demonstrated that time off only makes him hungrier and from a timing standpoint, his style is more awkward than technical (but nevertheless effective). I would not be surprised to see the same Cruz we saw in 2016 show up tomorrow night in Jacksonville. The question is, will it be enough? He looked completely befuddled in his decision loss to Cody Garbrandt at UFC 207 and before we go nuts and start talking about his untimely demise, we have to also acknowledge that “No Love” snapped a 13-fight win streak. A tune-up fight would have undoubtedly prepared a better scouting report for the UFC 249 version of Cruz but we rarely get such luxuries in ever-changing world of MMA.

Things are equally questionable for Cejudo, who may be a ferocious flyweight on a red-hot run, or a bona fide two-division killer who is finally hitting his stride. We got robbed of that answer when “Triple C” went under the knife to repair a bum shoulder, so all we have to work with is his lone appearance at 135 pounds and boy, it was a doozy. How you rate Cejudo’s chances against Cruz may largely depend on how much stock you put in his “Magic” trick. Personally, I think it was a bad match up for Marlon Moraes, stylistically speaking, because Cejudo can eat a ton of shots and still barrel forward with the big punch. Don’t let his pint-sized physique fool you — Cejudo packs a wallop. No breakdown would be complete without gushing for the champ’s Olympic gold medal in wrestling, though I’m not sure his MMA wrestling deserves the same accolades. To wit, Cejudo was just 1-4 in takedown attempts when he battled Moraes, a mere 3-11 against Demetrious Johnson — a fight that could have been scored in either direction — and an anemic 1-7 opposite Joseph Benavidez. The tougher the competition, the more difficult it is to get the fight to the floor, and Cruz is without question one of the greatest bantamweights of all time and a formidable wrestler in his own right.

I really love this fight because there are compelling arguments in favor of both combatants. Cejudo is quick, powerful and dangerous in every discipline. Cruz, meanwhile, is difficult to get a hold of and has excellent boxing from the outside. I could very easily see Cejudo breaking down a rusty Cruz with pressure and heavy shots, just as I could very easily see Cruz flustering Cejudo as “Triple C” chases him around the cage, whiffing on both takedowns and haymakers. Working in favor of the champion is the fact that he’s got five rounds to get it done. Staying out of range — even for a fleet-footed wizard like “The Dominator” — is a lot to ask within a span of 25 minutes. Fortunately for Cruz, his scrambling and cage awareness are as good (or better) than anyone at 135 pounds, so even if things go south, both literally and figuratively, there’s a pretty good chance the former bantamweight king will not be in trouble for very long. When push comes to shove, I just can’t rule out the upset. Cejudo is coming off his own extended layoff and gives up four inches in height and reach, which is not surprising for a natural flyweight. And if anyone has made a career out of feasting on natural flyweights, it’s Cruz. Just ask Johnson, Benavidez, and Ian McCall, who combined are 0-4 against “The Dominator.”

Prediction: Cruz def. Cejudo by split decision

265 lbs.: Francis “The Predator” Ngannou (14-3) vs. Jairzinho “Bigi Boy” Rozenstruik (10-0)

Much like the 265-pound bang-o-rama that kicks off the PPV main card, the Francis Ngannou vs. Jairzinho Rozenstruick heavyweight showdown is meant to accomplish two things. First, it provides UFC matchmakers with a deli ticket for the winner of Stipe Miocic vs. Daniel Cormier, assuming that championship rubber match happens before 2027. Second, it fills the bellies of starving fight fans who’ve been living off YouTube highlights for the past month. I know we’re all scared to make predictions after getting burned on bouts like Israel Adesanya vs. Yoel Romero, or even Ngannou’s stinker against Derrick Lewis, but I’m confident those were exceptions to the rule. Even if “The Predator” decides to lay an egg, Rozenstruick is going to treat him like Humpty Dumpty. I have a feeling that “Bigi Boy” went back to the locker room after his UFC on ESPN 7 win over Alistair Overeem and thanked his lucky stars that he detonated the lip of “Demolition Man” because that was a fight Rozenstruick was losing.

One of the reasons I’m picking Ngannou to win this contest is because the Cameroonian has faced far better competition since making his then-ZUFFA debut back in late 2015. Not only did he go five rounds with current division titleholder Stipe Miocic, “The Predator” also fought — and destroyed — three former UFC heavyweight champions. Rozenstruick struggled against Overeem and I can’t break out the party hats for a knockout victory against Andrei Arlovski, especially when tire mechanics like Brett Rogers were doing it more than a decade ago. I should also point out that Ngannou will enjoy a five-inch reach advantage, worth highlighting in a fight that is expected to remain upright. The former title challenger has shown to be vulnerable off his back, particularly as the fight wears on, but forget about landing a takedown, Rozenstruik hasn’t even attempted one in four trips to the Octagon. I guess when you hit people and they fall down, it’s hard to criticize a lack of wrestling but boy, that kind of thing sure comes in handy when you need it.

One of the advantages to the mandatory timeout imposed by coronavirus restrictions is that fighters like Ngannou and Rozenstruick, who were originally set to throw hands in the UFC Columbus main event back in March — have been stuck in training camp about a month longer than they needed (or wanted) to be, so you can expect them both to be charged up and ready to explode once the cage door closes in Jacksonville. While that kind of balls-to-the-wall offense also carries the risk of an adrenaline dump, I have a hard time imagining two fighters with 19 combined knockouts will be standing long enough for it to matter.

Prediction: Ngannou def. Rozenstruick by knockout

145 lbs.: Jeremy “Lil’ Heathen” Stephens (28-17, 1 NC) vs. Calvin “The Boston Finisher” Kattar (20-4)

Jeremy Stephens came into this contest with what I believed to be a pretty significant style advantage and now that he’s gone and blown up the scale — to the tune of five pounds over the featherweight limit — it feels like his chances went from “good” to “great.” I have to be careful to not heap praise upon a fighter who set a UFC record for losses (16) but when you consider that number, also consider that “Lil’ Heathen” has been fighting under the UFC banner for 13 years across a span of 33 fights. He made his debut at UFC 71 back in early 2007 and is the only fighter from that card to still have a job. A lot of that has to do with his age, as Stephens is still just 33, though we can’t overlook the fact that he’s an exciting fighter with countless “Fight Night” bonuses and some of the promotion’s biggest knockouts at both lightweight and featherweight. Not bad for a combatant who continually fights the most dangerous fighters in the world, including seven former champions. Max Holloway, Frankie Edgar, Jose Aldo, the list goes on. Those bouts have all ended in defeat because Stephens has failed to evolve from fighter to mixed martial artist. Great for the highlight reel, not-so-great for the prospect of winning a title.

You could probably make a similar argument for Calvin Kattar, who is just one year younger than Stephens at 32. “The Boston Finisher” has done a pretty good job of knocking around the middle of the pack and living up to his moniker, courtesy of three violent finishes, but his two fights against top-ranked opponents led to disappointing decision losses. Like his Jacksonville counterpart, Kattar is not going to offer much in the way of dimension because he’s a skilled boxer and found success by sticking to the stand up. The question for this fight is whether or not his polish is going to be enough to stymie the aggressive offense presented by Stephens. I can very easily envision a fight where Kattar uses the jab to work from the outside while turning on the jets every time “Lil’ Heathen” winds up for a kill shot. We’ve seen plenty of fights were a frustrated Stephens just chases his opponent for 15 minutes, throwing intermittent bombs in the process. Fortunately for fans, Kattar isn’t the run-and-gun type and should have no qualms about standing in the pocket and trading. Why not? If he believes his hands are better and his defense is on point, it’s the right call.

It’s also a dangerous one against an opponent who came in heavy. The last time Stephens missed weight, he nearly murdered Dennis Bermudez at UFC 189. The reason I’m picking him is because Kattar can’t implement the kind of wrestling that Edgar used to keep “Lil’ Heathen” at bay, nor does he possess the defensive prowess to avoid some of Stephens’ more varied attacks. I wouldn't be shocked to see “The Boston Finisher” box his way to victory, it just seems more plausible that he’ll be taking too much damage to convince the judges he was the superior fighter.

Prediction: Stephens def. Kattar by unanimous decision

265 lbs.: Greg “Prince of War” Hardy (5-2, 1 NC) vs. Yorgan de Castro (6-0)

The best thing Greg Hardy has going for him in his still-young combat sports career is the fact that he stands 6’5” and has to cut weight to make 265 pounds. When an athlete with his size and agility uncorks a thunderous right hand, there are very few men in the world who can take it without embarking on a trip to dreamland. Unfortunately for the former gridiron goon, there isn’t much to offer past that, which is why Hardy was easily schooled by veteran striker Alexander Volkov in the “Prince of War’s” first professional loss at UFC Moscow last November. There has to be a Plan B at this level of the game and to date, the best we’ve seen is probably the best we’re going to get. Assuming the promotion returns to its charitable matchmaking, like it did for UFC 249, Hardy is going to continue his winning ways, even though his stock has failed to maintain its equity since the heavyweight’s controversial debut back in early 2019.

Yorgan de Castro is another one of those (cough) “heavyweights” who is only competing at 265 pounds — his exact weight ahead of his UFC 243 destruction of Justin Tafa — because he’s too fat to make light heavyweight. That’s not meant to be insulting, it simply illustrates a common disadvantage for the heavyweight division. The colossus from Cape Verde will surrender five inches in height and six inches in reach, two critical components when facing a missile launcher like Hardy. That's not to suggest De Castro isn’t capable of pushing his own brand of damage. His planishing of Sanford Alton Meeks on Dana White’s “Contender Series” followed up by his liquidation of Tafa were certainly impressive. Getting pieced up by New England bruiser Nick Gulliver on the regional circuit back in 2016, was not. I don't typically pay much attention to what fighters do on the amateur circuit, but it should be noted that Hardy was 3-0 with three knockouts while De Castro was just 1-2.

I wish I had something technical to say about this match up but the participants didn’t give me much to work with. It’s generous to call them MMA fighters when all they want to do — and all we want to see — is them stand and bang until somebody hits the canvas. Based on what I’ve seen to date, it’s hard to not favor Hardy. He’s bigger, quicker, and works with a better team. Assuming his inhaler is working, I would be shocked to see this contest enter a second round, which is exactly the way it was intended when booked.

Prediction: Hardy def. De Castro by knockout

There you have it.

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+.

To check out the latest and greatest UFC 249: “Ferguson vs. Gaethje” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here.