It had been less than two months since we last saw a UFC event. However, given the lack of sports in general that has been absent to grab our attention, it felt like a much longer period. So when UFC 249 went down, fans all could agree on one thing: it felt good to take in some live action. What the repercussions will be in terms of COVID-19 are yet to be determined, so I’ll hold off on any judgement there.
As far as the actual in-cage action, it was one of the better cards in recent memory. It did feel a bit odd to take in the action without the emotion of the crowd adding to the atmosphere, but the bottom line is that the combatants in the cage largely delivered. The main event lived up to it’s promise, Justin Gaethje delivering a brutal beating to Tony Ferguson. Not that Ferguson wasn’t competitive, nearly keeping up with Gaethje in terms of strike volume. But one look at the two of them after the contest was all it took to recognize Gaethje was landing with far more power. Henry Cejudo held onto to his bantamweight title with a successful title defense against Dominick Cruz, only to relinquish it by retiring shortly thereafter. And Francis Ngannou… that’s a scary dude. Did I mention Vicente Luque and Niko Price put on a FOTY contender? Yeah, it was a good night of fights.
Justin Gaethje: You can’t fault a guy for stepping up when opportunity presents itself. Gaethje stepped forward when Khabib couldn’t get clearance to travel and took advantage by putting an end to Ferguson’s incredible win streak. It wasn’t just the incredible beating Gaethje delivered. It was the patience, the discipline, the technique that Gaethje displayed. He wasn’t the reckless fireball that he was when he first entered the UFC, mindless of any damage that might be coming his way. Instead, he was a cold, calculated, assassin. Even as I craved to see Ferguson clash with Khabib, I never believed Ferguson was likely to win. Seeing Gaethje deliver the beatdown on Ferguson the way he did, I’m not sure I’m so confident in saying Khabib will remain champion. Gaethje-Khabib may be a consolation prize, but it may ultimately be the better prize.
Henry Cejudo: Some want to say Cejudo’s win should come with an asterisk as Cruz hadn’t fought in over three years. While that is true, it isn’t like Cejudo didn’t beat who was put before him. In the end, that’s all we can ask of him. It isn’t like Cruz was looking all that great against Cejudo either. Cejudo stayed in front of Cruz for basically the entire fight while minimizing the amount of damage Cruz did in the process. It was a perfect performance, becoming the first man to finish Cruz with strikes off of a kick to the body. As for retirement, as I way with most retirements, I hope it holds up. Not because I want to see Cejudo go away (even if I’m not a fan of Captain Cringe). It’s that I hope we can see someone go out on top on this sport. GSP did so, but only after taking a severe beating over the course of his last fights. Cejudo has an opportunity to go out not just on top, but with minimal damage on his way out the door. Here’s wishing him the best.
Francis Ngannou: I wasn’t surprised Ngannou won. He’s a scary dude. However, despite requiring less than 71 seconds to dispose any of his last three opponents, Ngannou was still able to shock the world in his destruction of Jairzinho Rozenstruik. It was basically Ngannou deciding he was done with the fight, bum rushing Rozenstruik, and ending the contest amidst a flurry of punches. It looked like just one of them landed cleanly, but that’s all that was required. I have a hard time believing Ngannou is going to come up short in his next shot at the title.
Calvin Kattar: It’s amusing Kattar thought he fought like crap considering he just scored the biggest win of his career. Sure, he had moments where his discipline sagged and Jeremy Stephens was able to score some heavy blows. But for the most part, Kattar stuck to his guns, countering intelligently and picking apart the longtime vet. Kattar frustrated Stephens enough to get him to fight recklessly and that’s when Kattar finished him off. It doesn’t thrust Kattar into the top of the division, but it does prove Kattar should consistently be fighting top ten opposition.
Greg Hardy: It was anything but flashy, but Hardy got the job done. That alone should be comforting for Hardy and his coaches. The former NFL All-Pro is improving his ability to stick and run now that he realizes he isn’t going to overwhelm everyone with his freakish athleticism at this level. Like it or not, it’s an indication Hardy is going to be around for quite a while. Whether he can develop enough to become a title contender is still up in the air….
Anthony Pettis: Whether you agree with the judges call or not, Pettis put on a fun show against Donald Cerrone and looked better than he has in a long time. A lot of that has to do with Cerrone giving him the type of fight in which he can thrive, but it’s also an indication that the UFC can still get good mileage out of Showtime if they utilize him correctly: pit him against a fellow out-fighter and let the fireworks explode. Pettis showed he still has a solid chin too as Cerrone hit him with some bombs, including a late high kick. It’s just too bad this performance came on a night chuck full of incredible performances as this is going to be lost in the shuffle.
Aleksei Oleinik: I don’t think we’re about to see a renaissance from the 42-year old Oleinik despite him taking a win off a former champion. However, the grizzled Russian deserves a lot of credit for taking the fight right at Fabricio Werdum and outworking him over the first two rounds. Oleinik did get worked over on the mat in the final round, but he was able to avoid being submitted by the grappling expert to hold onto the fight. Olenik winning says more about how Werdum has fallen than anything, but it’s still an impressive feat for the aged Oleinik.
Vicente Luque and Niko Price: I don’t like giving fighters separate paragraphs when I believe they’ve taken part in a truly special contest. This was the type of fight that you see in movies and think it couldn’t possibly go down like that in real life. They threw heavy leather for over 13 minutes, neither one backing down from what the other had to offer. Even though there was a stoppage, it wasn’t because Price wilted. Doctors looked at his face and determined it wasn’t prudent to send him out to take more damage. Despite both already having solid reputations as action fighters, this performance only boosted that, along with their overall reputations. Rather than break down the fight any further, I’ll just recommend watching it if you haven’t seen it. Trust me, the fight is more fun when you don’t know what’s going to be happening.
Bryce Mitchell: There have been two twister submissions in the history of the UFC. Not only did Mitchell come thisclose to the third, it would have happened in consecutive fights. That’s UNREAL. It wasn’t just that Mitchell almost secured another twister, he arguably scored three 10-8 rounds over an always game Charles Rosa, maintaining an insane amount of pressure while chaining together submission after submission. If Mitchell can develop a striking game, he’s a future title contender.
Ryan Spann: If I had been told Spann barely squeaked by Sam Alvey in a decision, I wouldn’t have expected his performance to be all that impressive. Given Alvey showed up much improved, it turned out to be a quality showing from Spann despite barely escaping with the W. He nearly put Alvey to sleep in the first with a standing arm-triangle choke and rocked the hard-hitting veteran on several other occasions. Adding to the performance, Spann showed good survival instincts, avoiding being finished despite Alvey hurting him late.
Georges St-Pierre: Even though his relationship with the UFC hasn’t always been rosy, we all knew GSP would eventually be inducted to the UFC Hall of Fame. It was announced during the PPV, leaving some wondering if the idea of GSP and Khabib clashing is officially dead. Then again, the likes of BJ Penn and Urijah Faber all came back to fighting after their inductions. I’m getting off track…. Bottom line, GSP is one of the giants of this sport and the honor is well deserved.
Sports fans: This event wasn’t just for MMA fans. A lack of sports in general had many people who normally could care less about the UFC tuning in for something to take in. There were some highlight finishes and some instant classics. It’s possible the UFC may have been successful in leveraging the pandemic into gaining a good chunk of new long-term fans.
Tony Ferguson: Like many others on the list below him, Ferguson isn’t necessarily here for his performance. Ferguson fought very admirably. He tried to be creative, only for Gaethje to continually make him pay. Ferguson tried a straightforward approach. That didn’t work any better. In the end, it could be argued Ferguson was too tough for his own good as he ate several shots that looked like they should have put him out cold. It resulted in Ferguson enduring a terrible beating before the referee finally stepped in. It should be noted, Ferguson came close to securing his own stoppage, dropping Gaethje at the end of the second, only for the bell to ring. Now, despite his incredible win streak, Ferguson is unlikely to ever receive a shot at the undisputed title. It’s circumstances like this that have me hating the idea of fighters like Conor McGregor jumping the line.
Dominick Cruz: I would have expected Cruz to be the one to retire after the night, but I’ll digress. Besides, given Cruz’s injury history, this could very well prove to be the last time we see him in the cage. As for his actual performance, I wasn’t impressed by what Cruz showed in the cage. He didn’t look horrible, but he was far from the same guy who ruled the bantamweight division with an iron fist. Given Cruz’s ego – I’m not ripping on it as it was a big part of why he’s an all-time great – I can’t see him being satisfied with beating on mid-tier competition.
Jairzinho Rozenstruik: Bigi Boy didn’t stand a chance. Rozenstruik landed a hard punch on Ngannou and yet the big man continued to charge forward, finishing of the native of Suriname with a clean left hand. KO’s like that can change the trajectory of a career. For Rozenstruik’s sake, I hope it doesn’t. His next fight will tell us a lot about the rest of his career.
Jeremy Stephens: Some are probably saying the end is near for Stephens. 13 years in the UFC with all sorts of miles behind him, his body can only take so much more as he extended his losing streak to four. I hate to say this, but those people could be right. Stephens did have some solid moments, hurting Kattar at various times. But one of the trademarks of Stephens is his ability to take a beating. Perhaps Kattar finishing him was a bit of a fluke, Jose Aldo finished him off Stephens just over a year ago. After all of those battles, Stephens may be closer the finish line than we all thought.
Yorgan De Castro: After the first round, it felt like De Castro might be the one to finally deliver the violent finish to Hardy that many have been begging for. Instead, after hurting Hardy with a punch and kick combination, De Castro did next to nothing for the rest of the fight. It was somewhat reminiscent of Pedro Rizzo: effective when he lets those leg kicks fly, but not throwing them nearly enough. Even worse: De Castro only landed one punch in the last two rounds. Like I said, he did next to nothing.
Donald Cerrone: It should be stated Cerrone looked better here than he did in his most recent contests. The problem is that his loss to Pettis gave him four in a row and no one will mistake Pettis for an elite fighter anymore. Cerrone has had several stops and starts in his career, bouncing back when everyone expected him to be on a permanent downslide. However, despite those multiple stops, he’s never had a four-fight losing streak. Cerrone still has a few fights left in his tank, but I’d be shocked to see him approaching contender status ever again.
Fabricio Werdum: Werdum looked flabby walking into the cage. That wasn’t a good indication about his chances when the fight started. Werdum just relied on covering and backing up when Oleinik unloaded. Not a lot got through, but it was more than what Werdum was throwing back. Werdum did show he’s still a wiz on the ground, transitioning from submission attempt to submission attempt in the final round against an exhausted Oleinik, but it was too little, too late. Werdum didn’t seem too broken up over the loss either. It looks like retirement isn’t too far off.
Michelle Waterson: Waterson’s performance against Carla Esparza. Hell, I thought Waterson won. Regardless, the final result – a loss – really hurts her as it leaves her 0-3 against former strawweight champions and well on the outside looking in on the title picture. Much has always been made of her lack of size, but that didn’t play a part here as Esparza could just as easily cut down to 105 as Waterson. Waterson can still be marketable, but it’s going to take another win streak for her to be mentioned as a contender. At 34, her window may be closed.
Charles Rosa: I want to say the positives first cause there isn’t much. Rosa showed a lot of class in his interaction with Mitchell post-fight and is one of the toughest SOB’s in the sport. Aside from that, there’s nothing positive to say about Rosa’s performance. He scored no significant offense and was controlled for nearly 14 minutes of a 15 minute fight. Ouch.
Jacare Souza: It’s hard not to feel for Jacare. He openly acknowledged he was worried about competing at this time for fears of obtaining the Coronavirus, but he needed the paycheck. Of course, he would be the one to come down with the virus. Though I do believe he’s getting quality medical attention and that he’ll pull through it just fine, there’s always that tinge in the back of my mind. Thoughts and prayers to Souza and his cornermen.
Carla Esparza: Though I believed Waterson won, I’m not going to dispute Esparza’s win. It was a close enough contest. However, I can’t call Esparza a winner as it was the second disputed win in a row, making it difficult to call her a title contender despite it being her third win in a row overall against quality competition. If Esparza wants to be taken seriously in title talks, she needs an emphatic win. She hasn’t done that in quite a while.
Sam Alvey: Alvey may end up getting cut as this was his fourth loss in a row. However, Alvey put forth his best showing in years, doing more than sitting on his haunches waiting for the ideal counter to present itself. He found a lot of success with a counter right – his lead hand – and threw a greater volume of low kicks. If Alvey fights like this from now on, I’d be sad to see the UFC cut loose. However, there’s no guarantee of that.
Uriah Hall: While Hall didn’t get a chance to compete due to Jacare’s diagnosis, Uncle Dana did say both competitors would be getting paid. So while Hall missed out on a major opportunity on one of the biggest cards in the history of the sport, he is picking up a paycheck, something millions of people around the world haven’t been able to do. Given the circumstances, I’m sure Hall will take it.