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UFC 249: Ferguson vs. Gaethje - Fights to make

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All the best, most interesting, and unquestionably coolest fights the UFC needs to book following their latest event in Jacksonville, FL.

Love the idea of the UFC returning to a packed event schedule? Hate it? No matter whether the UFC’s return to putting on fight cards is smart or not, UFC 249 still ended up being a thrilling, wild ride. Tony Ferguson lost out on a second chance to claim an interim lightweight title and, unfortunately, likely the chance to compete for the unified lightweight belt anytime in the near future. Henry Cejudo cemented his legacy as a truly remarkable UFC champion, and then immediately retired. And Francis Ngannou once again put the fear of god in heavyweights everywhere.

So, how soon can the UFC get Khabib back in the cage—and will Justin Gaethje wait for him? What the hell happens to Henry Cejudo’s vacated bantamweight title? And is there any way Francis Ngannou gets a shot at heavyweight gold in 2020?

To answer all those questions – and many, many more – I’ll be using the old-fashioned Silva/Shelby fight booking methods from the UFC of years past. That means pitting winners against winners, losers against losers, and similarly tenured talent up against one another. Hopefully, by following that formula, a few of these fantasy match-ups will actually end up becoming a reality.

Now, let’s get to the fights...

JUSTIN GAETHJE

The next fight for Justin Gaethje is a pretty simple one. He’s got to take on Khabib Nurmagomedov. Just when, where, and how that will happen remains to be seen. Will the UFC’s fight island be an effective midpoint for Khabib to get to, if travel restrictions stay in place for both Russia and the US? Will Justin Gaethje be willing to wait until the fall (most likely) before fighting again? Considering he doubled up on bonus money, he can almost certainly afford to wait. But with the ‘Eagle,’ actually getting to face the man always seems to be a matter of precise timing. Miss the window, and the opportunity vanishes for another 3-4 months. Hopefully we see Gaethje vs. Nurmagomedov sometime in September. Otherwise, we might just see something as crazy as Gaethje vs. McGregor, or Gaethje vs. Poirier 2.

TONY FERGUSON

For anyone hoping that the end result of Ferguson’s long run of lightweight dominance would be a well earned title shot, today is a sad day. ‘El Cucuy’ defied the odds and put together one of the most impressive stretches of winning performances in the division’s history. All to have it come crashing down with a decisive ass-whipping at the hands of Justin Gaethje. Will he rebuild the impossible? At the very least, it seems like he’ll absolutely be among the contenders at 155 for the next few years. That could mean a fight with Dustin Poirier, or maybe a battle with the action-fight favorite Paul Felder, but someone leaked the idea of Tony Ferguson vs. Charles Oliveira into my brain, and it just won’t leave. ‘Do Bronx’ vs. Ferguson is just too cool a fight to pass up, book it.

HENRY CEJUDO

It sounds like he’s just gone. Dana White backed up Henry Cejudo’s claim that the champ is walking away from the sport—and even if it’s just a money-making power play, does Cejudo actually have the kind of sway to get the UFC to open their pocketbook? Are there even any “big money” fights below 155 lbs right now? McGregor is really the only person to have made that kind of impact in the lighter weight classes. So this could be it for Cejudo. Most likely, we’ll see him back in a couple of years, hungry to take on the new champ. But, until then, enjoy the break. And, if he just can’t stay away? Then take on Petr Yan and defend the belt.

DOMINICK CRUZ

It had to happen sooner or later for Cruz. He couldn’t just keep being the miracle comeback king, especially not as he climbs into his mid-30s—and not with a style largely built on being fast and agile. Cejudo had him timed, had his number, and made him pay for a style that relies on constantly dipping into the pocket to create exchanges. Still, Cruz is not about to go anywhere. The ‘Dominator’ has been quick on the reasons that he felt his fight shouldn’t have been stopped, and why the ref didn’t do his job properly. Exactly the kind of fuel to keep him motivated. If Cody Garbrandt weren’t already booked, that would be the ‘must make’ fight for Cruz. If Cruz feels like taking some time off (which seems unlikely, given how much he’s had to miss already), then TJ Dillashaw will be back in January of 2021. Realistically, though, Pedro Munhoz seems like just the right fight. A fairly flat footed power puncher who should be ripe for Cruz’s style at its best, but is still dangerous and durable enough to test Cruz over the distance. Cruz vs. Munhoz would be a great bounce-back test.

FRANICS NGANNOU

My bet is that Stipe Miocic and Daniel Cormier are going to fight sometime in late summer or early fall. Whether it’ll be because of a general lifting of quarantine restrictions, or UFC pressure on Stipe, the fight will somehow end up getting made. If not? I don’t think Daniel Cormier takes a fight with Ngannou. Not because Ngannou is too dangerous, or too powerful, but just because Cormier is in a position where he only needs to take the fights he wants. And the only fight he seems to want is with Stipe. If not that, he’ll retire. That leaves the ‘Predator’ in an impossible situation. Forced to wait for months and months for the result of a fight that may not even happen, or fight one of heavyweight’s other challengers—most of whom he’s already beaten handily. A rematch with Derrick Lewis makes a lot of sense on paper. But, the first fight was such a disaster, would the UFC ever revisit it? The best hope he has for a quick fight is if Walt Harris beats Alistair Overeem, then Ngannou can face the ‘Big Ticket.’ Otherwise, maybe book him against Alexander Volkov?

CALVIN KATTAR

This win firmly announces Calvin Kattar as a potential future top contender at featherweight. Sure he’s had a couple losses that show there are gaps in his style, but even those weren’t the kind of entirely one-sided affairs that suggest beating him is easy or that anyone could do it. And his counter combination game is undoubtedly one of featherweight’s best. To that end, he needs to keep getting top flight matchups. Chan Sung Jung, Brian Ortega, Yair Rodriguez—I’d even be fine with a Frankie Edgar fight right now. It seems likely that Ortega and TKZ are going to get booked to fight each other soon, so Calvin Kattar vs. Yair Rodriguez is probably the best featherweight fight the UFC can make for Kattar right now. Assuming the UFC doesn’t go ahead and try to book Yair vs. Zabit again.

ANTHONY PETTIS

There was a bit of controversy in the scoring here, but ultimately – win or lose – Pettis and Cerrone both showed they still have a lot to offer in just the right kind of action fight bookings. Put Pettis in against a relentless pressure fighter, and the holes in his style become clear. But, in an open space, range kickboxing battle, he still has the tools to shine. And, given his willingness to bounce between 155 & 170 these days, he’s got lots of options for finding just the right bouts. If he sticks to welterweight, I’d love to see him face Robbie Lawler, or even try his hand against a late-career RDA again. Down at lightweight, a rematch with Charles Oliveira, or maybe a bout against Daniel Hooker both sound good. Honestly, Robbie Lawler vs. Anthony Pettis is just such a wild, weird fight, that I need to see it. Is Lawler too big a puncher, too capable a pressure fighter for Pettis? Or would his tendency to fight in bursts and wait for specific reads let Pettis find his groove? Book Lawler vs. Pettis. Because why the heck not?

DONALD CERRONE

It wasn’t the win that many may feel Donald Cerrone deserved, but I do think this was the fight he needed to have. A proving point that his chin isn’t actually gone, and that there’s a real difference between taking shots from McGregor and Gaethje and most other humans. Beyond that, he’s still a rugged, all-ranges action fighter who can put on a show. He’s also somehow never fought Paul Felder. So, let’s go ahead and book Donald Cerrone vs. Paul Felder tomorrow and let them go to war.

ALEKSEI OLIYNYK

Considering the circumstances around Fabricio Werdum’s return to the cage, this isn’t quite the spectacular win it should be. But, it’s still a hell of an achievement for the 42-year-old ‘Boa Constrictor.’ He absolutely whomped Werdum standing, and then managed to survive the multiple-time BJJ world champion’s late grappling charge. Just where that sorts him into the heavyweight top ten is still a bit hard to parse, but Oliynyk isn’t going away anytime soon, clearly. It’s too bad Shamil Abdurahimov is coming off a loss, otherwise he’d be a pretty good fight right now. As it is, I think a fight with Derrick Lewis is probably the most feasible bout that the UFC can make for him. Either that or maybe Blagoi Ivanov. Lewis seems like the reasonable step forward from a Werdum win. And it’d be a wild test of Lewis’ willingness to just get taken down and ride out being on his back. Lewis vs. Oliynyk is a fight too weird to ignore.

CARLA ESPARZA

Another contentious split decision win for Carla Esparza. She didn’t get a whole lot done in the first two rounds of this fight, but neither did Waterson. To that end both women had an argument for winning. It doesn’t put the ‘Cookie Monster on any clearer path back to being a contender, but it does keep her position alive as the gatekeeper to the elite. It’s too bad for her that Nina Ansaroff has been taking a long hiatus, she’d be just about the right fight for Esparza right now. It’s also too bad that Tecia Torres is on a hard 4-fight skid, since she’s somehow never fought Esparza. Instead, Marina Rodriguez is the next fighter on a tear to the top. She was supposed to fight Claudia Gadelha, but Esparza would make an excellent next bout instead. The other option would be Yan Xiaonan. Marina Rodriguez vs. Carla Esparza seems like a great test for the prospect.

BRYCE MITCHELL

‘Thug Nasty’ is officially a prospect to watch. His career to date had marked him as a fun action fighter on the rise, someone who was going to be in the UFC for a long time, and worth seeing whenever he was booked. But the grappling game he displayed against Rosa was the skill of a fighter who is a big step above the rank & file of his division. That’s the kind of performance that says he could be a future title contender. Pure dominance. So, let’s put him up against another top prospect, give him a chance to separate himself from the pack. Ryan Hall’s bout with Ricardo Lamas got cancelled, and Hall vs. Mitchell is a fight I now have to see. Fights against Sodiq Yusuff and Hakeem Dawodu would also be great. Zubaira Tukhugov too. But, c’mon... after that fight, who doesn’t want to see Bryce Mitchell fight Ryan Hall?

OTHER BOUTS: Jairzinho Rozenstruik vs. Shamil Abdurahimov, Jeremy Stephens vs. Andre Fili, Greg Hardy vs. Marcos Rogerio de Lima, Yorgan de Castro vs. Tanner Boser, Fabricio Werdum vs. Ilir Latifi, Michelle Waterson vs. Yan Xiaonan, Vicente Luque vs. Geoff Neal, Niko Price vs. Warrley Alves, Charles Rosa vs. Kevin Aguilar, Ryan Spann vs. Jim Crute, Sam Alvey vs. Mike Rodriguez