Tony Ferguson vs. Justin Gaethje headlines UFC 249 this May 9, 2020 at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida, United States.
One sentence summary:
David: Ward vs. Gatti: THe UFC version
Phil: El Cucuy fights to keep the boogeyman title dream alive
Record: Tony Ferguson 25-3 | Justin Gaethje 21-2
Odds: Tony Ferguson -190 | Justin Gaethje +175
History / Introduction to Both Fighters
David: There’s a parallel universe, many years ago, where Tony Ferguson defended his lightweight title, and this is just another in a long line of defenses. Instead it’s this universe. Where a global pandemic persists. Murder hornets now travel across the globe. And Tony Ferguson is headlining a card as merely the action hero of the night. It sucks, and it’s kind of depressing to think about, but if any fighter’s narrative reflects the absurdity of this event, it’s definitely Ferguson. It’s unbridled chaos, but at least everyone belongs.
Phil: Tony Ferguson is steadily walking along a path towards being one of MMA’s great tragic stories. He racked up a virtually unprecedented win streak in the UFC’s toughest division quite a few years ago at this point. The combination of corporate skullduggery and straight-up bad luck has been simply boggling, and you could argue that he deserved a title shot back in 2015. Even the UFC brass have taken pity on him, in their own weird way: the matchups he’s gotten of late have been relatively merciful, if Anthony Pettis and Donald Cerrone can be considered as such. Still, this is a man who has been treading blood at the top of the division for about half the length of a traditional MMA career, and there isn’t even a guarantee of a title shot if he makes it past this next brutal obstacle
David: Gaethje seemed like he was destined to be the UFC’s Micky Ward. Instead he’s somewhere between the UFC’s Ricardo Mayorga (a wildman with actual big wins), and the UFC’s Diego Corrales (RIP). MMA tends to be extremely unforgiving. Just look at Ferguson. And I think that’s where our analysis of talents gets lost. Gaethje shouldn’t have been stuck in the muck so quick, but he was, and in MMA, you’re either chewed up, or you spit others out. He eventually found his way into something of a phenom: not just an action fighter. But an action threat. This is the perfect, yet most punishing fight I could ever imagine for both men.
Phil: Despite his reputation as a lunatic wildman, Justin Gaethje has leveraged his career in some surprisingly savvy ways. He had a lucrative run in World Series of Fighting, where he was able to hone his skills against quality (if not quite UFC-level) opposition while still making good money, and he came to the UFC and was able to immediately step into marquee matchups. Off a fairly forgiving string of fights, he’s now in position to be able to step into that title challenge spot which Ferguson has spent five years chasing.
What’s at stake?
David: For Ferguson, just the neverending rage against the dying of the title fight.
Phil: Presumably a title shot against Nurmagomedov once Ramadan is over? Assuming that McGregor doesn’t get that fighting itch again, anyway. Endeavour has bills to pay!
Where do they want it?
Phil: Ferguson has been a fascinating mixture of skill and jank for his entire UFC career. Dreadful defensive habits like squaring his feet, leaving his chin up in the air and taking an entire round to figure out his opponents range are juxtaposed with a fine adaptive mind, a crafty jab and a nasty kicking game. I think the definition of both these fighters is that they like to pressure, but they have biases in terms of which components they prefer. El Cucuy is the pace guy, who gradates his power and pokes and prods. In terms of directionality, he’s a bit weaker: he likes funky angular entries but the aforementioned squaring up and a tendency to struggle with cutting the cage have meant that when he’s forced to chase he gets himself hit a lot. Basically, a lot of his fights are him trying to find the spot of range where he can land and his opponent can’t, as hard as he possibly can. If he’s up against someone who makes that easy, like RDA, then he performs well. If he’s up against someone who is highly mobile or rangy (say, Michael Johnson or Cerrone) then he tends to struggle. In general, though, his strengths and weaknesses are pretty well defined at this point. Endless creativity, pace and mental durability come at the cost of being very vulnerable early in fights. That may be an issue.
David: I’m happy to see the word ‘jank’ used. Some of it is nostalgia — bad Magic: The Gathering cards are considered jank. But also, Ferguson is the only fighter I know who I think embodies everything about the word ‘scrappy.’ Not just as an adjective. But as a pronoun. He fights like a guy forged out of spare parts. And somehow, this facepunching amalgam of nuts, bolts, and expired motor oil just presses on, wins fights, and talks shit. There’s one moment that really defines Ferguson as a fighter. It was against Edson Barboza. Literally halfway across the cage, he full on Blanka rolls across the ground for a heel hook attempt. That’s Tony: professional cagefighting without discretion. To the extent it makes him a complete fighter, almost. He’s well rounded. His acumen on the ground is a lot like his acumen on the feet: there’s always an area to exploit, but there’s never an out. He accumulates advantages based on momentum, and he finds just enough pockets of sustained pressure to create strategic ripple effects. The Lando Vannata bout was a great example: after getting pieced up, and literally knocked senseless all over the cage, Ferguson popped Vannata up just enough with a jab he previously abandoned to open up bigger strikes, and ultimately a choke attempt that started on the feet. Whether he can get away with this against Gaethje is another matter.
Phil: Gaethje has shown significant improvements in leveraging pressure in recent fights without getting himself into trouble. I mentioned how the two of these men embody the different elements of pressure, and I think Gaethje is more on the directionality side of the scale. He is simply always moving forward, and his goal is not to establish a slice of range, but to push his opponent backward. When he’s able to do that he can punt the trailing leg or just clobber his man into the cage. Most of Gaethje’s improvements have been positional in nature: not for him the throwaway jab like Ferguson or the tuning of his shots to trick his opponents into opening up or giving him defensive reactions. Instead everything is dialled up to eleven for maximum shock and awe. Where he’s gotten better is in his positioning and patience before letting the fists and feet fly. Not for him Ferguson’s struggles with cutting the cage, because he’s gotten better at taking small steps and establishing position. It’s been a bit harder to tell whether his other flaws have been fixed: an overreliance on the high guard and a tendency to flag a little because of the sheer power and commitment of his fighting style. It is also noticeable that Gaethje is not a long fighter at all. He doesn’t jab his way in much at all, and he does tend to paw his right hand a little.
David: Gaethje is a fighter who has improved in a fundamental way. Rather than just look at film, talk to coaches, abandon old strategies, or try new tactics, he’s simply taken on a different mindset. You don’t need to attack at all costs, all the time. It’s been addition by subtraction. And it’s made all the difference. I hesitate to say that it’s transformed him. Vick is, and has never been anything close to elite. Barboza is highly one-dimensional. And Cerrone is old. Nonetheless, it’s the kind of thing he’ll need if he wants to potentially win a title. On the feet, despite his punch volume, he conceals some of that offense with tight, crisp, slight angle punches. It’s kind of incredible how much distance he can cover with just a quick, sinister, six incher. He’s got a solid combo and speed and timing, hence the power. But he’s also quick to reset, and position for punch entries. Still, he has a basic line of attack, which is where his defense struggles. Ferguson may not be a brilliant tactical mind, but he’s crazy enough to attack Gaethje from all angles, which I think amplifies an already weak link.
Insight from past fights?
David: This is that rare fight where a fight must be won with weaknesses rather than strengths. If they both try to kill each other with punches, they’re dead. Ferguson has been hurt by lesser fighters. Not just hurt; but crippled. It’s hard to imagine what one of his patented ‘recovery rolls’ looks like against the Gaethje’s power.
Phil: James Vick was Gaethje’s least notable opponent throughout his entire UFC career, and it was an early KO, so all good? Perhaps not. It was a fight where he lost every single exchange before pinning Vick up against the cage. Perhaps most relevant were the middle kicks that Vick fed Gaethje which served to back him off. Ferguson is very good at working the body with snap kicks.
David: Their respective immune systems. Not just because of a novel coronavirus. But because of their styles. I could actually see their lymphatic systems jump out of their bodies and take their chances without oxygen rather than be forced to endure the punishment each man is capable in inflicting on the other.
Phil: I guess the main X-Factor is who reacts better to the incredibly weird situation that both these men find themselves in. On the one hand, Ferguson has been even odder than usual. On the other, he might actually be strangely well-suited to this kind of pressure-cooker.
David: This is MMA. The things that make the most sense are always the actions that become theory rather than reality. It makes the most sense; Gaethje lands early, Ferguson gets hurt, and Ferguson’s body can’t do what it used to do. Hell, I don’t think a prime Ferguson fight flops out of trouble against Gaethje. But maybe Ferguson is aware of all this. He was so close to the Khabib fight. His mind doesn’t need to be in the right place to be prepared. Maybe he knows exactly what this fight means. He knows exactly what Gaethje can and can’t do. And maybe he’ll finally work tactically to ensure he can roll the dice like usual when it really matters. Tony Ferguson by Decision.
Phil: I thought this was relatively open-and-shut when I first thought about it, but the more I think about it the more I think that Ferguson can approximately replicate the Poirier and Alvarez gameplan of throwing in volume to raise the guard and working the body, with his own inimitable twist. However, I still think that early exchange period is simply too dangerous, and I’m not sure that I trust him to survive it. Justin Gaethje by TKO, round 1.