Justin Gaethje‘s tweet Monday after news broke that he signed to fight Tony Ferguson in the main event of UFC 249 reflected his understanding of his reality and the spirit that makes him one of the most feared fighters in the UFC.
The G-rated version of his tweet was: I’m terrified, and I love it.
Who wouldn’t be terrified? He hardly has any time to prepare for a guy on a 12-fight win streak. Gaethje once told MMA Junkie that he requires 8-12 weeks of preparation, and he challenged himself not to move off that strategy no matter how strong the temptation.
But times are different as the coronavirus pandemic has essentially shut down the sports world and much of society at large. Travel restrictions kept champion Khabib Nurmagomedov from leaving Dagestan to defend his belt.
UFC president Dana White didn’t even give a location for this fight, merely saying in his tweet when he broke the news that the bout would be somewhere on Earth.
All Gaethje knows for sure is he’ll be in a scrap, and the fact his tweet ended with “I love it” said a lot about him.
This fight also will say a lot about the lightweight division. Will the winner get a title shot next? Nurmagomedov won’t fight or train at a high level during Ramadan, which ends May 23. Will he defend his belt against the winner, or does Conor McGregor enter the picture?
ESPN’s panel of Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim addresses the various aspects of UFC 249.
How much will an abbreviated camp hurt Gaethje?
Okamoto: Significantly, in my opinion. Gaethje has notoriously been against short-notice fights throughout his career, so that tells you a lot of what you need to know right there. I doubt he’s in shape — or at least, five-round-title-fight shape. And against a high-pace guy like Ferguson, that really matters. Gaethje’s entire style is built around outlasting his opposition and dragging him into deep waters. That requires preparation. That doesn’t mean he can’t go out and win this, but he’s at a distinct disadvantage. No question.
Raimondi: It will hurt. Gaethje has been back in training for about a week, ever since Nurmagomedov gave indications that he might not fight Ferguson at UFC 249. Is a three-week fight camp ideal to fight Ferguson, who has had a full camp? Absolutely not. Ferguson is a durable cardio machine who can put opponents in uncomfortable positions in basically every aspect of MMA. It would be a very difficult fight for Gaethje even with a camp. Without one, boy. It’s going to be tough.
But I’d never count Gaethje out of anything. If anyone can do something borderline crazy like this, fighting Ferguson on short notice in an undisclosed location, it’s Gaethje. As talented of a fighter he is, Gaethje’s best attribute is mental strength. So, in that regard, he’ll be good.
Wagenheim: We sometimes watch a fighter like Gaethje — 18 knockouts in 21 career wins — and think we’re looking at a barroom brawler. But it’s not just reckless daring that sends those opponents of his to the mat. It takes punch combos, set-ups, feints, footwork — all of the techniques that get sharpened during an eight-week training camp. Gaethje, in particular, has evolved in recent years, and his preparation will suffer with him unable to spend time in the gym with his coach, Trevor Wittman. But fighting Ferguson even under the best circumstances requires an unending flow of in-the-moment adjustments, and that’s where Gaethje’s natural-born instincts as a fighter will carry him. He won’t be prepared for Ferguson, but can anyone really be?
Tony is on an epic run in the UFC. Can Gaethje stop it?
Okamoto: Of course he can. Gaethje is a top five lightweight. He’s got real stopping power. He’s a former champion at the World Series of Fighting with a lot of experience in championship fights. Ferguson is incredible, and I believe he’s capable of beating Nurmagomedov — that’s why everyone wants to see that fight so badly, but he’s not invincible. He’s been in trouble multiple times during this long winning streak. Ferguson is the favorite, but Gaethje absolutely has a shot.
Raimondi: The Gaethje who stopped Donald Cerrone and Edson Barboza in back-to-back fights is a very dangerous man. This is not the same guy who got into firefights as the World Series of Fighting champion or in losses to Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier. This Gaethje is more measured, more patient. He is fully on board with what his coach, Trevor Wittman, has preached. Those two have a tremendous bond. Gaethje has bought in and has become more measured. That is a very intimidating recipe for foes.
Ferguson’s game is controlled chaos. The two are not so different. Ferguson can be hit and he can be dropped. Anthony Pettis did it. Gaethje surely can, too. If Gaethje stays patient and waits for an opening, he might be able to catch Ferguson in a mistake. Gaethje’s leg kicks — they are crippling — could be a factor here.
Wagenheim: Gaethje’s last 10 fights have ended by knockout. He won eight of them, including his last three, and those all came to a concussive halt in Round 1. He is one dangerous man. And Ferguson is not one to shy away from danger. Even in winning his last dozen bouts, Tony has taken bold chances and put himself in troubling positions on several occasions. That can be an unforgiving strategy against Gaethje, who can turn out the lights in an instant. Ferguson has fought KO-capable opponents before, plenty of them, and been the last man standing. But Gaethje is well-equipped for the challenge of embracing the chaos.
What are Tony Ferguson’s advantages over Gaethje?
Okamoto: In this instance, I would say pace. Gaethje is virtually impossible to outwork, but again, that shorter camp isn’t going to work in his favor. Ferguson is lanky, which will obviously make it harder for Gaethje to fight him in a phone booth, which is where he probably wants the fight to be. Ferguson is one of the most unpredictable fighters in the sport. And even though Gaethje is known for his ability to take a shot, I would give a slight advantage to Ferguson in durability. Very slight. We’re talking about two of the highest pain thresholds in the entire sport here. But Ferguson has a little more variety, the benefit of a full camp and momentum.
Raimondi: If Gaethje is going to put Ferguson in trouble, it will probably have to come early. Ferguson is an absolute nightmare late in fights with incredible cardio. Remember how he got better late against Rafael dos Anjos — in the altitude of Mexico City of all places? Gaethje has great cardio himself, but how much gas will he have coming off a short camp? That remains to be seen.
Ferguson’s greatest advantage over Gaethje might come on the ground. Gaethje’s standup is terrific and his wrestling is good. But Ferguson is so unique and effective in all ground positions, including the bottom. Ferguson can slice opponents up with his elbows and attempt submissions from odd angles. Few can scramble like Ferguson, who rolls around the cage like a dervish. Ferguson will also have a size advantage and has a longer reach by 6-1/2 inches. Those could be factors.
Wagenheim: All things being equal, Ferguson would have plenty of advantages over Gaethje, from his creativity to his well-roundedness to his resiliency under fire. But all things are not equal here. Ferguson has been training for a fight — albeit, against a dominant wrestler rather than a menacing striker — and that alone gives him a huge advantage. Gaethje doesn’t seem the type to just sit on the couch between fight camps, and that will help. But can 12 days of training during a pandemic lockdown get “The Highlight” ready for what’s ahead?
Does the winner of Tony/Gaethje get Khabib next?
Okamoto: I mean, that’s what an interim title really is, isn’t it? Getting a belt is cool and all, but practically speaking, the interim title is great because it typically comes with more money and it’s a guaranteed title shot, because the promotion will want to unify the belts. Yes, I think the winner of this fight will face Nurmagomedov next. Of course, McGregor is always a wild card, and if he starts calling for the winner — whether it’s Ferguson or Gaethje — I could sure see whoever it is jumping at the offer. But as of today, I believe the winner will face Nurmagomedov, who has said he’ll be ready to go by August.
Raimondi: The winner absolutely should. After all, whoever emerges victorious will be the interim lightweight champion. Now, the interim champ hasn’t always gotten the next title shot and things are more fluid in the UFC than they ever have been before. Every event through summer has a big question mark next to it — will it happen, where will it happen?
But by most measures, sure. Either Ferguson or Gaethje should be next for Nurmagomedov. And it’s very likely the winner will be who Nurmagomedov demands. However, there is still a chance the UFC wants the rematch between McGregor and Nurmagomedov next, which could make things very interesting. The Ferguson-Gaethje winner seems to be the most likely title challenger, though. Unless the UFC wants the victor to take on McGregor in a title eliminator.
Wagenheim: That’s the way it’s supposed to work when the UFC adds an interim belt to the equation. But we’re in unprecedented times, so nothing is a safe bet. Still, it would seem logical that both of these men received an assurance that a title shot was on the line before they signed their contracts. Ferguson is 12 days away from a title challenge he earned and has waited for, and Gaethje is taking the toughest fight of his career on short notice and with no possibility of even a normal, if abbreviated, training camp. And, really, who else is out there to leapfrog the April 18 victor? Would Dana White have the audacity to book his beloved Khabib-Conor rematch rather than reward the winner of a main event White adamantly wanted to make? The UFC president has shown loyalty over the years to those who’ve helped him out, and this will be no exception.
How do you see this impacting Conor’s 2020?
Okamoto: There was a lot of chatter about McGregor fighting this summer, and the opponent attached to that chatter was Gaethje. This throws a lot of volatility into those plans. But, at the same time, there always seems to be chatter about McGregor fighting somebody on some date, and sometimes it happens and other times it doesn’t. The truth is, McGregor and the UFC were never going to make a decision before April 18 anyway, because they needed to see how Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson played out. Now, they need to see how Ferguson vs. Gaethje plays out. At the end of the day, I don’t know what would have happened, but part of me felt like we were only going to see McGregor one more time in 2020 anyway — against either Ferguson or Nurmagomedov. So, there’s a real chance this doesn’t impact it at all, but it’s hard to say.
Raimondi: Is there any chance the winner of Ferguson vs. Gaethje gets McGregor next? It’s certainly within the realm of possibility. Gaethje had been tied to a bout against McGregor in the summer. If he wins, maybe that still happens. And then the winner of McGregor vs. Gaethje faces Nurmagomedov later in the year? Same with Ferguson. There is a history between McGregor and Ferguson that would make it fascinating.
With Gaethje now fighting at UFC 249 and Nurmagomedov lying in wait for a top contender to emerge, there is no longer a clear opponent for McGregor. Of course, Nate Diaz is always a possibility. The UFC has that lucrative trilogy bout in its back pocket. Jorge Masvidal would also be a big-money opponent for McGregor. But it stands to reason that McGregor will be somewhere in this lightweight mix, especially since the UFC is adamant about Nurmagomedov vs. McGregor 2 happening as soon as possible.
Wagenheim: Conor said he planned to treat 2020 like a season, with three fights, staying active. That should remain his goal. Even with Gaethje apparently off his list of possible next opponents and Nurmagomedov on the shelf until the end of the summer at the earliest, McGregor can target any fight and — voila! — it’s a money fight. That might seem like a letdown to fans yearning for a Gaethje firefight or another Khabib buildup, but Conor can turn a fight into a spectacle all by himself.