By Alistair Hendrie
There is a warm feeling in the air as we approach Saturday’s twice-postponed UFC 249 card which will be headlined by Tony Ferguson against Justin Gaethje for the interim lightweight title. The UFC has the backing of the Florida State Athletic Commission, has implemented social distancing procedures and is providing daily tests for coronavirus. So far, so good.
That aura of hope is exacerbated by a thrilling main event between Ferguson, ranked number one in the world, and Gaethje, ranked number four. We all have memories of watching a 25-minute staring contest which started to cries of “This can’t fail to be a war!” but this pair of 155ers are guaranteeing entertainment during the coronavirus pandemic.
“This is going to be like Mortal Kombat,” said Gaethje, 31. “It’s perfect and it will be a f***ing war.”
“This is why we’re main event,” agreed Ferguson, 36. “We’re the best of the best and we’re going to go out there and keep sports alive.”
Gaethje arrived in the UFC in 2017 and has become a must-see attraction, tearing forward, banging to the body and trading haymakers in victories over the likes of Donald Cerrone, Edson Barboza and Michael Johnson. He brings a limitless gas tank, debilitating leg kicks and the record for the highest average strikes landed per minute (8.57). Impressive considering he’s never gone the distance in six UFC outings.
Then there’s Ferguson, a workhorse who was lifting weights during Tuesday’s media conference call and made weight off of his own accord for the postponed April 18th card. “El Cucuy” is chasing greatness on Saturday and will attempt to improve a UFC lightweight-best 12 wins in a row. His thrashings of Cerrone and Edson Barboza were as claret-splattered and violent as it gets, and don’t blink if it hits the mat – he’s explosive on the ground thanks to his aggression and flexibility.
Indeed, the fight sells itself and doesn’t need any amplification, rivalry or weigh-in bravado. Gaethje and Ferguson, two kindred spirits, were nothing but respectful towards each other in Tuesday’s media call. “Gaethje’s got a lot of heart,” said Ferguson. “We’re the only real fighters out there, real American mother***ers. He’s an Olympic-level athlete and I don’t bring any hate to this sport. We’re men, we’re gonna put a show.”
“Tony’s the epitome of an athlete,” said Gaethje, unanimous in praise of the man who made his UFC debut in June 2011, two months before “The Highlight” stepped into pro MMA. “He loves violence – he loves carnage. We both want to be in that but I just hope neither of us gets chronically injured. It’s a fight and people love violence – that’s what we do best.”
While Gaethje is correct to acknowledge the perils of battle, Ferguson concurred that he never wants to hurt his rivals. Gaethje and Ferguson are instead here to compete and push themselves – nothing more, nothing less. That kind of humility is well-placed when hundreds of thousands of people are dying from coronavirus and millions are losing their jobs due to the perishing economy.
“I’m proud to be a part of this event,” said Gaethje, “to have an opportunity to inspire. People need to be inspired right now, to not let themselves become depressed or emotional because we can’t control what’s going on. We need to ride it through. We can do that, we have that opportunity.”
“I called Dana White and said I was really bothered about getting this event on,” said Ferguson. “It feels great to be the only sport going ahead, I’m being real here. There’s no Olympics, no Wimbledon, no NFL draft, so this gives people something to look forward to. This is what we do.”
The permutations of victory are huge in a meeting which Gaethje described as “the biggest fight of my life.” If he becomes the first man to down Ferguson since Johnson in 2012, he will catapult towards a shot at world champion Khabib Nurmagomedov. If Ferguson wins, he strengthens his claim as the top lightweight in history and pressures the Russian to settle their differences once and for all.
“This is f***ing huge, for me and Tony,” said Gaethje. “The interim belt means being recognised as number two in the world. Khabib can’t fight right now, but we’re the two baddest men on the planet so we’re going to fight to challenge Nurmagomedov for the belt. When the fight comes there are few things I can control. The preparation is there, the effort’s there and outside that my life doesn’t exist after May 9th.”
“I’m defending my belt for the third time,” countered Ferguson, who nowadays counts himself the true king. “F*** Khabib – this is for the real belt, this is the real championship. Champ sh*t only. I’m not worried about anything but my own game. I’ve done the preparation, I’m doing fine-tuning and now I’m feeling f***ing great. Nothing’s gonna change and we’re gonna go out there and get the W.”
Underneath the high stakes of Saturday, Ferguson and Gaethje are everyday men with no airs and graces. Ferguson is a family man who flew to Florida this week with his wife and son, posting a photo of the three in protective masks. Gaethje lives at his gym with his coach, Trevor Wittman.
“It’s not often you get to a fight for a title,” said Gaethje, “much less when you’re going to be the only one on TV. As fighters you fight to be number one, to prove that you believe you’re number one. You have to face your peers and take these chances when they’re presented. All I want to say is win or lose, I’ll give max effort. That’s all matters. My family will still love me if I lose and my dogs won’t give a shit if I win or lose.”
Check out Alistair Hendrie’s Kindle book, Fight Game: The Untold Story of Women’s MMA in Britain, featuring insight from Rosi Sexton, Joanne Calderwood and more