Post-Fight Thoughts: Tony Ferguson -vs- Justin Gaethje
The main event of UFC 246 ended up delivering roughly the expected amount of violence — which is to say, an ungodly amount of it — but also produced a far more one-sided contest than I think anyone could have expected. I, admittedly, didn't spend much time on deep analysis of this fight, opting to just consider the broad strokes of the pairing, but I ended up being more more than I thought possible.
I picked Tony Ferguson to win, via TKO no less, because I figured that his unorthodox style and boundless stamina and durability will be enough to win a war of attrition. What I didn't count on is Justin Gaethje fighting so intelligently, and without the suicidal recklessness of his old ways. I honestly was not sure if Gaethje had truly changed his ways in his last fights, or if the match-ups he had were just that good for his style. It was probably a bit of both, but I definitely undersold Gaethje's commitment to employing actual tactics and defence.
It also turns out that Ferguson is a momentum-based fighter, who needs to be able to settle in to a groove and chain together small successes into a overwhelming assault. Gaethje was able to land brutal counters all night long, preventing Ferguson from getting anywhere close to comfortable, and decisively winning every round of the fight. The fact the fight even went to the fifth round is a statement as to Ferguson's legendary toughness, as he ate shots that would have stopped almost anyone else — including a flush head-kick that didn't even make Tony blink.
Tactically, Gaethje didn't do anything abnormal, he chopped away at Ferguson's legs with about 30 kicks over the course of the opening rounds. The surprise came from the amount of success Gaethje had, perfectly checkmating nearly all of Ferguson's efforts. There were brief moments where Ferguson would land a solid punch or kick, including a low leg-kick that looked like a sweep straight out of Mortal Kombat II — the sort of thing that isn't supposed to work in an actual fight — but they were few and far between.
For a fighter who seemed destined to burn out at record pace, Justin Gaethje really has turned everything around. Many fighters have tempered their aggression following a brutal stoppage, nevermind a pair of them and a war with Michael Johnson that condensed a career's worth of damage into a single fight, but this typically comes at the expense of finishing ability and excitement. Not so with Justin Gaethje, whose style remains as fan-friendly and violent as before, just without the grievous personal costs.
I don't even think there needed to be a fifth round, but this is MMA and it's so rare that a corner actually throws in the towel that it might as well never happen. Ironically, Justin Gaethje had Trevor Wittman in his corner, one of the few coaches willing to spare their fighter unneccessary damage. By the end, Ferguson's face was a swollen mass of flesh, he likely had a broken orbital and was barely able to stand — the visual was unsettling.
As tremendous an achievement as this is for Justin Gaethje, it's all but assured that we will never see Tony and Khabib Nurmagomedov fight. It will be difficult enough to match up Khabib and Gaethje, Conor McGregor has (expectedly) interjected himself into the situation, and Tony is moving into his late-30s. It is possible that they fight, albeit slim, and there is almost no chance that it will be for a title; no one gets back to title contention in the lightweight division. Regardless, Ferguson needs a long break, he absorbed an incredible amount of damage and may or may not ever be the same fighter going forward.
We'll see what materialises, but right now I heavily favour Gaethje to beat whoever he is paired with. Before his paradigm shift, I would have expected a well-prepared Conor McGregor to destroy Gaethje, but now I think that situation is completely reversed. I also think Gaethje has exactly the tools to hand Khabib his first loss, although that fight is a lot more intriguing to analyse. No matter what, I hope Justin Gaethje gets properly compensated for the performances he's already given us and for what we can expect the next time he steps in the cage.
Considering the COVID-19 pandemic is not going to be resolved anytime in the near future, it is difficult to forecast anything in the near future. We'll see what happens after the UFC completes this week-long run of shows and what the immediate future of live events is. We live in uncertain times, but the legitimacy of Justin Gaethje's status as the rightful contender for the undisputed lightweight championship is without question.
Published: May 12th, 2020.