Pre-Fight Thoughts: Tony Ferguson -vs- Justin Gaethje
This is an article I didn't really want to be writing, about a fight that shouldn't be taking place — more specifically, should not be taking place under these circumstances. In a vaccuum, the prospect of Justin Gaethje and Tony Ferguson meeting in the octagon is an amazing match-up, unquestionably a televised main event and a legitimate title-fight with the right promotion. Instead this is an interim title fight, hastily put together after lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov was unable to travel to the United States, but before the postponment of UFC 249.
The UFC scrambled and offered Justin Gaethje a spot in the fight, and Ferguson accepted. No surprise there; if I had to name a pair of fighters willing to throw down during a global pandemic with little-to-no advanced notice, both of these names would quickly spring to mind. And that's what we're getting, really — two incredibly tough guys with minimal preparation are going to get locked in a cage and fight for a mostly-real UFC belt. For a lot of fighters, I think this would be a bigger problem, but for two generally tough — and maybe even unhinged — individuals, I don't think we'll see much if anything in terms of 'ring rust.'
Tony Ferguson works out like he's limited to using the rubble of a post-apocalytic society to train under the direction of a mad shaman, so aside from fewer training partners I don't even know if he noticed much of a difference. Likewise, Justin Gaethje seems like the sort of natural combatant that is always ready to fight at the highest level, regardless of the situation.
With Khabib indisposed, the UFC also ended up being forced into being meritocratic. Anyone who doesn't think the UFC would have replaced Khabib with Conor McGregor, were that an option, is deluding themselves. That would have been Dana White's dream scenarion, since it would also present justification for the Khabib / Conor rematch that he and precisely no one else wants to see so badly. Instead, they were forced to go with Gaethje / Ferguson, which both makes sense in terms of rankings and doesn't let Conor cut the line. (McGregor does not need to be fighting for titles, and the UFC lightweight division has been logjammed for too long.)
For anyone who finds defensive fighting boring, this should be the fight just for you. Gaethje, while he's had a good run of finishing fights early as-of-late, is best known for blocking strikes with his face and an inhuman durability. Ferguson is another tough-as-nails fighter who seems to be incapable of reaching his true potential unless he's been bloodied and hurt to some degree. It's true that anything can happen, but it is at least unlikely that we get something like Israel Adesanya and Yoel Romero.
I fully expect Justin Gaethje to try and walk Tony Ferguson down and batter him with leg kicks and hard punches as always. I don't think Gaethje will ever become a wrestle-boxer, and he sure as Hell won't be doing it in this fight. If anyone is going to try and take the fight to the ground, I would expect Ferguson to try. Either because the stand-up may not be going his way, or just as a point of pride — proving he can take down the most accomplished wrestler — Ferguson may try and take the fight to the ground. This is a guy who threatened to ankle-pick Fabricio Werdum, so you just never know with this man...
Over the past few weeks, I have not been thinking much about fighting, so I don't have a good visualisation of what sort of strategy either fighter will likely implement. I don't think one really needs to think too hard about what these two specific fighters will try to do: put a savage beating on each other and (hopefully) take less damage than the other guy. Anything beyond that, I really don't know. I believe Ferguson when he says he doesn't gameplan for anyone, he's definitely operating on his own specific wavelength. I don't think Justin Gaethje cares too much about who he is fighting, either.
I think this will be a good fight. A fight that shouldn't be staged right now, and a fight that will almost certainly not remunerate either competitor properly for the risks they are taking. I do not fault Tony Ferguson or Justin Gaethje for competing at this time, even if I wish they weren't. The position the UFC has put these fighters — along with the rest of the roster — by continuing to try and stage events during a global pandemic is unenviable and ethically dubious (at best).
As for the fight itself, I'll take Ferguson to win a tough, brutal fight, probably by TKO late in the fight. I don't think decision is out of the question, but extremely unlikely — these guys are just too violent, and this is a 5-round fight. For what it is, this is a great match-up, and under normal circumstances I would be among the first in line to slam $70 on the table to watch it on pay-per-view.
But these are not normal circumstances, not even close. The main event of UFC 249 is truly a guilty pleasure; this shouldn't even be happening and yet it is. On its merits, a great contest; I just hope an abundance of caution and a little bit of luck ensures the event is held safely.
Published: May 9th, 2020.