How Justin Gaethje Won the Interim Lightweight Title at U.F.C. 249

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Justin Gaethje and Tony Ferguson have been matched to offer motion.

In organizing the first main skilled sporting occasion in North America since the Covid-19 pandemic prompted an industrywide shutdown eight weeks in the past, the Ultimate Fighting Championship wished to make sure that, with one thing of a monopoly on fan consideration, the major occasion from U.F.C. 249 entertained.

And the fighters delivered violence — with Ferguson absorbing most of the punishment. Gaethje dominated the 36-year-old for almost 5 rounds, pummeling him with heavy punches till the referee, Herb Dean, stopped the struggle with 80 seconds remaining in the last body.

All 11 bouts on the card unfolded in an enviornment freed from spectators, with few folks past fighters, their corners, U.F.C. and fee workers, broadcast crews and a few journalists inside the constructing amid the ongoing pandemic.

A sold-out crowd which may in any other case have attended would have seen Gaethje beat Ferguson to the punch from the opening horn, peppering the veteran with counter proper fingers, left hooks and leg kicks. Ferguson wobbled Gaethje with an uppercut late in Round 2, however the remainder of the struggle the 31-year-old-Gaethje managed the motion along with his heavy fingers and crisp timing.

When he landed a pointy jab to Ferguson’s nostril late in Round 5, Ferguson stumbled and Dean stopped the bout.

The win earned Gaethje the interim light-weight championship, however he refused to simply accept the belt, telling the in-ring interviewer, Joe Rogan, that he most well-liked to attend for the undisputed title. That title shot — towards champion Khabib Nurmagomedov — might occur later this 12 months if circumstances throughout the pandemic permit.

Ferguson was initially scheduled to face Nurmagomedov in a title struggle, when the outbreak set off a series of occasions that led to a brand new venue and stored the Russian champ from leaving his house nation to struggle.

Gaethje stepped in as a alternative.

Here’s a glance at how he received and the way the remainder of U.F.C. 249 unfolded:

How he received and the way the remainder of U.F.C. 249 unfolded:

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Tony Ferguson has a chin.

Heavy-handed Justin Gaethje cracked him repeatedly with clear left hooks and proper fingers, and Ferguson, the U.F.C.’s high light-weight contender, simply smiled and stored urgent ahead along with his personal punches and kicks.

Ferguson seemingly didn’t win Round 1, however he proved he can take Gaethje’s punch.

For now.

For 4 minutes and 59 seconds, Gaethje beat Ferguson to the punch. Straight rights. Left hooks. Uppercuts. They all landed. Flush.

Ferguson took all of them and stored advancing.

A second earlier than the finish of the spherical, Ferguson tagged Gaethje with an explosive uppercut, dropping him to a knee.

Then the horn sounded and fighters retreated to their corners, Ferguson trying recent and Gaethje respiration closely.

Ferguson appears decided to put on Gaethje down by absorbing each punch Gaethje throws. A leg kick–left hook mixture raised a welt underneath Ferguson’s left eye, and a heavy counter proper hand precipitated Ferguson, for the first time all struggle, to stumble backward for a second.

By the finish of Round three, Ferguson had blood streaming down each cheeks and, seemingly, a deficit on the scorecards.

Four rounds in, it’s the struggle you’d anticipate in a matchup of relentless offensive fighters. Ferguson stays recreation, shifting ahead with punches and kicks. But Gaethje is a step forward. An overhand proper drove Ferguson throughout the ring, and a tough leg kick spun Ferguson sideways.

Gaethje had by no means fought previous three rounds earlier than tonight, however he seems to be snug and in management.

The struggle ended the manner it began — with Tony Ferguson taking thunderous punches from Justin Gaethje.

With 90 seconds remaining, Gaethje wobbled Ferguson with a left jab to the nostril. When he adopted up with extra punches, referee Herb Dean intervened to spare Ferguson additional punishment.

The win makes Gaethje the U.F.C. interim light-weight champion, placing him in place to face Khabib Nurmagomedov later this 12 months for the undisputed title.

“I knew I was a killer stepping in here,” Gaethje mentioned in the octagon afterward. “I’m good, bro.”

Nurmagomedov was clearly watching.

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Dominick Cruz comes out shifting, circling, darting out and in. Henry Cejudo, defending his U.F.C. bantamweight title, commits to heavy leg kicks, hoping to make Cruz extra stationary.

Cruz, a longtime former champion, hasn’t fought since 2016, whereas Cejudo is competing for the first time in 11 months.

Early in Round 2, Cruz appeared to regain his rhythm, tagging Cejudo with a number of clear counter punches. Late in the spherical a conflict of heads opened a bloody gash in Cejudo’s hairline, prompting a struggle physician to look at the wound.

When the motion resumed, Cejudo struck, hitting Cruz with a knee to the face, then raining punches on him till the referee stopped the bout with simply 2 seconds remaining in the spherical.

Cruz complained however the referee’s choice was last.

“I’m a chameleon,” Cejudo mentioned afterward in the ring. “I can adjust.”

Immediately afterward, a grinning Cejudo, sporting his UFC title belt and gold medal from the 2008 Summer Olympics, introduced his retirement from skilled combating.

After profitable gold, then two U.F.C. titles, Cejudo gave himself the nickname Triple C, in honor of the three world championships, and had spoken not too long ago about shifting as much as the U.F.C.’s featherweight class to pursue a title there.

But Cejudo had additionally handled accidents, and entered Saturday’s struggle after an operation on his shoulder.

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After Surinamese heavyweight Jairzinho Rozenstruik defeated veteran Alistair Overeem in November, he referred to as out the No. 2 contender, Francis Ngannou. He figured his kickboxing expertise would neutralize the Cameroonian’s energy, and win would propel him to a heavyweight title shot.


Ngannou wanted lower than half a minute to blast Rozenstruik, knocking him unconscious with a thunderous overhand punch. Rozenstruik slumped towards the fence and wanted rapid medical consideration as the referee stopped the bout.

“When I heard he called me out, I knew he didn’t know what he was doing,” Ngannou deadpanned afterward.

Ngannou now will await the winner of a heavyweight title rematch between champion Stipe Miocic and former champ Daniel Cormier.

Jeremy Stephens entered Saturday with a weight benefit — the veteran featherweight missed the 146-pound contracted restrict by Four.5 kilos, and needed to forfeit 30 p.c of his payout to his opponent, Calvin Kattar.

But Kattar, a 32-year-old fighter from Methuen, Mass., introduced quicker, heavier fingers and a recreation plan to a struggle he received by a spectacular second-round stoppage.

After weathering Stephens’s energy punches early, Kattar peppered Stephens’s left leg with sharp kicks, elevating darkish welts on his thigh. Late in Round 1, Kattar landed a entrance kick and an overhand proper that froze Stephens, a veteran of 47 professional fights.

Midway via Round 2, as Stephens wound as much as throw a proper hand, Kattar beat him to the punch, stepping to crack Stephens throughout the chin with a proper elbow. Stephens crumpled and Kattar pounced, touchdown a left elbow that minimize Stephens’s brow, forcing the referee to cease the struggle. Kattar is now 5-2 in U.F.C. bouts, and 21-Four total.

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Greg Hardy was clearly the higher athlete. The former All-Pro defensive lineman is long-limbed and limber, and faster than Yorgan De Castro, his opponent in the heavyweight bout that opened the pay-per-view portion of U.F.C. 249.

But in the first spherical De Castro, a Cape Verde native now combating out of Brocton, Mass., seemed to be the superior fighter, touchdown a number of sharp proper fingers to Hardy’s head, and collection of chopping kicks to Hardy’s left thigh.

Then an obvious toe damage slowed De Castro halfway via Round 2, permitting the 31-year-old Hardy to grab the initiative.

Afterward, Hardy mentioned he blocked De Castro’s leg kick when he heard commentator Daniel Cormier counsel it at ringside. In an empty enviornment, the fighters can hear the broadcasters’ each phrase, and Hardy credited Cormier’s commentary with turning the struggle in his favor.

Hardy (5-2, 1 no contest) recorded his first win of 2020, after competing 5 instances in 2019.

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The absence of a crowd isn’t simply affecting how viewers at house expertise the presentation of the bouts — it’s affecting the final result of the fights themselves. Without 15,00zero screaming followers, plenty of fighters have talked about in post-fight interviews that they might hear the commentary from tv announcers Jon Anik, Joe Rogan and Daniel Cormier, who’re seated simply outdoors the octagon.

Carla Esparza, who received by way of a break up choice, mentioned she started diversifying her ways after listening to Cormier critique her. And Greg Hardy began defending towards kicks from Yorgan De Castro by checking his leg — bending and elevating it as much as defend the thigh — after listening to Cormier point out it. It labored, as De Castro appeared to harm his foot on a wild kick that caught Hardy’s shin, and Hardy received by unanimous choice.

As the pay-per-view card started, Cormier and Rogan leaned into the weirdness of the occasion, which is underneath scrutiny as the first main U.S. sporting occasion since the coronavirus pandemic shut down the high leagues.

“I don’t understand why we’re so far away from each other but we’re so close right now. None of this makes any sense,” Rogan mentioned throughout a dialog with Anik and Cormier as they stood in the similar shot earlier than shifting again to their seats at separate tables.

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The information that fighter Ronaldo Souza, often known as Jacare, and two of his cornermen examined constructive for the coronavirus Friday evening drove house how troublesome it’s to soundly maintain occasions throughout this pandemic. But if every other fighters have issues, you in all probability is not going to hear about them, as the U.F.C. clamped down on criticism of its well being and security pointers.

U.F.C. 249 fighters might lose vital quantities of cash in the event that they “suggest or communicate” that the occasion is being held “without appropriate health, safety or other precautions,” in response to a duplicate of a participation settlement obtained by The New York Times. If fighters violate this provision, the U.F.C. could “revoke all or any part of any prize monies or awards won by the Participant.” These can embody “purses, win bonuses, other fight-related bonuses and event-based merchandise royalties.”

Nothing in the agreement obtained by The Times said that only untrue statements can be punished.

A surprise guest made an appearance early in the streaming portion of the telecast: President Trump.

A prerecorded video from the president was played between the second and third fights of the night. “I want to congratulate Dana White and the U.F.C. They’re going to have a big match,” he said, adding: “Get the sports leagues back, let’s play. You do the social distancing and whatever else you have to do, but we need sports. We want our sports back.”

The friendship between President Trump and White dates back nearly 20 years. The first U.F.C. event after White took over the mixed martial arts promotion company, U.F.C. 30 in 2001, was held at the Trump Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City. White praised President Trump for supporting the U.F.C. when many casinos and arenas wouldn’t host their fights, and he paid back the favor by speaking in support of then-candidate Trump at the 2016 Republican National Convention.

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Donald Cerrone finished the first round against Anthony Pettis with swelling on his face, but at least he finished the first round.

Cerrone, who is better known as Cowboy, has lost his last three bouts, and was stopped in the first round of his previous two. He and Pettis competed evenly in Round 1, with Cerrone landing a takedown, and Pettis connecting with several clean punches.

One more close round. Cerrone completed another takedown. Pettis landed heavy blows to Cerrone’s body — a left hook and a spinning back kick.

Somebody has to win.

These two fighters are 0-5 combined in their most recent fights.

Cerrone landed a right kick to Pettis’s face. He knocked Matt Brown unconscious with a similar shot in 2016, but Pettis took it and kept fighting. Pettis had controlled much of Round 3 until then, but Cerrone’s thunderous right kick tilted the momentum his way.

For but a moment.

Overall, the judges favored Pettis, awarding him the bout 29-28 on all three cards.

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As heavyweight Aleksei Oleinik pressed forward in the opening round, his cornermen shouted for him to hit Fabricio Werdum’s body.

Seemed like a good idea.

Werdum entered the octagon with the sloping shoulders and fleshy midsection of a middle-aged dad — he’ll turn 43 in July. Oleinik had trimmed some body fat since his last U.F.C. fight nearly four months ago, but was actually the older of the two combatants by a month.

So while Oleinik dominated Round 1, by midway through the second, the bout looked exactly like a matchup between fighters whose combined age was 84. The pace of Oleinik’s attack slowed. Werdum managed to land a few punches, and wrestled Oleinik to the mat. They traded blows in the final round and the final buzzer sounded without a decisive winner.

In the end, two judges favored Oleinik’s power punching, awarding him a split decision. The win marked Oleinik’s 59th victory in 73 pro bouts. Werdum, a former U.F.C. heavyweight champion, dropped to 23-8-1.

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Strawweight contenders Carla Esparza and Michelle Waterson spent two-and-a-half rounds in a tense, tactical, tightly contested chess match.

Then a fight erupted in the final 30 seconds.

Waterson, a karate expert fighting out of Albuquerque, N.M., landed a left roundhouse kick to Esparza’s body. Esparza absorbed the blow but trapped Waterson’s leg and tried to drag her to the mat, where Esparza’s experience as a college wrestler would give her an advantage. Waterson escaped and Esparza landed a left-right combination. Esparza kept pursuing and Waterson swatted her across the face with a left roundhouse kick.

In a bout without a clear winner, the opinions among the judges were divided. One scored all three rounds for Esparza, while another awarded all three to Waterson. Esparza (16-6) prevailed on the third judge’s card to win her third straight U.F.C. bout.

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Niko Price’s body didn’t give out, even after nearly three rounds of trading punches and kicks at midrange near the center of the octagon. And his fighting spirit didn’t break, even as blood streamed from a cut below his right eye and dripped from another cut above it.

But after welterweight Vicente Luque landed a perfectly timed counter left hook late in Round 3, Price hit the canvas. When the referee called timeout, the fight doctor looked at Price’s quickly swelling right eye, and the two cuts near it, and advised the referee to stop the bout.

Until then, Luque and Price had engaged in a brutal bout that resembled bare-knuckled kickboxing. Luque landed a big right hand over Price’s lazy left jab. Price connected with a front kick to Luque’s chin. Both fighters landed thudding kicks to each other’s thighs.

Luque looked drained late in Round 2, but in the late phases of the third landed the explosive left hook that ended the fight. The win was the 18th of Luque’s career, while Price drops to 14-4.

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On Friday afternoon, the U.F.C. featherweight contender Bryce Mitchell posted a photo of himself engaged in a post-weigh-in staredown with his opponent, Charles Rosa.

“Time to cook em to the bone,” the caption read.

A day later Mitchell, a 25-year-old submission specialist, spent three rounds mauling Rosa, dragging him to the canvas and running him though an endless series of chokes, arm cranks and other holds designed to make opponents quit.

Rosa, a 33-year-old jiu-jitsu black belt, figured to challenge Mitchell if their bout turned into a grappling match, but the third time Mitchell pretzeled himself around Rosa and yanked on his arm, it was clear which fighter was more skilled in fighting on the ground.

Mitchell won on all three judges’ cards and is now 13-0, with nine wins by submission. Rosa moves to 12-4 overall.

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Ryan Spann finished the fight wobbly. Veteran light-heavyweight Sam Alvey hit him hard several times in the final round of the opening bout of U.F.C. 249, catching Spann with a short right hook, and later landing a flurry of blows before the final horn.

But Spann, a 28-year-old contender, had already won the first two rounds, and emerged with a split-decision win.

A second-round kick to Alvey’s head drew a reaction from octagon-side announcers and likely would have triggered cheers from spectators. Except Spann and Alvey met in a near-empty arena, with fans prohibited because of the coronavirus pandemic. Their bout had the feel of an exhibition, with the venue so quiet the camera’s mics picked up instructions from the fighters’ corners and even the athletes’ breathing.

Spann used well-timed front kicks and right hands to control the first two rounds and improved his overall pro record to 18-5. Saturday’s loss was Alvey’s fourth straight defeat.

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The announcers will be calling the fights from near the octagon but will be sitting apart from each other. After each fight, Joe Rogan will interview the winners from at least six feet away. The U.F.C. has not revealed its camera setup, but considering it has always controlled production, it is likely to look very similar to previous events.

At the start of its telecast, a standup shot included all three announcers — Jon Anik on play-by-play and analysts Rogan and Daniel Cormier — close together and without masks. They later appeared to speak from separate tables at different spots around the octagon.
”People are starving. They’re starving for something, some action, some fun,” Rogan said.

Dana White went from downplaying the risk from the coronavirus to acknowledging it while insisting that the U.F.C. would be the first sport back. Why the rush?

It’s not financial, according to Mark Shapiro, the president of Endeavor, which owns the U.F.C. “We are not putting fights on to satisfy any contracts or because of any particular financial situation at Endeavor,” Shapiro said. Endeavor has $4.6 billion in debt, and has laid off, furloughed or cut the pay of a third of its 7,500 worldwide employees.

Instead, Shapiro and U.F.C. officials have said their efforts are in service of the athletes, who do not get paid unless they perform. “We have fighters itching to fight, and that have contracts that require us to put them into an octagon,” Shapiro said.

Dana White has been president of the U.F.C. for almost 20 years, a tenure that has seen mixed martial arts rise from a niche sport banned in many states to one minting worldwide superstars like Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey. But after earning hundreds of millions of dollars, why is he still working 24/7, and does the U.F.C. still need a bombastic street fighter as a leader?

The undefeated lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov was supposed to headline this card with a title defense against Tony Ferguson. Instead, he is in his native Dagestan, the Russian Republic, where pandemic-related travel restrictions prevent him from leaving.

For his part, Nurmagomedov awaits the winner of Saturday’s main event, and says he will be prepared to fight after Ramadan, which ends May 23.

“It was the best training camp,” he wrote in a recent Instagram post, referring to his preparation for the Ferguson bout. “I haven’t felt myself that good for a while.”

He pledged to “come back even better.”

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Conor McGregor, the U.F.C.’s biggest pay-per-view attraction, has been at home in Ireland, where he will watch Saturday’s card to size up future opponents and judge how the sport is organized amid the pandemic.

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