After what felt like years of waiting, UFC 249 finally arrived - and it more than lived up to the hype. Read on for results & analysis.
May 10 Results and Analysis
With UFC 249 now having come and gone, we take a look at the results and analyze the fallout from the incredible night in Jacksonville Florida. The original preview article remains unchanged, with results and analysis added in red following each fight's section.
After the turmoil of the last few months that included shifting venues, remixed fights, and political grandstanding, the UFC is finally set to grace our television sets once again on May 9.
With a ridiculously stacked card, UFC 249 looks to be one of the best cards (on paper) in UFC history despite the trials and tribulations the UFC and its fighters have gone through making this event come together.
Unfortunately, the massive event will go down in front of empty seats and the big fight atmosphere that typically fuels such a deep card will be replaced by that of an eerily quiet arena - luckily that doesn't mean the fights themselves will be any less violent or entertaining.
With the UFC largely being the only game in town and the eyes of the sports-deprived world turning to mixed martial arts to satiate their appetites, now's the perfect time to preview the action and analyze the matchups going down on Saturday night.
Of course, this preview assumes the fighters all show up and perform largely the same as they normally would - given the circumstances, it's likely that many fighters had less-than-optimal training camps thanks to the closing of gyms and their limited ability to train with others, not to mention the added stresses and uncertainties they've had to deal with over the past weeks.
That being said, it's times like these that show us how special fighters truly are.
So without further ado, let's break down some fights.
ESPN+/Fight Pass Early Prelims
Light Heavyweight (205) Bout
Ryan "Superman" Spann (17-5) vs. "Smilin" Sam Alvey (33-13 1NC)
An overlooked scrap on such a massive card, the curtain jerker for UFC 249 features everyone's favourite overly happy, lanky ginger, "Smilin" Sam Alvey in his desperate bid to try and keep his spot on the roster.
Once considered a feared knockout artist, Alvey has since been exposed as a rather one-note, awkward striker that looks very out of sorts when his opponents aren't recklessly charging at him and allowing him to land his counter right hook.
As a result, the highly active (he has had 18 fights in five years with the promotion) Alvey is now regularly involved in extremely tepid, dry affairs that have you begging for someone to do something for the entirety of their runtime.
After making a name for himself as an exciting slugger given his early opponents would charge him and get faceplanted, he has since finished just one of his last five wins and is on a three fight losing streak, which saw him knocked out by Jimmy Crute (kind of) and an aged Antonio Rogerio Nogueira.
One would have to assume that a fourth consecutive loss would spell an end to Alvey's UFC tenure, and the UFC did him no favours with this latest matchup.
A 6'5 and athletic light heavyweight, Ryan Spann has now come into his own at 28 years of age.
Cutting his teeth in smaller promotons in Texas and Louisiana, Spann made a name for himself as a submission finisher before a rough patch saw him lose three of five outings to bring his record to 10-4 - the prospect was regardless granted an opportunity on the first season of Dana White's Tuesday Night Contender Series.
Facing off against powerful striker Karl Roberson, Spann was massacred in just 20 seconds by a barrage of elbows, ending his UFC aspirations emphatically. At least for a little while.
Going back to the drawing board, Spann would turn things around and greatly improve his standup game in the process, winning three straight fights in the highly-touted LFA organization and capturing their light heavyweight title.
Having worked his way back onto the series, Spann was given another shot on the Contender Series' second season; this time, Spann would crack his opponent and tap him out via a guillotine in just 26 seconds to secure a contract with the UFC.
From there, Spann has handily won his three outings in the Octagon, with two coming via finish (including a brutal knockout over the afforementioned Antonio Rogerio Nogueira).
Spann is now riding a seven fight winning streak with six finishes evenly split between submissions and knockouts, showing off his well-rounded attack and vastly improved overall game.
Given his technical advances on the feet combined with his range and power, even in striking range (which is where Alvey will no doubt want to contest this fight) he appears to have a major advantage. Barring a severe miscalculation from Spann, this fight should serve as another dominant finish to add to a rising prospect's highlight reel.
Official Pick: Ryan Spann by first round (T)KO (sorry Sam)
Results: Ryan Spann won by unanimous decision
The night's opening bout surprised in several ways - for one, Spann looked rather clumsy and laboured compared to his recent outings and wasted a lot of energy early trying to drag Alvey to the mat. Alvey's takedown defense and ability to get back to his feet saved him early and he showed improvements in his output as well, leading to a surprisingly fun fight.
The third round was particularly fun as Spann looked to be gassing out - Alvey fought for his career and poured on the pressure, rocking Spann more than once and having him in all sorts of trouble right before the bell sounded - it ended up being too little, too late to swing the bout into his favour, but given his activity and persona it'd be nice to see Alvey granted one last shot to keep his spot on the roster.
Featherweight (145) Bout
Bryce "Thug Nasty" Mitchell (12-0) vs. Charles Rosa (12-3)
Once known almost exclusively for his unfortunate mishap with a power drill, "Thug Nasty" has since become even more well known for his in-cage exploits, most notably his brutal twister submission of Matt Sayles late last year.
Primarily a grappler, Mitchell has shown excellent submission skills throughout his career and likes to push a ridiculous pace on his opponents, which is what has propelled him to a sterling 12-0 record (though it should be noted he did lose during The Ultimate Fighter).
Mitchell has an extremely tough test standing in front of him however in the form of Charles Rosa.
A black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu under Ricardo Liborio, Rosa is a submission specialist himself that may be more than a match for Mitchell and has shown a more capable striking game compared to his younger opponent thus far.
While his 3-3 record in the UFC isn't exactly inspiring, Rosa has earned Fight of the Night honours on three occassions (ironically, all three in the bouts he lost) and two of his losses were to top talent - a close split decision to Yair Rodriguez and a late TKO loss to Shane Burgos.
Rosa's last bout saw him face off against an extremely heavy top-game specialist in Manny Bermudez, who also missed weight by three pounds for their featherweight clash. The 14-1 Bermudez wasted no time taking Rosa to the ground but was unable to mount much offense before being caught in a slick armbar and finished just midway through the opening round, to the shock of many.
The win showed off just how dangerous Rosa is on the ground and against a fighter somewhat similar in style to Mitchell - the chances of a submission win for Rosa also look promising considering Mitchell's loss in the TUF house was a submission defeat to the rather unimpressive Brad Katona.
Of course, Mitchell has greatly improved since then and should he be able to avoid Rosa's submissions, his pace and tenacity will prove difficult to overcome for Rosa, who has been shown to struggle with that type of fight in his prior outing against Shane Burgos.
Personally I'll lean in Mitchell's favour but don't be surprised if Rosa picks up a submission victory to spoil the undefeated prospect's party.
Official Pick: Bryce Mitchell by decision
Results: Bryce Mitchell won via unanimous decision
Wow, has "Thug Nasty" continued to impress. The 25 year old put on a show yesterday by putting on an absolute clinic on Rosa, a Ricardo Liborio-trained BJJ black belt.
Despite the fight occurring entirely on the mat, Mitchell's constant submission attempts with nasty elbows and punches sprinkled in kept things entertaining and his extremely impressive ability to continually find twister attempts was just as amazing as it was baffling. A move that's only been successful twice in UFC history, Rosa found himself in twister position three times over the course of as many rounds and at the end of the second, Mitchell had secured the position and likely would have gotten a tap had he had more time.
The way he handled such an accomplished grappler was supremely impressive and should see Mitchell earn himself a top-15 fighter in the near future to coincide with his new Reebok camo shorts.
Welterweight (170) Bout
Vicente "The Silent Assassin" Luque (17-7-1) vs. Niko "The Hybrid" Price (14-3 1NC)
Just three fights in and we're already looking at a matchup that on any other card would be a virtual lock for Fight of the Night.
Starting with "The Silent Assassin", the quiet and mild-mannered Brazilian does more than his fair share of speaking when the cage door closes - continuous forward momentum, an onslaught of clean combinations, and ridiculous toughness are staples of Luque's game.
Luque's path to becoming a force of nature was an arduous one - cutting his teeth in Brazilian promotions, by the time his run on the 21st installment of The Ultimate Fighter came to an end and his lackluster UFC debut saw him laid on by a wrestler for three rounds, Luque's rather dismal 7-5-1 record didn't do his potential any justice.
His potential was still evident to those who looked however - he did knock out future light heavyweight title challenger Thiago Santos in a middleweight fight in Brazil after all, and had shown a ton of promise during his stint in the TUF house.
Under the tutelage of kickboxing great Henri Hooft, Luque finally began putting everything together and showing the world just how loud the Silent Assassin could be.
Utilizing excellent ringcraft and an always-forward pressuring style, Luque began to run roughshod through the welterweight division on his path to the top.
Vicente would start off the first of his two impressive finish streaks in the UFC by scoring four brilliant finishes in as many fights - he avenged a controversial decision loss from his stay in the TUF house by choking Hayder Hassan to sleep in two minutes, smashed an overmatched opponent before locking up his favourite D'Arce choke submission, slumped Hector Urbina with a vicious barrage on the feet, then skewered top-15 ranked Belal Muhammad with a beautiful short left hook, announcing himself as a legitimate threat to the elite in the stacked welterweight division.
Another wrestling-centric setback stopped Luque's momentum in its tracks as he lost a dull decision to the highly overlooked (but criminally boring) Leon Edwards, but six months later Luque would erase all memory of that and would renew his upward momentum by kicking off an even more impressive winning streak.
Facing a wildly aggressive undefeated knockout artist, Luque took on none other than Niko Price in his next outing. The two strikers traded heavy leather for the first round, both men getting their shots in throughout, though Luque's forward pressure and ring cutting gave him the advantage in the slugfest as he systematically broke down the undefeated slugger.
In the second round, a torrent of strikes finally sent Price to the canvas but "The Hybrid" refused to quit, instead managing to work his way back up to his feet only for Luque to lock up his signature D'Arce choke to close the show early in the second round. It was a beautiful finish and an impressive performance from the rising Brazilian star.
Vicente would go on to knock out his next two opponents, Chad Laprise and Jalin Turner, each in the opening round. He followed that up with a Fight of the Year runner-up against Bryan Barbarena where he scored a brutal knockout with just six seconds remaining on the clock, then scored another first round knockout over a late replacement opponent to run his knockout streak up to four and his finishing streak up to five.
Facing off against the tough-as-nails Mike Perry, Luque engaged in another action-packed brawl, picking up a close decision win following a back-and-forth war which left Perry's nose an absolute disaster courtesy of a late knee from Luque, though Perry somehow managed to survive and make it to the scorecards.
His last outing was another war, this time a technical striking affair with Stephen "Wonderboy" Thompson.
Although he started off well, Wonderboy soon took over thanks to his extremely effective distance striking and precision. Luque held his own even after getting dropped in the third, once again reinforcing his status as one of the toughest and most exciting fighters on the roster even if he did leave the cage with a loss.
At UFC 249, Luque will once again face Niko Price inside the Octagon.
Similarly to Luque, "The Hybrid" has made himself a fan-favourite action fighter thanks to his hyper-aggressive (often to the point of recklessness) style and flair for brilliant finishes.
Starting off in a smaller promotion in his native Florida, Price racked up eight straight wins with all but one coming via finish to earn his shot in the UFC, where he would quickly dominate failed prospect Brandon Thatch.
In a scrap against Brandon Morono, Price would starch his opponent right at the bell to signal the end of the second round, earning a truly rare non-corner stoppage knockout at exactly 5:00 of a round. Unfortunately, Price would fail his post-fight drug test for marijuana and as a result his win was overturned to a No Contest by the Texas commission (yes, up until recently commissions still did that shit for pot).
After stopping fellow action-fighter Alan Jouban in under two minutes, Price then ran into a fellow rising prospect, one Vicente Luque, who handed Price the first loss of his career.
Price would rebound with a submission win over George Sullivan before shocking everyone by delivering a virtually unheard of knockout via a hammerfist from his own back against Randy Brown.
Scoring a knockout from the bottom is extremely rare to begin with as it's incredibly difficult to generate power off your own back, and is almost always the result of an upkick; scoring a clean knockout from the canvas with a hammer fist of all things was as utterly bizarre as it was impressive.
Price's aggression and willingness to brawl got him into trouble in his next outing however, as Abdul Alhassan came out like a wrecking ball and slumped Price against the cage in just 43 seconds at UFC 228.
To the delight of fans, Niko vowed to remain a reckless brawler regardless of outcome and continued his scrappy ways against another fighter known for delivering his fair share of violence, Tim Means. The two winged elbows, knees, shins and fists at each other throughout the back-and-forth first round, with Means rocking Price as the seconds ticked away in the opening frame.
As Means backed Price against the fence and looked for a killing blow, Price nailed Means with a vicious right hand and sent the "Dirty Bird" crashing to the canvas and earned Price a beautiful first round knockout.
Unfortunately for the highly entertaining brawler, Price would run into another surging prospect in Geoff Neal, who picked apart the scrappy striker en route to a second round TKO while in Price's guard from hellacious ground and pound.
In his last outing, Price would once again delight the MMA world with an insane knockout from his own back, this time a brutal upkick knockout over everyone's favourite concussion recipient James Vick.
If there's one thing we know heading into a rematch between Luque and Price, it's that it's guaranteed to deliver fireworks for as long as it lasts.
Vicente has certainly found more consistent success in the UFC, but Price is as consistently entertaining as humanly possible and is seemingly incapable of having a boring fight. These two could fight each other twenty times and still manage to have MMA fans hyped for another meeting.
All that being said, Luque is a rightful favourite here - though both are knockout artists in their own right, Luque is the more polished and technically sound striker and although he's unlikely to take it to the floor unless following Price there after a knockdown, he should also have the advantage on the mat with his submission ability (exactly as we saw in their first meeting).
Price however can never be counted out of a fight and so long as he is conscious, he's a threat - whatever you do, don't miss this scrap.
Official Pick: Vicente Luque by second round (T)KO
Results: Vicente Luque won by third round TKO (doctor stoppage)
What. A. Fight.
A scrap that would have surely earned Fight of the Night honours on virtually ANY other card, Luque and Price beat the hell out of each other for the better part of 15-minutes - both men had the other hurt on multiple occasions, Price's output and variation of strikes holding up well against Luque's more technical approach.
In the third Price had appeared to be the fresher man and was having great success even though Luque continued to lance him with jabs and leg kicks, but a beautiful Golovkin-esque left hook swelled Price's right eye shut and dropped him, leading to a late doctor's stoppage.
While many doctor's stoppages can feel anticlimactic, the damage on his face left the doctor no choice and the war that preceeded it as well as the nasty left hook that dropped Price evaporated that feeling, instead earning a sense of relief that Price didn't suffer any further damage when the fight was clearly over. It certainly lived up to its lofty expectations and both men continue to be the most entertaining welterweights on the planet.
Middleweight (185) Bout
Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza (26-8 1NC) vs. Uriah "Prime Time" Hall (15-9) - SCRATCHED
Ah, the good ol' middleweight division. If there's a bout on this card that has almost equal chance of being a boring 15-minute slog as it does of being an exciting fight and/or finish, it's this one.
MMA fans need no introduction to Jacare Souza - one of the most accomplished Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioners in mixed martial arts history, Souza is known for his ridiculous strength, power, durability, and devastating submission game.
The former Strikeforce champion has finished all but four of his victories and has been stopped just once in the last decade - whether he's tapping out Gegard Mousasi, Ed Herman, Tim Boetsch, and Chris Camozzi (twice, the poor bastard) or starching the likes of Chris Weidman (at the end of an absolute war that was seriously overlooked in 2018's Fight of the Year discussions), Derek Brunson (twice, the poor bastard), Vitor Belfort, and Yushin Okami, Jacare is one of the scariest fighters in the UFC's middleweight division.
Unfortunately the 40 year old is starting to show his age - after going 10-1 between 2012 and the beginning of 2017 with his lone blemish being an extremely close split decision loss to Yoel Romero, Jacare was knocked out by future champion Robert Whittaker and is now 2-4 in his last six outings.
Albeit of those losses was a controversial decision to Kelvin Gastelum, his last two outings saw him dominated (even on the ground) against Jack Hermansson before he stood around and looked at Jan Blachowicz for 25-minutes in his brief stint up at light heavyweight in November.
In Uriah Hall, we see a fighter of tremendous promise and an extremely gifted athlete that despite having flashes of brilliance, has never come close to realizing his true potential and is about as consistent as gas prices.
Hall made a name for himself by wrecking shop on The Ultimate Fighter's 17th season, where he scored an 8-second knockout which fractured his opponent's orbital, kicked off a TKO of one of the most promising fighters of the season with punches from his own guard, and delivered one of the most vicious and brutal knockouts in MMA history against poor Adam Cella.
Under the bright lights and expectations of the finale however, Hall was outworked by Kelvin Gastelum en route to a close decision loss, and followed it up with a similarly lackluster performance against John Howard, killing off his hype train as quickly as it started. He would slowly work his way back up, scoring four victories in his next five with three finishes, before catapulting himself back into contention talks by knocking out top contender Gegard Mousasi.
Finding himself once again the talk of the town, Hall's hype train was quickly derailed once more. His next outing resulted in a loss to future champ Robert Whittaker by decision, though it was hardly a terrible outing - his subsequent under-two minute trouncing at the hands of sloppy striker Derek Brunson however, was.
He then proceeded to get mauled in a rematch against Gegard Mousasi, which only further reinforced the sentiment amongst fans that Hall's biggest win was in fact a "fluke".
Facing a pink slip from the UFC following three straight losses, Hall was once again looking lost and getting touched up by the middling Krzysztof Jotko before a massive right hand in the second turned the tides and finally got Hall back on track with another knockout victory - only for him to then be fed to the young lion that is Paulo Costa.
Surprisingly, even though Hall was eventually broken down and knocked out in the second courtesy of Costa's ridiculous onslaught, he made a great accounting of himself in a stylistically nightmarish matchup and got plenty of his own licks in.
Since, Uriah once again scored a massive comeback knockout over prospect Bevon Lewis (who had largely dominated the first two rounds of action) and picked up a solid if unremarkable decision win over Antonio Carlos Junior in his last outing.
Against Jacare Souza, Hall has his work cut out for him - pressure has never been something he's been particularly adept at handling, and it's something that Jacare brings in spades. Hall's ground game, while serviceable, is nowhere near the level of Jacare's and he's had trouble keeping strong top players (like Carlos Junior and Gegard Mousasi) off of him in the past, something that will absolutely kill him here.
Souza is however slowing down and Hall is someone that can always turn the tide of a fight in an instant, making this an intriguing matchup - so long as both men show up and we aren't left with a patented Uriah Hall staring match, the likes of which Jacare just found himself in in his very last outing.
Souza has the advantage here even with his age and decline, and with near-even odds is a great bet if you're so inclined.
Official Pick: Jacare Souza by second or third round submission
MAY 8 UPDATE - The fight between Jacare Souza and Uriah Hall has been called off after Jacare tested positive for COVID-19. All other fighters tested negative.
Women's Strawweight (115) Bout
Carla "The Cookie Monster" Esparza (15-6) vs. Michelle "The Karate Hottie" Waterson (17-7)
The lone women's fight remaining on the card after both of the other scheduled female bouts fell through, Carla Esparza's clash with Michelle Waterson has been almost completely overlooked but still has plenty of potential to deliver an entertaining scrap.
The "Karate Hottie" is known for her flashy kicks and slick striking arsenal and has a solid jiu-jitsu game to boot. Although she's certainly a top fighter, with wins over the likes of Karolina Kowalkiewicz, Felice Herrig, Cortney Casey, Jessica Penne and Paige VanZant, she has turned into a bit of a Holly Holm-esque striker - someone who looks like they're doing a lot but is mostly just hitting air, particularly with her pretty-looking kicks that regularly miss their mark by a mile.
Known as a finisher in her earlier days, Waterson has been on a run of decisions lately, with a three-fight winning streak sandwiched between losses to Tecia Torres and most recently a beatdown at the hands of Joanna Jędrzejczyk.
A former atomweight (105 pounds) that's rather undersized for the division at 5'3, Waterson will finally get to face off with someone smaller than her in the form of the 5'1 "Cookie Monster".
Once known for being a boring wrestler with virtually no other skills to speak of, Esparza has worked hard in recent years to round out her game and as such has developed a surprisingly solid boxing game. While her defense isn't always spectacular, her quick hands and sharp combinations have managed to turn her into a much more well-rounded strawweight that is no longer destined to be a bore.
While her lay n' pray does still rear its ugly head, it's often as a result of her tiring later in fights or taking too much damage on the feet - if she could shore up those holes the former strawweight champion could very well see herself back in the contendership race.
Esparza's resume includes wins over the likes of Virna Jandiroba, Cynthia Calvillo, Maryna Moroz, Juliana Lima, Felice Herrig, Rose Namajunas and most recently, a close decision win over Alexa Grasso which earned her Fight of the Night honours (who would have ever guessed a few years ago that Esparza would ever capture a FOTN bonus?).
Conventional wisdom would assume that Esparza has the advantage against Waterson on the ground while Waterson would enjoy an advantage on the feet, but in this case it's not so clear cut - Esparza's boxing has improved leaps and bounds and if she smartly mixes in the threat of takedowns she could easily take over Waterson's range; likewise Waterson's activity off her back and slick BJJ could see her threaten submissions and potentially win a points battle against Esparza, who so often does next to nothing on top after she secures a takedown.
Both women have also shown a tendency to slow down as fights wear on, though Esparza's lay-and-pray tactics are easier to score with when tired than attacks off of the bottom.
This is a pick-em fight and could easily go either way, but given her improvements and her success against strikers without great takedown defense, Esparza is the more likely winner.
Official Pick: Carla Esparza by decision
Results: Carla Esparza won by split decision
One of the few dull spots on an otherwise epic card, Waterson's conservative range and wariness of the takedown combined with Carla's telegraphed entries both with strikes and takedowns led to a rather dismal outing where both women seemed to be attempting to fight while maintaining social distancing.
With the second round being by far the best for Waterson and the third saw Esparza edge it through activity and flurries, the fight should've come down to the scoring of the first round, where Esparza landed one nice right hand and a takedown, whereas Waterson stuffed several takedowns and landed five or six nice shots of her own.
The scorecards however bizarrely had 30-27 scores in favour of each fighter, with Carla picking up the only justifiable scorecard with a 29-28 that ended up getting her the victory. It could have gone either way and Waterson certainly could have gotten the nod, but her long periods of inactivity and refusal to lead made it impossible to really argue anything near a robbery.
Heavyweight (-265) Bout
Aleksei "The Boa Constrictor" Oleinik (58-13-1) vs. Fabricio "Vai Cavalo" Werdum (23-8-1)
Now this is a heavyweight matchup to get excited for.
The former UFC heavyweight champion Fabricio Werdum has seen better days - from the time the Brazilian jiu-jitsu ace shocked the world by tapping out Fedor Emilianenko in 69-seconds back in 2010, to the end of 2017, Werdum lost just three fights - a knockout loss to Stipe Miocic courtesy of pure recklessness sandwiched between two awkward decision losses to Alistair Overeem.
During that span he dominated the likes of Roy Nelson, Travis Browne (twice), and Walt Harris, knocked out Mark Hunt, submitted BJJ legend Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, and dominated Cain Velasquez en route to a guillotine submission.
His wins over Cain and Fedor alone led many to claim Werdum as the greatest heavyweight in MMA history, but after his ill-advised charging of Stipe Miocic cost him his title, said claims quickly died down. A contentious decision loss to Overeem had many writing off Werdum's hopes of getting back to a title, but after two solid wins it seemed Werdum was well on his path back to contendership.
And then he took on Alexander Volkov in 2018.
While he dominated the early rounds, Fabricio seemed out of shape and looked to simply be killing time until the final bell came, something that isn't exactly advisable for a heavyweight. Gassed in the fourth round, Werdum began eating more shots and decided to simply trade with Volkov, eating a combination that put him down and saw him knocked unconscious via follow-up shots.
To make matters worse, after signing on to face Aleksei Oleinik later that year, Werdum tested positive for trenbolone and was suspended for two years as a result.
Werdum's career trajectory has clearly taken a major hit and it's unclear what kind of fighter we'll see on May 9 - at the height of his powers Werdum was a BJJ savant with a well-rounded striking arsenal and deadly knees in the clinch that was also extremely well-conditioned for a heavyweight, but his last performance seemed to show an aging fighter trying to pick up a paycheck rather than work his way back to a title.
In his way stands the likewise 42-year-old Russian submission artist Aleksei Oleinik.
In Werdum you have a more traditional Brazilian jiu-jitsu expert (albeit very mobile and extremely technical for a heavyweight) - in Oleinik you have a grappler known for ridiculous brute strength and a penchant for pulling off bizarre submissions as soon as he gets a hold of his prey.
His extensive 72-fight career may not have quite the name value that Werdum's does, but the fan-favourite's 24-year career is definitely not one to sneeze at.
Oleinik has remarkably finished all but four of his 58 wins, with an incredible 46 victories coming by way of submission. Among his victims are Mark Hunt, Travis Browne, and Mirko Cro Cop (via an incredibly rare scarf hold no less) - he's also one of only a handful of MMA fighters to pull off an Ezekiel choke (it's a common submission in BJJ using the collar and sleeve of a gi to choke an opponent, however without a gi it's extremely difficult to pull off but possible by using the forearms and tremendous strength).
In fact Oleinik is the only man to ever pull off this submission inside the UFC, and there he's done it twice, including one while he was mounted by his opponent. Including his fights outside of the UFC, Oleinik has tapped out an astounding 11 fighters with his signature move over the years.
In addition to his Ezekiel chokes and scarf holds, Oleinik has pulled off virtually every submission you can name, from heel hooks to guillotines to bulldog chokes to inverted armbars and the classic rear-naked choke.
On the feet, Oleinik is a sloppy brawler known for having a tremendous chin and winging overhand rights repeatedly when he fails to take down his opponents, a pretty effective move when your opponent is scared to death of grappling with you and thus wary of a level change for a takedown.
This style can lead to hilarious, sloppy heavyweight scraps between two exhausted bar-room brawlers, which often favour Oleinik given his finishing instinct whenever the fight touches the mat.
This is also where Oleinik falters however - if his opponents can either force Oleinik to strike for extended periods or can survive stints on the ground, Oleinik's laboured striking and overcommittment expose him to damage on the feet and quickly sap his cardio.
Alistair Overeem showed the perfect example of this late last year, stuffing the Russian's takedown attempts and skewering him with his vicious knees.
Against someone with truly remarkable BJJ credentials and a lifetime of grappling experience at the highest levels, Oleinik finds himself in a stylistic nightmare. With many of his takedowns coming from the clinch, he runs the risk of eating Werdum's deadly (and highly underrated) knees - if he does succeed in taking Werdum down, the likelihood of him submitting such an incredible grappler is low and he runs the risk of gassing himself out just trying to control Werdum even if he manages to avoid getting submitted himself, whose guard is legendary for a reason.
On the feet, he always has a puncher's chance courtesy of his flailing bombs, but unless Werdum has really let himself go or gets lackadaisical (which is a real possibility), Oleinik will be steeply overmatched in the striking department.
Oleinik's clearest path to victory comes from throwing caution to the wind and forcing Werdum into a brawl, where his chances of connecting on a big shot or possibly snatching up a neck during a transition (even if only to tire Werdum and not successfully finish him) are drastically improved.
It will be a good test to see where Werdum is currently at, and if all goes well, we'll see these two engage meaningfully on the canvas rather than engage in a purely striking match.
Official Pick: Fabricio Werdum by second or third round (T)KO
Results: Aleksei Oleinik won by split decision
Now this was a genuine surprise and a nice one to boot.
Most longtime fans struggled to see how Oleinik could find victory barring a massive decline from Werdum - there was certainly a decline in the Brazilian, but there was also an impressive gameplan and improvements to Oleinik that led him to victory.
His striking was still wild and reckless, but he used it to tremendous effect against Werdum, who looked rather out of shape and is showing his age - conversely, Oleinik looked in tremendous shape and pushed a ridiculous pace, throwing wild shots at a ridiculous clip for a man his size. The offensive onslaught overwhelmed Werdum, who managed to land some solid knees and shots himself but otherwise saw his offense drowned out by a sea of wild overhands, uppercuts, and hammering clinch strikes.
Werdum showed he could definitely still take a shot and as time passed he was able to get Oleinik down, where he put the Russian slugger in various compromising positions, but the savvy vet was able to survive and see his hand raised after 15-minutes of lung-burning action. It was a fun scrap and it was nice to see the fan-favourite earn his biggest win to date, even if one judge somehow scored two rounds for Werdum.
Fabricio meanwhile would likely be better off retiring now - he's certainly still talented and will beat lesser competition, but if he remains to fight younger, more hungry challengers he will instead see his name used as a stepping stone and just continue to take punishment.
Welterweight (170) Bout
Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone (36-14-1) vs. Anthony "Showtime" Pettis (22-10)
To cap off the stacked preliminary portion of UFC 249, two of the most recognizable names in mixed martial arts square off in a rematch in the midst of career lows.
At one point in time, Anthony Pettis was on top of the world, hailed as the future of the lightweight division and MMA in general - he was an extremely dangerous striker with a superb submission game to compensate when fighters sought to take him down.
His "Showtime kick" made him a household name in the last WEC event before its roster was absorbed into the UFC ranks, the ridiculous kick (which Henderson actually survived) helping him capture WEC lightweight gold after an epic 5-round war that turned him into a star.
After a lay n' pray setback against Clay Guida in his UFC debut, Pettis tore through the lightweight division en route to capturing the lightweight crown (ironically by once again defeating Benson Henderson), earning wins over Jeremy Stephens, Joe Lauzon, and one Donald Cerrone, who he stopped midway through the opening round with a brutal body kick.
His superstardom continued to rise despite multiple injury layoffs - he became the first MMA fighter to grace the iconic Wheaties box before defending his title against Gilbert Melendez, submitting the scrappy vet in the second round and reaffirming his dominance over the division.
And then he met Rafael Dos Anjos.
Few expected Dos Anjos to win against the lightweight kingpin, but no one predicted just how badly Dos Anjos would dismantle Pettis.
Exposing just how poorly Pettis handled consistent pressure, Dos Anjos was relentless from the opening bell, smothering Pettis' ability to kick thanks to his constant forward movement and pace. Instead, it was Dos Anjos nailing Pettis with combinations and heavy kicks as Pettis tried to get away from the onslaught and reset himself to no avail.
A highly-respected Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt himself, Dos Anjos similarly smothered Pettis on the mat, taking him down at will and smashing him with heavy punches and elbows, controlling Pettis at every stage and easily shucking off his submission attempts.
Pettis showed remarkable durability and managed to survive the 25-minute beatdown, but it was a minor moral victory for the emphatically unseated champion.
From there Pettis would struggle mightily thanks to fighters following the blueprint laid out for them by Dos Anjos - pressure and wrestling have plagued Pettis' performances ever since, no matter how hard he has tried with different coaches to improve in his dealing with those aspects of the sport.
After going 18-2 to begin his career, Pettis has gone 4-8 in his last twelve outings. While he's still a dangerous fighter and is still competitive with the best in the division, he has failed to minimize the flaws in his style that are simply too easy to capitalize on by the top talent in the division.
That is part of the problem - Pettis has been facing the cream of the crop in the UFC's stacked lightweight division. His losses after Dos Anjos were to Eddie Alvarez, Edson Barboza, Max Holloway, Dustin Poirier, Tony Ferguson, Nate Diaz and the highly underrated Carlos Diego Ferreira.
During that span he has had flashes of success - in a short stint at featherweight (he missed weight in his subsequent fight there for an interim title against Holloway before moving back up) he submitted Charles Oliveira in a fun scrap, defeated Jim Miller and submitted Michael Chiesa, and in an ill-advised move up to welterweight he managed to shock the world by knocking out top-5 170-pounder Stephen "Wonderboy" Thompson with a beautiful superman punch.
His very next outing against Nate Diaz at welterweight (who is also too small and has too poor of wrestling to compete at the top end of 170) showed exactly why he was unlikely to see much more success in the division, and as a result saw him drop back down most recently to face Carlos Diego Ferreira who utilized the classic anti-Pettis gameplan en route to a second round submission.
Regardless of his exciting nature and his past successes, Pettis is in dire need of a win just to keep himself relevant.
Similarly, his opponent at UFC 249 has also seen better days.
Throughout Cowboy Cerrone's lengthy and historic run in the UFC (and in the old WEC days), Cerrone has been highly regarded as one of the most versatile and dangerous finishers in the lightweight division that always seems to stumble right when he gets to the top of the heap.
Back in the WEC, Cowboy dominated everyone in the field yet came up short in both of his title shots as well as an interim title shot, the only losses on his ledger - twice losing to Benson Henderson, and once to Jamie Varner (albeit the Varner and first Henderson fight were close decisions).
After the WEC's absorption, Cerrone would similarly run through the division until he was knocking on the door to a title shot - he then ran into Nate Diaz, whose trash talking lured him into a brawl and his relentless boxing attack flustered and battered Cowboy over 15-minutes.
Cowboy would string together more victories, including a beautiful knockout of Melvin Guillard, before once again stumbling on the cusp of a title shot, this time getting finished by the afforementioned brutal body kick from Anthony Pettis.
Later on Cowboy would put together a stunning 8-fight winning streak, knocking out Jim Miller, Adriano Martins, and John Makdessi, submitting Evan Dunham and Edson Barboza, and taking home decision wins over Eddie Alvarez, Myles Jury, and even his old WEC rival Benson Henderson.
The streak saw Cowboy finally get his shot at UFC gold, only for him to be stopped in just 66 seconds from an onslaught of strikes from Rafael Dos Anjos, who had previously beaten him by decision.
Opting to try his hand up at welterweight, Cowboy saw immediate success in his new home, strangling his Brazilian counterpart Alex Oliveira and dusting the likes of Patrick Cote, Rick Story, and Matt Brown in quick succession.
Once again nearing a title shot, Cowboy saw his momentum ground to a halt as he was demolished by Jorge Masvidal; a decision loss to Robbie Lawler preceeded a brutal first round knockout at the hands of Darren Till.
Cowboy would see mixed success as he went 2-1 in his next three, dropping a decision to Leon Edwards in between defeating Yancy Medeiros and Mike Perry - knowing his true home was at lightweight, Cowboy opted to drop back down to 155 and as a result demolished Alexander Hernandez and dominated Al Iaquinta over 5-rounds to see himself earn a number one contender fight once more.
After starting off quite well against Tony Ferguson, Cerrone found himself at the mercy of Ferguson's superior hands and ridiculous pace, his kicking game overwhelmed by Ferguson's pressure and volume. As the minutes went by Cerrone's face showed the damage, and after breaking his nose Cerrone unwisely blew it between the second and third round which caused his eye to swell shut and forced a doctor's stoppage (which realistically just saved him from inevitably sustaining more damage from Ferguson's mounting assault).
He proceeded to get knocked out by Justin Gaethje in the first round of their bout, then gave Conor McGregor an easy 40-second return to action after getting stunned by shoulder strikes before eating a head kick.
While Cowboy is known to be a slow starter and quick finishers have exploited this in the past, it was an embarassing (non) performance from the grizzly vet in what was his most high-profile fight to date.
Now riding a three fight losing streak, Cerrone is in desperate need of a win - a loss here would only increase calls for the longtime fan-favourite to retire, which wouldn't be an unwise move for his health even if he does win on Saturday.
With both fighters being backed into a corner thanks to recent results, UFC 249 should see two hungry killers fight tooth and nail for their continued relevance (ironically, despite it being held at welterweight, this fight is far more relevant to the lightweight rankings and is best looked at as two lightweights not cutting much weight, as that's what it really boils down to).
Both fighters have relatively clear-cut blueprints established for defeating them - for Pettis, pressure, pace and wrestling is his downfall; for Cerrone, a focus on boxing, forcing him to lead with his hands, and particularly a fast start are his kryptonite. Both men are capable of exploiting the other's weaknesses (and from Pettis, we've already seen proof of that) but are also most comfortable engaging in a controlled kickboxing match than anything else.
The rematch will come down to who can impose their will first and, if an early finish doesn't come, who can maintain it.
Should the fight end early, it's likely Pettis will emerge the victor - should the fight get past the opening few minutes, Cerrone will likely start to edge Pettis and take over as the fight wears on. Either is a real possibility, but the safer pick is Pettis getting it done once again.
Official Pick: Anthony Pettis by first round (T)KO
Results: Anthony Pettis won by unanimous decision
Another big fight, another barnburner.
Both UFC staples came out to go to war and turn back the clock on their fading careers, and the result was a highly entertaining tit-for-tat striking war.
Though his kicks and cardio seem to suffer at 170 pounds, Pettis' hands carry much more power with the added weight and made a major difference here, particularly his stinging counters off of Cowboy's rushes.
Cowboy certainly held his own and was the more active of the two, landing plenty of kicks as well that had many fans split on who the victor would be after 15-minutes of action. It was certainly a close affair and one which arguably doesn't have a clear winner or loser, even if the results say otherwise. It was a fun and good showing from both to get back on the right track, and even though Cowboy left with a loss, he has nothing to hang his head about and delivered another excellent fight for the fans to remember.
PPV Main Card
Heavyweight (-265) Bout
Greg "Prince of War" Hardy (5-2) vs. Yorgan de Castro (6-0)
After seeing some of the bouts listed as prelims, you'd be hard pressed to find a good reason as to why this bout is kicking off the main card of such a massive event.
Despite his rather limited abilities given his lack of time training in the sport, disgraced NFL star Greg Hardy is continuing to get a massive push from the UFC even though thus far, we've seen little indication of it actually working.
His ridiculous push by the company earned him the "Worst Fighter in the UFC" award last year - this isn't to say he's the least skilled or capable fighter on the roster, just that his push has been so disconnected from his abilities and appeal that one has to question the UFC's thinking, particularly given all of the negative attention he has garnered not only from his past but by his in-cage decisions as well.
The man's first loss came after a blatant foul saw him disqualified and he earned a No Contest for using an inhaler between rounds after all.
Regardless, the former NFL all-star will kick off UFC 249's PPV on Saturday night against Yorgan de Castro.
Hardy sports impressive athletic ability for a man his size and has shown that he improves in leaps and bounds with each outing - while he was handily defeated in his last, short-notice outing against Alexander Volkov, he did show improvements and remained composed against a far superior top 10 opponent.
Going back to more feasible competition, Hardy is once again facing a, let's say, "plump" opponent that the UFC is likely hoping succumbs to Hardy's superior athleticism.
That being said, what we've seen from de Castro so far has been promising - after a dominant showing and first round finish on Dana White's Tuesday Night Contender Series, de Castro flatlined Justin Tafa in two minutes last October in Australia with a slick counter against an overaggressive opponent.
With five knockouts in his unbeaten career spanning six bouts, de Castro shows true heavyweight knockout power and surprising speed for his build, but with the limited data we have available on the Cape Verdian, conventional wisdom says Hardy's size and athleticism will likely prove too much to handle for the prospect.
Official Pick: Greg Hardy by first round (T)KO
Results: Greg Hardy by unanimous decision
Yorgan de Castro's speed (especially for a man his size) and nasty leg kicks certainly left a strong impression early - Hardy's leg was absolutely mangled after the close opening round, and while he certainly landed shots of his own, it looked like Castro was headed for an impressive upset win.
Then Hardy checked a leg kick that sent Yorgan stumbling backward, likely breaking his foot. From there, de Castro did absolutely nothing and let the biggest fight of his career slip through his fingers even as his cornermen begged him to go for it. It was certainly a poor showing of heart from the big man, while Hardy continued to show improvements in his game and the ability to adapt in the cage.
Hardy is certainly developing into a solid heavyweight, but one can't help but be very annoyed this bout was put on the main card while names such as Anthony Pettis, Donald Cerrone, Vicente Luque, and Niko Price amongst others were put on the prelims.
Featherweight (145) Bout
Jeremy "Lil Heathen" Stephens (28-17-1) vs. Calvin "The Boston Finisher" Kattar (20-4)
And now we're back to the good stuff.
Longtime UFC vet and one of the most lethal gatekeepers you can find, Jeremy Stephens, looks to test the very talented Calvin Kattar to see if "The Boston Finisher" is truly ready for the upper echelon of the UFC's featherweight division.
For those that don't know, "gatekeeper" is a term used to describe a good or even great fighter that can be relied on to weed out the real contenders from the rest of the pack - if a fighter beats the division's gatekeeper then that means they're amongst the top talent of the division.
A staple in the UFC since his debut way back in 2007, the 33-year-old had mixed success as a lightweight, taking out the likes of a young Rafael Dos Anjos, Cole Miller, Justin Buchholz, and Marcus Davis, while losing to notable names such as Joe Lauzon, Gleison Tibau, Melvin Guillard, Anthony Pettis, Donald Cerrone, and Yves Edwards.
The man fought a lot of tough talent over the years and made a name for himself with his devastating power, granite chin, and slugging style, helped along by his strong high school wrestling base.
By the time he dropped down to featherweight, he was just 7-8 in the UFC, had lost three in a row (albeit to very stiff competition) and had failed to put together more than two wins in a row at any time with the promotion.
The move paid off as he finally put together a three-fight winning streak, including a brutal knockout win over Rony Jason, but once again his momentum ground to a halt when he faced the top dogs at 145. Lil Heathen went just 2-5 in his next seven outings, picking up another brilliant knockout (this time over Dennis Bermudez) and beating Renan Barao amidst losses to Cub Swanson, Charles Oliveira, Max Holloway, Frankie Edgar, and Renato Moicano.
By now you may have noticed that you recognize a lot (or all) of the names Stephens has lost to - for as many losses as he sports, he really only loses to top talent and is usually very competitive even with the biggest names.
Starting in late 2017, Stephens put together the most impressive streak of his career, dominating Gilbert Melendez before melting highly touted prospects in Doo Ho Choi and Josh Emmett, shattering Emmett's orbital bone in the process.
Since, Stephens has lost three straight; after scrapping with Jose Aldo and ending up on the receiving end of a TKO from a nasty Aldo left hook to the gut, Stephens was flustered by Russian prospect Zabit Magomedsharipov, then after a 15-second No Contest thanks to an eye rake from opponent Yair Rodriguez, Stephens lost a hard-fought decision to Rodriguez in an immediate rematch (it should be mentioned he made a massive comeback late and turned things around in the third, in what was originally scheduled to be five rounds).
Known primarily as being a knockout artist, Stephens has produced some absolutely stunning knockouts when he manages to get his hands, shins, elbows, or knees on his opponents, and is a well-rounded and very good fighter.
His problems largely stem from his poor footwork and extremely predictable attack. When he has mixed up his strikes and not set out to hit home runs with every swing, Stephens has looked like the elite fighters that he always loses to, but so often he chooses to wing bolos looking for a one-shot kill instead.
His lack of ability to cut off the cage is truly his biggest downfall - opponents who can keep at range and use lateral movement regularly fluster Stephens, who gets annoyed when his targets don't stand still and thus is inspired to chase his opponent and look even harder for a one-punch knockout.
As such, Stephens serves as an excellent test not just of raw ability, but of a fighter's IQ and ability to stick to a gameplan - if they mind their P's and Q's and remain disciplined in their approach, an elite talent can reliably be counted on to best Stephens; if they engage in a brawl or lack the ability to stay away from Stephens power, they're likely to be in for a long (or in this case, short) night.
In Calvin Kattar, Stephens faces yet another budding prospect, and one who has all the tools required to give Stephens fits.
Since making his UFC debut and upsetting Andre Fili on short notice in 2017, Kattar has proven himself as an elite and technical striker with a good all-around game.
He followed it up with a back-and-forth war against another top prospect in Shane Burgos, wobbling Burgos with a right hand before finishing him with brutal uppercuts.
After dropping a decision to Renato Moicano, Kattar rattled off two first round knockouts against Chris Fishgold and Ricardo Lamas before losing a close decision to Zabit Magomedsharipov. Despite coming off a loss, Kattar looked great against Zabit and turned the tide heavily in his favour in the third round, and had he picked up the pace just a little bit earlier he likely would have handed the Russian uber prospect his first loss.
While Kattar is similar to Stephens in that he uses good wrestling defense to keep fights standing and look for the knockout, their approaches to striking couldn't be more far apart - Kattar builds his game on crisp, straight combinations and a variety of sharp techniques, rather than Stephen's wild and often reckless home run swings.
Although his two losses in the UFC pale in comparison to Stephens' lengthy list, Kattar happens to have lost to two men that Stephens also lost to - both men were soundly defeated by Moicano (Kattar's fight was much more exciting but he also took much more damage, while Stephens' bout with Moicano involved a lot of running from the Brazilian and a lot of missing from Stephens) and both dropped early rounds to Zabit before taking over the third emphatically.
Kattar has shown himself to be a thoughtful fighter and he has the technique required to propel him past Lil Heathen, but he'll have to avoid engaging in a brawl and mind his defense for as long as it takes in order to do it.
Stephens on the other hand will need to change up his style to get himself out of his gatekeeper status and become a true contender - his lack of ringcraft is his most glaring flaw and without improvements (which we've been hoping to see out of Stephens forever now, and even after expressly working on it with his teammate Dominick Cruz, we've yet to see any real progress in the cage) Kattar is likely going to pick him apart at range.
Stephens would also be wise to mix in takedowns - if he successfully gets Kattar down, he has tremendous ground and pound when he bothers to use it, and even if he can't get him down, the threat of the takedown could definitely help him land.
Leg kicks would also be a very wise investment - Stephens has shown very good leg kicks in the past (his assault of Gilbert Melendez's legs comes to mind) and Moicano used them to great effect against Kattar in their matchup - as an added bonus they may slow Kattar down enough to enable one of his bombs to connect.
As it stands, there's little to suggest that this will finally be the time that Stephens shows any understanding of cage-cutting and sticks to a gameplan for more than two minutes, which makes Kattar a solid pick, but you can never count out Stephens and his power. Either way, we're in for a solid featherweight scrap.
Official Pick: Calvin Kattar by decision
UPDATE - Jeremy Stephens missed weight by a whopping 4.5 pounds and will forfeit 30% of his purse to Kattar as a result; the fight will proceed as scheduled and pick remains unchanged.
Results: Calvin Kattar won by second round TKO
Another fight that deserved a bonus, these two men came looking to take each other's heads off.
Stephens came out swinging like he always does, and this time smartly targeted Calvin's legs, helping him set up his strikes and pour the pressure on Kattar even without very effective footwork. Both landed big in the early stages and after five minutes, Stephens likely had the round on the scorecards.
In the second however, Kattar found his grove and became more offensive, landing some slick combos and uppercuts that swung the momentum in his favour. A ridiculously perfect elbow as Stephens stepped in sent Lil Heathen to the canvas, with a subsequent elbow on the ground slicing Stephens open like a stuck pig and ending the fight.
It was an excellent scrap and a breakout performance from the Boston Finisher - stopping Stephens from strikes is no easy feat and he joins only Yves Edwards and Jose Aldo as the only fighters in the UFC to do so.
Heavyweight (-265) Bout
Francis "The Predator" Ngannou (17-3) vs. Jairzinho "Bigi Boy" Rozenstruik (10-0)
A hulking freak of nature, Francis Ngannou is truly one of the scariest people on the planet.
Standing 6'4, 260 pounds with a monstrous 83" reach, one would expect him to hit hard, but his knockout power truly sends chills down your spine.
Despite his relative inexperience, Ngannou plowed through the heavyweight division en route to his title shot early in 2018.
His six fight finishing spree was a mix of throwaway heavyweight cannon fodder and established names, as well as a fellow prospect - knockouts over the likes of Luis Henrique and Bojan Mihajlović may not look astounding on paper, nor does a surprise kimura win over Anthony Hamilton (he reportedly only learned the technique earlier that day while warming up), but dominating wrestling standout Curtis Blaydes en route to a doctor's stoppage after 10-minutes of action, starching Andrei Arlovski and nearly decapitating Alistair Overeem sure do.
Heading into his first title shot at UFC 220 against Stipe Miocic, the Cameroon native was the latest heavyweight hype train and instead of being his normal, measured self, the still-green Ngannou instead let the moment get to him and came out like a wrecking ball.
Throwing caution to the wind and going for the kill early, Ngannou looked to overwhelm Miocic early, and while he certainly did some damage, he largely just expended energy and made himself an easier target for Stipe's takedowns. Ngannou did impress with his ability to get up from under the NCAA Division I All-American wrestler, but those stand ups served to further drain his gas tank.
Between his careless expenditure of energy and the adrenaline rush that came with his shot at glory, Ngannou was sucking wind by the time the second round came.
An exhausted heap of muscle, Ngannou was repeatedly dragged to the mat and mauled by the champion, the only thing keeping him in the fight being his ridiculous strength (which kept him from staying in precarious positions on his back for long, and instead saw him held against the fence on his hands and knees for extended periods as he seemed to have no idea how to get out of the situation) and tremendous chin.
After five rounds with the champion, Ngannou clearly had some ground issues to take care of, to go along with the discipline to stick to a gameplan that comes from experience.
Expecting a return to form, his next outing against Derrick Lewis was supposed to be an epic clash of two monstrous knockout artists. Instead, Ngannou took the lessons learned from his ill-advised early onslaught for the title a little too far, as he flat out refused to engage in any meaningful way and looked hesitant to throw literally anything.
Lewis wasn't much better and seemed content to chip away at Ngannou with some kicks at a distance, doing just enough to take the rounds on the judges scorecards. The horrendous fight is still regarded as one of the worst in recent memory and had the hype surrounding Ngannou fade completely into the shadows.
That hype would quickly return however as Ngannou got himself back on track, slaughtering Curtis Blaydes just 45 seconds into their rematch in China.
Ngannou would then headline the first UFC on ESPN card in 2019, starching heavyweight legend Cain Velasquez in just 26 seconds. Though many blamed the loss on Cain's knee giving out, it was actually a short right hand from "The Predator" that dropped Velasquez that only became evident on replays, showing how little space Ngannou needs to generate fight-ending power.
His latest outing saw another heavyweight legend, Junior Dos Santos, fall in just 71 seconds thanks to his devastating hands.
Though many focus on the finishes themselves, Ngannou has shown a lot more skill than he's given credit for - he's a sharp counterstriker that shows plenty of patience yet is a force to be reckoned with when leading as well, his takedown defense (when he's not charging recklessly at Stipe Miocic) is superb and his physical presence is downright daunting. Even if someone does manage to get him down, his ridiculous strength allows him to get back up as if he was simply getting out of bed in the morning.
When he's on, it's hard to see any heavyweight that can deal with the power, precision, and athletic ability of Francis Ngannou, but in Jairzinho Rozenstruik, we may just see his striking skills really put to the test.
The first Suriname-born fighter to enter the Octagon, "Bigi Boy" started his professional combat sports as a kickboxer, where the heavy-set 6'2 killer went an impressive 76-8-1 while competing all over the world. Of his 76 wins, Rozenstruik scored 64 knockouts for an impressive 84% knockout rate.
Though he had a pair of first round knockouts in the sport in 2012, Rozenstruik made his transition to mixed martial arts in earnest in 2017, quickly running up his record to 6-0 before receiving a call to the UFC.
Making his debut with the promotion early last year, Rozenstruik got off to a rocky start against Junior Albini, looking gunshy and hesitant as he dropped the first round to his middling heavyweight foe.
After a minute with his corner, Rozenstruik woke up and showed why he is a force to be reckoned with, stuffing Albini's takedowns and flooring the durable Brazilian with a devastating flurry of strikes just 54 seconds into the second stanza.
In the summer Rozenstruik returned to flatten Allen Crowder with nasty ground and pound in just 9 seconds after dropping his victim with a light jab. Earning himself a step up in competition, Jairzinho's next bout last November came against Andrei Arlovski, who he put down with a very short left hook in just 29 seconds (he did crack Arlovski shortly before this however which may have contributed to the "weak"-looking shot that dropped him).
Just a month later, Rozenstruik stepped in as a late replacement to face top-5 heavyweight Alistair Overeem in a battle of elite heavyweight kickboxers.
Rather than standing and trading with his younger, more durable opponent, Overeem showed off his diverse skillset, taking Jairzinho down repeatedly and scoring with heavy ground and pound along with sharp, long strikes when they were on the feet.
As the rounds went on, Jairzinho showed off an incredible chin and did enough to keep himself in the fight and keep Overeem honest, but it looked like the young prospect would suffer his first loss inside the cage and would need to work on some of the other aspects of his game to compete at the highest level.
Both heavyweights showed fatigue as the fight wore on, but Overeem's output quickly fell off in the fourth round, his fading energy forcing him to stand for longer periods with his dangerous foe, something he looked increasingly uncomfortable doing as he continued to slow down.
In the fifth round, Overeem was exhausted, and while he was certainly far from fresh, Jairzinho didn't stop throwing and doing whatever he could to turn the tides. Late in the final round, Jairzinho charged for one last hail mary after he heard the 10-second clappers, only to land a massive right hand that sat Alistair down against the fence.
Rather than finishing his victim, who was clearly out for a brief moment before immediately snapping back to when his butt hit the canvas, Rozenstruik walked away and celebrated, leading the ref to call the action with just four seconds to go in the fight.
Overeem immediately sprang to his feet, showing he was still conscious and cognizant (had the fight had more time, even if he survived the shot he likely would've been stopped by a doctor courtesy of the massive gash he suffered from the final punch) and thus shrowding the finish under a cloud of controversy.
There were certainly points to both sides - Overeem's eyes did roll back on his way down, but he snapped to almost immediately and was clearly conscious and cognizant before the ref stepped in, which would indicate it was an early stoppage. Chances are that Rozenstruik could've easily sealed the deal had he looked to land further shots, but not giving Overeem a chance to recover when he was just moments away from a lopsided decision victory just seemed to be a poor call.
Regardless of the iffy finish, Rozenstruik has proven himself to be a devastating striker that can take a ton of punishment and remain dangerous thanks to his power and explosion even after being fatigued.
His kickboxing experience and impressive striking diversity certainly make him an intriguing matchup for Ngannou, particularly if he can eat a few shots from the Predator and remain standing - that's quite a big "if" however.
Ngannou's loss to Miocic and his dedication to improving his grappling could also come into play given how easily Overeem was able to take Rozenstruik down throughout their fight until the later rounds (this is only a three round fight as well), though most likely the two bombers will look to trade strikes until one of them falls down.
Rozenstruik is definitely a live dog here, but Ngannou's patience and ability to capitalize on openings, combined with his ridiculous power, should give him the edge here and carry him to another impressive knockout victory.
Official Pick: Francis Ngannou by first round (T)KO
Results: Francis Ngannou won by first round murder
Wow. Just wow. Right after talking about Ngannou's patience, he instead opted to just chuck everything Rozenstruik's way, knowing that if anything lands the fight's over. And he wasn't wrong, the very first shot, a left hook, that landed crushed Rozenstruik against the cage, the subsequent shots entirely unneeded.
It took Ngannou just twenty seconds to knock out the impressive formerly-undefeated prospect. Is there a scarier man on the planet right now than Francis Ngannou? I certainly think not.
Now I wonder if Rozenstruik's demise will be counted as a COVID-19 death?
Bantamweight (135) Championship Bout
Henry "The Messenger" Cejudo (15-2) vs. Dominick "The Dominator" Cruz (22-2)
Bantamweight king and former flyweight champ Henry Cejudo (he also has an Olympic gold medal in wrestling, if you didn't know) seeks to make his second defense of the 135-pound title against former two-time bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz.
Though his incredibly cringey and groan inducing attempts at a persona can be grating, Cejudo is in truth a great fighter. He didn't however always warrant the hype that initially surrounded him.
A gold medalist competing at a high level in MMA was always a major story and hype followed him from the get-go as he quickly amassed a 6-0 record before debuting in the UFC at bantamweight, after having missed the flyweight limit in both of his last two outings.
His UFC debut was a success however, and showed off some solid hands from a man who was expected to showcase his impressive wrestling pedigree. He then dropped back down to flyweight (successfully this time), and dominated Chris Cariaso before struggling against Chico Camus, and followed it up with a rather unimpressive split decision win over top-five contender Jussier Formiga.
While he clearly showed potential and sported a great wrestling acumen, his wrestling inside the Octagon hadn't exactly been the stuff of legends and he had done little inside the cage to warrant the hype many were placing on him - the 10-0 prospect was however granted a title shot, which was completely understandable given that longtime champion Demetrious Johnson was in desperate need of new blood to face off with.
The doubters were proven right as Cejudo was steamrolled by the champion, finished by a series of knees to the gut just midway through the opening round. It was clearly a case of a prospect being pushed too early and not being given the time needed to elevate himself to that level, but the loss ignited a spark that finally had Cejudo living up to some of the hype he had previously garnered.
After coaching the 24th season of The Ultimate Fighter opposite longtime top contender Joseph Benavidez, Cejudo proved he did belong at the top of the division in the coaches' fight, standing toe-to-toe with the seasoned striker and more than holding his own thoughout the three round war.
It was a performance that opened many fans' eyes to the real potential that Cejudo had, and was his first performance in the Octagon that genuinely looked like he was championship material. He ultimately lost the bout by a close split decision (not helped by the fact he had a point deducted early on for repeated low blows) but it was an epic scrap regardless and finally showed MMA fans the potential they had been promised.
Cejudo went on to demolish Wilson Reis in his next outing, dominating the tough vet and further showcasing his ever-improving striking skills. A rather dull, lay-and-pray performance followed against Sergio Pettis however that once again dampened fan enthusiasm about the contender.
With a lack of other contenders besides Benavidez who the champ had already beaten twice, Cejudo was once again given a shot at the flyweight crown.
It looked like disaster had struck once again for Cejudo as his leg seemingly gave out repeatedly in the opening round, making it appear as if a finish was only a matter of time; Cejudo shook it off and worked his way back into the fight however, scoring key takedowns and holding his own against the record-breaking champion.
After five close rounds of action, viewers were content that Johnson had done enough to retain his title - while it lacked the output of a typical DJ performance and he even seemed lackadaisical at times, he had outlanded Cejudo and been more effective throughout, with Cejudo's few takedowns accomplishing very little, though the performance at least showed that Cejudo rightfully belonged in the upper echolen on the division.
It was quite a shock to see Cejudo's name read as the victor and many fans cried foul, but with Demetrious' lax attitude even after the scorecards were read it was quickly forgotten about. The focus briefly turned to a rematch, which both parties seemed largely disinterested in, until it was announced that Johnson would be "traded" to Singapore-based ONE FC in exchange for the high-profile welterweight Ben Askren.
On paper it was hardly a fair trade if it were based on skill, but DJ's longtime reign as champion pulled dismal numbers while Askren had established himself as a popular personality that fans had long begged the UFC to sign - likewise Johnson had regularly felt underutilized and disrespected by the UFC brass and was set to earn a lucrative contract, making the trade a pretty solid deal for all parties involved.
With the rematch no longer a possibility, attention quickly turned to bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw and his desire to drop down to flyweight in an attempt to capture a second belt, something that Demetrious Johnson famously nixed over concerns Dillashaw wouldn't make weight.
Looking absolutely shredded, TJ Dillashaw managed to make the 125-pound limit and the massive showdown against Cejudo ensued, with many feeling that Dillashaw would have a huge advantage on the feet against the Olympian.
Moments into their headlining bout on the very first UFC card on ESPN+, Cejudo dropped Dillashaw with one of his patented headbutts (no really, he does it a lot) before clipping him with a right hand and follow-up shots which led to a shocking 32-second TKO.
It was a truly stunning result and one no one had expected, even if it may have been stopped a tad early and was helped along by a headbutt.
One couldn't feel sorry for Dillashaw for long however, as shortly after he was nailed by USADA for EPO usage (the substance made famous by one Lance Armstrong, and one which can only be injected and therefore can't be the result of accidental usage) and suspended for two years - he had also been accused of using that exact substance a year prior by a former teammate, casting clouds of suspicion over his entire career.
Having beaten the bantamweight champion and with the 135-pound belt left vacant following Dillashaw's suspension, Cejudo opted to move up to bantamweight to vye for dual-champion status against top contender Marlon Moraes, who was riding a three-fight first-round finishing streak against top-10 opponents.
The first round showed just how dangerous the Brazilian killer was as he skewered Cejudo's legs with vicious kicks and landed several big shots on the flyweight champ, enjoying what looked to be a clear speed and power advantage; it seemed like only a matter of time until Cejudo was sent back down to 125 with a blistering knockout loss for his efforts.
Instead, Cejudo hung tough and forced the bulky knockout artist to work. Moraes quickly found himself slowing down as Cejudo ramped up the pressure, the wrestler's combinations starting to land consistently and Moraes' increasingly laboured returns missing their mark.
The tide had clearly shifted in Cejudo's favour and by the third, Cejudo was blasting Moraes on the feet and taking him down at will, smothering him with shots while Moraes looked out of sorts, the lights still on but with nobody home.
Late in the third round, Cejudo finished Moraes with a barrage of punches to become the fourth fighter to hold belts in two divisions simultaneously in the UFC.
It was an immensely impressive performance, but thanks to his increasingly painful attempts to draw more fans in with his "King of Cringe" persona, it's easy to forget that he is in fact a great fighter.
He once again drew ire from fans by calling out and getting a fight with Jose Aldo booked (originally for this month), who had dropped down to bantamweight for the first time late last year and lost a controversial decision to Marlon Moraes. Rather than getting one of the more clear-cut contenders, Aldo was instead rewarded with a title shot coming of a "loss" (even if you disagreed with the Moraes decision which most did, he did lose his fight just before that convincingly against Alexander Volkanovski) and cut the line of established contenders like Aljamain Sterling and Petr Yan.
Thanks to the current coronavirus hysteria however, fighters outside the US are unable to compete currently thanks to the US State Department not issuing any work visas during this time, effectively scrapping the Aldo fight - stepping in on short notice to fill the void is one Dominick Cruz.
Ironically, fans took the Cruz fight much better than the Aldo fight, despite the fact there's even less of an argument to be made for Cruz receiving a title shot - he too is coming off a decision loss (and not a controversial one) against Cody Garbrandt, and that was from the end of 2016.
It'll be well over three years since Cruz last stepped foot inside the Octagon, but given his performances in the past (especially since he's come off a similar injury layoff before and looked even better in his return) it's hard not to get excited for the matchup anyway.
The former WEC bantamweight champion was once known for being "The Decisionator", his awkward, footwork-heavy style placing a massive emphasis on defense and scoring points en route to decision victories that were often on the boring side.
After an unsuccessful debut in the WEC against featherweight champion Urijah Faber back in 2007, Cruz would drop to bantamweight and rack up wins against the division's elite, earning the WEC bantamweight title in 2010 and later being promoted to a UFC champion when the smaller promotion was absorbed in 2011.
He would go on to defend his belt twice in the UFC (including a close decision win in a rematch with his career rival Urijah Faber) before tearing his ACL while coaching against Urijah Faber in the 15th season of The Ultimate Fighter prior to their expected rubber match.
More than six months after having ACL surgery, Cruz once again had to go under the knife after his body rejected a ligament from a cadaver, effectively resetting his recovery clock. After more than two years out of action, Cruz was scheduled to face interim champion Renan Barao early in 2014 before severely tearing his groin, forcing him to finally vacate his championship belt due to inactivity.
Just days shy of three years on the sidelines, Cruz finally returned in September 2014 to face top-10 vet Takeya Mizugaki, meant to be an effective gauge of where Cruz was after such a long time away from action. A tough outing for anyone, no one expected Cruz, who had finished just one of his 9 WEC/UFC wins (and that was an injury TKO thanks to a broken hand) to rip through Mizugaki in a matter of seconds.
Cruz came out looking like a more-aggressive version of his old self, slickly pecking away at his lumbering opponent before snatching up a beautiful takedown. From there, Cruz simply pounded away as Mizugaki worked to get back up to his feet, dropping Mizugaki when he did manage to get up and finishing him with a vicious barrage of punches. It took just 61 seconds for Cruz to dispatch a top-10 opponent and earn himself a promised shot at his old title.
His cindarella story would be delayed once again however, as Cruz would tear the ACL in his other knee late in 2014, sidelining him for the entirety of 2015.
In January of 2016, Cruz returned once more to the Octagon to vye for his long lost title, this time against former Urijah Faber protege TJ Dillashaw. The two had engaged in a bitter war of words leading up to their highly anticipated clash, and fans were salivating at the stylistic matchup between the two - Dominick's unusual, defensive-minded footwork had largely been adopted by Dillashaw in recent years, who under the tutelage of Duane Ludwig, had transformed the base into an offense-first style focused on generating power and new lines of attack.
It was essentially old-school vs. new-school and the bout more than delivered - both men fought their asses of over the course of 25-minutes, likely covering more distance between them than most marathon runners would feel comfortable with and throwing heaters at a ridiculous clip. Despite his usual "defense-first" mindset, Cruz was susprisingly aggressive with his output and even sat down on many of his shots, a rarity in his past which led to many accusing him of being "pillow-fisted" when in reality it was a byproduct of his style.
Dillashaw certainly got plenty of his own shots in throughout as well, but in the end Cruz took home the close decision victory to regain the title he had never lost inside the Octagon. It was a truly "feel-good" moment in the sport and Cruz looked to make up for lost time by getting right back to it.
Cruz dominated a third bout against his old rival Urijah Faber before fighting his young protege, the incredibly fast boxer Cody Garbrandt. Although he remained competitive, Cruz's second title run was cut short as Garbrandt's ridiculous head movement, sublime hand speed and devastating precision was simply too much for Cruz to handle.
The decision loss was his first in 10 years and "The Dominator" hasn't fought since, instead filling his time as a commentator and analyst for the UFC, being scheduled for bouts at multiple times before new injuries kept him from returning.
While the matchup is fun on paper and should certainly be competitive, it may ultimately prove to be a blunder by the UFC should Cruz pull off the upset - given his ridiculous amount of injury layoffs, having a champion that may not fight again for several years would be the last thing the UFC wants especially given how hot the division has become recently, making this fight a bit of a short-sighted gamble for the promotion.
That being said, a Cruz victory would certainly be a fun one for fans (and of course for those that dislike Cejudo) and is far from a long shot. His size and wrestling/scrambling ability, not to mention his superb footwork (should he be the Cruz of old) which prevents most fighters from getting into takedown range in the first place, should enable Cruz to keep the fight standing where he looks to have the edge.
Cejudo's boxing is no joke and he will enjoy a power advantage in the matchup, but it's far from the first time Cruz has been at that kind of disadvantage - in fact Cejudo's straightforward style is tailor-made for Cruz to pick apart at range. Of course if Cejudo can get himself inside, or if Cruz's years of injuries and layoffs have finally caught up to him, Cejudo will likely crack Cruz and either grind him up over rounds or allow him to become the first man to knock Cruz out.
Despite the odds being against him, I like Cruz's chances in this one and should the Cruz of old show up, an upset is likely.
Official Pick: Dominick Cruz by decision
Results: Henry Cejudo won by second round TKO
Questions over how Dominick Cruz would look after another extended layoff certainly seemed relevant in the early going as Cruz seemed a bit slower and sloppier than usual. Cejudo came in with an excellent gameplan to chop away at Cruz's legs, which was certainly working and giving Cruz a ton of problems.
After a good first round from the champ, Cruz started picking up however, landing more shots of his own and managing to get away from more and more of Cejudo's - a clash of heads (shocking in a Cejudo fight, especially since he quite literally thrust his head in Cruz's direction) ironically caused Cejudo damage as a gash opened on his forehead.
Shortly after, as it looked like Cruz had done enough to even the rounds to one apiece, Cejudo beautifully timed a knee when Cruz looked to change levels that sent Cruz down. Clearly hurt, Cruz was cracked by a heavy right hand before he looked try to return to his feet and pull his head away from the incoming shots, but as he got to a knee referee Keith Peterson stepped in to call the action.
It was certainly an early stoppage - while some claim because of unanswered shots it was justified, truth is that several of those shots missed and Cruz was clearly moving and looking to improve his position - for a championship fight, especially with seconds to go in a round, there really is no reason to be stepping in at that point and Cruz had every right to be angry.
Considering Cruz is not one to make excuses (just look at how he handled his loss to Garbrandt) and made very valid points as to why it was a bad stoppage, it's hard not to feel sorry for Cruz here.
Cejudo subsequently announced his retirement from MMA at just 33 years old. If it sticks, it was certainly an impressive run and one where he accomplished a ton as a two-division champ, but claims by Rogan that he is "one of the greatest combat sports athletes ever" are kind of ridiculous.
No offense to Cejudo, but there are some asterisks that need to be pointed out -
1) his flyweight title win was an extremely contentious decision win that virtually no other fighters or media members agreed with
2) he defended that title just once against the bantamweight champion who dropped down to a new weight class he hadn't made before and knocked him out immediately following a headbutt, something Cejudo is known for in virtually all of his fights
3) he chose to move up instead of fighting top contender Joseph Benavidez, who held a win over Cejudo
4) while his win over Moraes was certainly impressive, he opted to ignore the top contenders and instead picked fights with Aldo (coming off two losses) and then Cruz after that fight fell through, who was also coming off a loss and three years out of action
It was a rather anticlimactic and disappointing ending to what was heating up to be an epic title war.
Lightweight (155) Interim Championship Bout
Tony "El Cucuy" Ferguson (25-3) vs. Justin "The Highlight" Gaethje (21-2)
On a night filled with amazing matchups and explosive talent, there's still one fight that rises above all, and that's the pairing of two of the most violent and exciting fighters on the planet.
Starting off with Justin Gaethje, the man's nickname is "The Highlight" for a reason. This is a man that willingly subjects himself to punishment and pain not because he has to, but because he wants to.
An NCAA Division I All-American wrestler, you'd never know Gaethje has a superb wrestling game judging by his fighting style - while he certainly stuffs takedowns should his opponent go for them, he actively avoids the ground like it's lava and instead would rather stand and brawl, even if he's getting his ass kicked while doing so.
Many of his fights have featured an almost comical amount of violence - Gaethje just keeps plowing forward, walking (or stumbling) through punches in order to land his vicious leg kicks and punches of his own, willing to eat two just to land one of his own. Hell, he even likes to throw rolling thunders just for the fun of it, and has landed some of them to boot.
Racking up a 17-0 record with 15 finishes (14 by knockout) in smaller promotions and the World Series of Fighting, Gaethje was already regarded as one of the most exciting fighters in the sport before he ever stepped foot in the Octagon. He was clearly a good fighter with a lot of talent, but questions about how his reckless style would hold up against the truly elite fighters in the UFC remained, especially given that he was allowing lesser opponents to damage him regularly.
For his UFC debut, Gaethje was given a stiff test in the form of top-10 lightweight Michael Johnson, a slick and technical striker that was expected to give Gaethje all sorts of problems thanks to his speed and skill.
Those people certainly weren't wrong, as Johnson repeatedly rocked Gaethje in the opening round, sending him stumbling backward at one point in what most thought was the beginning of the end. But Justin would not be denied and continued throwing bombs, marching forward with seemingly no regard for his own health, willing to take as much punishment as needed to deliver shots of his own.
In the second round his constant pressure and punishing leg kicks began to work their magic. Johnson engaged more and more in a brawl as his movement slowed and his speed advantage disintegrated; it was the kind of fight Gaethje lived for, and he was more than happy to take his turn swinging the hammer.
Eventually the toll Gaethje's onslaught put on Johnson's body overwhelmed him. A series of vicious knees finally put Johnson down for the count and at the end of nearly 10-minutes of back-and-forth action, Justin Gaethje earned his first win on the MMA world's biggest stage.
The impressive victory proved that as insane as Gaethje's style was and how short his window of opportunity would be considering the amount of damage he takes in his bouts, Gaethje was regardless one of the best lightweights in the world. Not to mention, his wild debut earned him a cool $100,000 bonus in the form of Performance and Fight of the Night bonuses.
Not content with just one contender for Fight of the Year (his bout with Johnson ended up winning the honour), Gaethje looked to put on another show against Eddie Alvarez at the conclusion of the 26th season of The Ultimate Fighter, as the two fighters known for their willingness to brawl served as coaches.
The fight was once again a classic Gaethje war - the Highlight pushed forward and looked to chop away at Alvarez's legs, throwing heavy shots and trying to engage in a brawl; Alvarez on the other hand looked to remain mobile and in the pocket, his superior head movement and sharper boxing gave him a decided edge.
His committment to body shots was particularly effective, something that Gaethje had often showed in the past that was conspicuously absent in this outing.
After two rounds of action Alvarez was firmly in the driver's seat and Gaethje looked in need of a finish to win, and that finish seemed to be within his reach as his dedication to leg kicks and relentless pressure was finally taking its toll on Alvarez, who was now having trouble standing on his battered legs.
The momentum was firmly in Gaethje's corner as the two exhausted warriors continued slugging it out, but a brutal knee up the middle from Alvarez while in the clinch proved the straw that broke the camel's back. Gaethje collapsed to the canvas and despite his best efforts, the referee stepped in to save him from further punishment.
Gaethje of course protested, arguing that he wasn't out (which technically, he wasn't, even if he was royally fucked up) and that he had instructed the referee beforehand that unless he was out cold, he did not want the fight stopped whatsoever and would rather die in there.
How does one not absolutely love Justin Gaethje?
The loss marked the first blemish of his career, but he vowed to do the same damn thing every time he stepped foot inside the cage, win or lose, and he meant it.
Returning to action just four months later, Gaethje took on another top contender in Dustin Poirier.
Another slick boxer with an impressive gas tank, Poirier largely chose to engage Gaethje directly, utilizing smart defense and crisp combinations alongside plenty of slicing elbows in the clinch to keep Gaethje at bay. He also committed to body work to wind Justin, all combining to have him ahead on the scorecards after two rounds (this time in a five round main event).
The end of the second however once again showed signs of Gaethje's near-suicidal gameplan starting to pay off.
Gaethje's patented leg kicks and pressure were now paying dividends and took their toll on Poirier as his pace had started to slow, his defense became less effective, and his movement much more static.
Near the end of the third however, another eye poke from Gaethje (in fairness, both men were pawing with their hands open through much of the fight, though Gaethje does regularly frame off his opponent's face which can often lead to pokes) had Herb Dean take a point away from Gaethje, nullifying the work he did to take the third round on the scorecards.
The point deduction pissed off Gaethje and come time for the fourth round, he came out looking flustered and quickly saw himself eat a massive left hand while throwing an inside leg kick from deep inside Poirier's boxing range. The shot wobbled Gaethje and had him on the ropes, with Poirier blasting him repeatedly as Justin flailed aimlessly in an attempt to fire back.
In the midst of the chaos, a closer look will show you that Gaethje actually waved Poirier on after he was rocked from the initial shot that sent him stumbling back, showing you exactly what kind of insane bastard Gaethje really is.
A combo sent Gaethje down and once again referee Herb Dean stepped in against Gaethje's wishes as he tried desperately to survive. It may have been a justified stoppage for a normal fighter, but Justin Gaethje is no normal fighter.
Regardless, his lack of focus in the fourth cost him dearly in a fight where he had all of the momentum. It didn't matter that he had yet another Fight of the Year contender on his resume - he had been stopped in his last two outings and was seeing his title aspirations slip through his fingers.
Rather than changing his game completely however, a few small but fundamental changes tempered his raw style into a leaner, more efficient machine. His aggression and core values remained the same, but an added sense of defensive awareness and range was instilled into him by his coach Trevor Wittman.
The results speak for themselves.
Gaethje returned to action and against James Vick, who continuously trashed Gaethje in the media leading up to their bout, calling him punch drunk and "MMA's Homer Simpson"; Gaethje lamped his outspoken victim in a blistering 87 seconds.
Pressuring Vick into the cage, Gaethje primed him with a left hook before dropping a massive right hand across his chin, sending the lanky lightweight tumbling over like he was shot by a cannon.
It was a vicious knockout and put Gaethje back in the winner's circle, with an added bonus being that he suffered no damage on his path to victory.
His next outing was against the extremely talented striker Edson Barboza, who was expected to give Gaethje fits thanks to his incredible speed and technical striking ability.
When it came time to fight however, it was Gaethje that looked to be schooling Barboza - Gaethje immediately did a great job of attacking Barboza's lead leg and defending Barboza's returns, increasingly feinting to bring out Barboza's snapping kicks then wading in behind them.
Even in punching exchanges Gaethje was surprisingly mindful of incoming fire, avoiding Barboza's shots well and even clinching to reset and wear on Barboza. Just midway into the opening round, Gaethje exploited a regular habit of Edson's - his tendency to circle out from against the cage with his hands down.
Backing him up to the fence, Gaethje knew Barboza had only one place to turn and leapt after him with a vicious right hook, knocking the Brazilian out cold on impact.
It was a beautiful performance and had Gaethje once again looking for a potential title shot.
Facing off against his friend Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone, Gaethje once again came in with a surprisingly smart gameplan that still allowed him to be his aggressive self, this time luring Cerrone into doing the leading with his hands (one of Cowboy's biggest flaws).
The tactic paid dividends and while not traditionally a part of his wheelhouse, he played the role of counter striker perfectly as Cowboy tried to close the distance with a sloppy boxing entry. Gaethje clocked him with a massive right hand that sent him to his knees, then put him down again with a series of uppercuts and another right hand, nailing him with several more unneccessary shots as the ref stood back and looked like he was willing to let Cowboy die for no reason (where was he in Gaethje's losses?).
The finish marked the third straight first round knockout on his resume and has the Highlight firmly established as one of the top contenders in the stacked lightweight division.
On the other end of the Octagon on Saturday night a possibly even crazier man will stand across with him - the demon known as "El Cucuy".
First making a name for himself with his appearance on the 13th installment of The Ultimate Fighter, Tony Ferguson's strong collegiate wrestling credentials enabled him to keep fights standing where his slick boxing and powerful hands battered opponents at welterweight.
Ferguson won the season with a vicious first round knockout of Ramsey Nijem back in 2011, then returned to the lightweight division where he rattled off another two victories (a doctor's stoppage of Aaron Riley after a five-minute beatdown and an impressive decision win over seasoned vet Yves Edwards) before he ran into Michael Johnson, whose speed and crisp hands proved too much for Ferguson to handle at the time and saw him lose on the scorecards.
Since that bout in May of 2012, Ferguson has not lost a single fight, posting an incredible twelve straight victories with nine stoppages in the process.
The earlier wins in that streak saw him brutally slaughter Katsunori Kikuno, strangle Gleison Tibau, dominate Josh Thompson for 15-minutes, and use his favourite submission, the D'Arce choke, to tap out both Edson Barboza and Lando Vannata in the second rounds of bloody wars.
The impressive run earned him an opportunity to face the freshly unseated lightweight champion Rafael Dos Anjos in a title eliminator - to the surprise of many, Ferguson dominated the former champ, punishing RDA with powerful strikes and walking him down throughout, putting the pace on Dos Anjos that so typically he had put on his opponents.
It was performance that announced to the world that Ferguson may just be the greatest lightweight on the planet, and with the new champion Conor McGregor opting to fight in boxing rather than defend his crown, Ferguson was granted an interim title fight opposite Kevin Lee.
Surprisingly, Lee staggered Ferguson early and later ended up mounting the Eddie Bravo blackbelt off of a failed reversal from Ferguson; from there, Lee battered El Cucuy with a vicious barrage of elbows and punches that came dangerously close to ending Ferguson's title run.
Ferguson, like always, endured, and soon began to take over the fight following the rough start, battering Lee on the feet with his superior boxing and nullifying Lee's takedowns as the wrestler's endurance faltered.
In the third, Ferguson continued to dominate and secured a slick triangle choke to capture the interim lightweight title and his tenth straight victory.
Following his epic comeback, Ferguson was slated to square off against Khabib Nurmagomedov early in 2018, the fourth time the two had been paired up (previously, Ferguson pulled out once due to injury while Khabib pulled out similarly once and again the day before their most recently scheduled bout after being hospitalized while cutting weight). The two's fateful meeting was once again put on hold as Ferguson famously tripped on a wire on the set of UFC Tonight, a talk show airing on Fox Sports at the time.
Despite the fact the injury occurred on the week of the fight while filming for the UFC, Ferguson was incredulously stripped of his interim title.
Returning 364 days after his fight against Lee, Ferguson returned to action against former champion Anthony Pettis and looked "off" throughout after returning just months after major knee surgery and reportedly not doing any sparring before the bout.
Early in the second round of the back-and-forth slugfest, Pettis cracked Ferguson and had the former interim champ in all sorts of trouble, pummelling away while looking for the upset stoppage. Surviving the onslaught just seemed to make Ferguson more excited as he got back to work, punishing Pettis at every turn for the rest of the round that as a result seemed to visibly crush Pettis' spirit.
Citing a broken hand, Pettis' corner threw in the towel after 10-minutes of action and once again Ferguson was the uncrowned king inside the Octagon.
Returning to action in the middle of last year against Donald Cerrone, Ferguson engaged in a tit-for-tat battle with Cowboy for ten minutes. While Cowboy's kicks likely earned him the first round, Ferguson's varied output, relentless pace and superior boxing took over and saw him dominate the second, severely busting up Cowboy's face in the process.
In his corner following the second round, Cowboy made a rookie mistake in blowing his suspectedly broken nose, causing his eye to swell completely shut and forcing the doctor to call a stop to the bout. Though it was an anticlimactic finish to what had been an awesome scrap, Ferguson had already battered Cerrone and was well on his way to a convincing win barring an epic comeback from Cowboy.
The win saw Ferguson improve his winning streak to a remarkable twelve and saw him earn his fifth Fight of the Night bonus in his last six outings (the Lee fight arguably should have gotten a bonus as well).
Ferguson has claimed nine performance bonuses altogether during his streak - it's impossible not to get excited at the prospect of what will unfold when he's locked in the cage against Justin Gaethje, who has seven such bonuses himself in just six UFC outings.
Anyone that tells you they know what's going to happen in the main event at UFC 249 is full of shit - the only thing guaranteed to happen is chaos.
This is a bout between two absolute warriors who like nothing better than going to war against a game opponent, taking everything they can get with a grin on their face as their opponents look on in bewilderment.
Gaethje invites chaos and pain, even though he admittedly doesn't like getting hurt and knows his body can only take so much - Ferguson invites chaos and pain because he quite literally loves it.
This is a fight between a man who throws caution to the wind and loves to finish rounds with rolling thunders, and a man who looks to Imanari roll at every opportunity and whose training includes kicking steel poles.
Though predicting exactly what will go down is impossible, one can certainly look at how the two fighters' respective brands of violence stack up against one another.
While Gaethje's wrestling credentials are certainly superior on paper and Ferguson's superb submission game gives him an edge off his back, one can rest assured that neither man will be looking to take the other down - this is a good old fashioned fist (and elbow, knee, etc) fight.
At range, Ferguson will have an advantage with his boxing both defensively and in terms of technique, but for how great he recovers, we have seen Ferguson rocked and dropped at many points in his career, and by men that don't hit as hard as Gaethje - that could certainly spell trouble for El Cucuy.
Ferguson also kicks well and has shown more range there even if he doesn't kick that often, but Gaethje will certainly have the edge in low kicks given his trademark style of chopping down his opponents relentlessly. That being said, Gaethje can often leave himself exposed when doing so, and anytime you're on one leg is a bad time to eat a shot - see his loss to Dustin Poirier for a perfect example of this.
In the clinch both men have also proven strong there, with both being known for throwing nasty elbows in close-range skirmishes while Ferguson combines his elbows with knees and Gaethje mixes in uppercuts instead.
Both fighters possess the ability to knock the other out - though Gaethje has shown more one-punch knockout power, Ferguson sports more fluid combinations and better accuracy. Similarly, both men like to break their opponents through their relentless pace and pressure, so it will be interesting to see who plays the bull and who plays the matador when the two pressure fighters meet inside the Octagon.
It's impossible to feel overly confident in picking either fighter given how well they match up and their respective brands of violent insanity, but I'm going to side with the underdog in this matchup (which should be closer to even odds) and think that Gaethje's power and reformed recent approach give him the edge on Saturday night.
No matter what happens, we are in for a treat as chaos reigns supreme in the Octagon.
Official Pick: Justin Gaethje by second round (T)KO
Results: Justin Gaethje won by fifth round TKO
Losing those fights to Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier really was the best thing that could have happened to Justin Gaethje.
Since those setbacks, Gaethje has refined himself into a new beast entirely and has become an absolute monster.
For nearly 24-minutes Gaethje beat the brakes off of Tony Ferguson, a man who had not lost in eight years and was on a ridiculous twelve fight winning streak. Gaethje's head movement (who thought that would be a topic of discussion a few years ago?) and defensive chops kept him relatively safe inside the cage with El Cucuy, who normally leaves his victims dripping blood and as Daniel Cormier stated, looking like they were just in a car accident.
Aside from a sick uppercut from Ferguson that briefly dropped him at the end of the second round, Gaethje dominated from start to finish, landing powerful overhand rights and vicious left hooks at will, every impact made even more brutal for viewers given the sound they made without the roar of a crowd to drown them out.
Despite the absolute bombs he was eating, Ferguson somehow remained on his feet the entire time - while he was staggered at multiple points, Ferguson never was knocked down; ironically, Gaethje was the only one who suffered a knockdown in the fight.
Ferguson's otherworldly toughness and granite chin certainly did him no favours however - the amount of damage he took over the course of the fight would have killed virtually any other human being. The bombs Gaethje was hitting him with felled three other lightweights the first time they landed, yet Ferguson took dozens of those shots and never once stopped trying to find a way to get it back.
In the fifth, a stiff jab clearly hurt Ferguson, who looked like a zombie from the Walking Dead at that point, causing him to shake his head repeatedly - Herb Dean thankfully stepped in to save him from any further damage, and it was 100% the right call. He was taking ungodly amounts of punishment and with just over a minute left had shown no signs of changing it, no matter how hard he was trying.
Ferguson's heart and fighting spirit are certainly to be commended, but it was Gaethje's night - he was simply on another level and his reformed style has turned him into the scariest lightweight on the planet. Just look at his handiwork.
As Dustin Poirier pointed out, he's also a nightmare matchup for Khabib - his superb wrestling credentials give him the best chance of anyone to stop Khabib's wrestling, he has ridiculous cardio and heart, incredible power and uses it to tremendous effect with a diverse and clean striking arsenal.
What a way to welcome back fights - these fighters delivered in spades and reminded us all why mixed martial arts is the greatest sport on the planet.