The world is starving for sports and the Ultimate Fighting Championship is ready to deliver Saturday in Jacksonville. Tony Ferguson vs. Justin Gaethje for the interim lightweight championship will headline a 12-fight card at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena.
UFC 249 was originally scheduled for Brooklyn on April 18. When the global pandemic forced the state of New York to shut down, UFC President Dana White found a new venue on tribal lands in California.
That location did not please the governor of The Golden State, however. He made a phone call to Disney to ask ESPN’s parent company to shut down White’s plans and was successful in doing so.
Nevertheless, three weeks later and more than 2,000 miles away from Tachi Palace outside of Fresno, we’ve got a show ready to take place in the Sunshine State. On paper, it looks like one of the best UFC cards that’s ever been assembled. It will include two title fights, six fighters who have worn UFC gold before, the return of former two-time bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz and the presence of the promotion’s leader in career wins, Donald ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone.
There will be no fans and no media, but there will be fireworks galore. Now let’s break down the main card that begins at 10:00 p.m. ET. on ESPN+ (PPV).
Tony Ferguson vs. Justin Gaethje
Tony ‘El Cucuy’ Ferguson (25-3 MMA, 15-1 UFC) will put his 12-fight winning streak on the line vs. Justin ‘The Highlight’ Gaethje.
As of Thursday, FanDuel had Ferguson as a -178 favorite at most books. Gaethje was a +150 underdog. The total was 2.5 rounds (‘under’ -138, ‘over’ +114). By late Friday morning, though, Ferguson was up to -190, leaving Gaethje at +160 on the comeback.
Ferguson has not tasted defeat since May 5 of 2012 when he dropped a unanimous decision to Michael Johnson. His last eight wins have garnered him eight fight-night bonuses. The 36-year-old Ferguson has taken out the promotion’s all-time leader in wins (Cerrone) and two former UFC champs (Anthony ‘Showtime’ Pettis and Rafael dos Anjos) in his last four Octagon appearances.
Ferguson was booked to face lightweight champion Khabib ‘The Eagle’ Nurmagomedov on April 18, but this scrap fell apart for the fifth time when the global pandemic forced the show to be postponed. With Nurmagomedov stuck in his native Dagestan due to the travel ban, Gaethje has stepped in to replace Nurmagomedov.
Even with the fight getting pushed back from April 18 to May 9, Ferguson cut weight and tipped the scales at 155 pounds on April 17. He was under no obligation to do so and whether making the cut twice in a three-week span will negatively impact his performance remains to be seen.
Both men stand 5-foot-11, but Ferguson has a 6.5-inch reach advantage (76.5-70). Gaethje, 31, is the younger man by five years.
Ferguson has 12 career wins by knockout, eight by submission and five via decision. The winner of Season 13 of The Ultimate Fighter owns the longest winning streak in UFC lightweight history.
Bettors can avoid the expensive straight price on Ferguson by looking at proposition wagers for method of victory. FanDuel has Ferguson at +250 odds to win by KO/TKO, +270 by submission and +500 via decision.
Gaethje (21-2 MMA, 4-2 UFC) has been the most exciting fighter on the roster since signing with the promotion in 2017. He’s bagged seven fight-night bonuses in six scraps and is on a tear in his last three appearances, beating James Vick, Edson Barboza and Cerrone with first-round knockouts.
Gaethje’s UFC debut was spectacular. He won a back-and-forth slugfest over Johnson by KO with 12 seconds remaining in Round 2. The scrap garnered 2017 Fight of the Year honors from Sherdog, Bleacher Report, Bloody Elbow and CBS Sports.
His second walk to the Octagon came at UFC 218 in Detroit against former lightweight champion, Eddie Alvarez. Gaethje came up short this time in another thriller, as Alvarez got the finish with a KO (knee) at the 3:59 mark of Round 3. Alvarez and Gaethje both took home an extra $50,000 for Fight of the Night honors.
Next, Gaethje took on Dustin ‘The Diamond’ Poirier at home in Glendale, AZ., in a five-round main event. Gaethje seemed on the verge of finishing a tiring Poirier multiple times in the third frame, but it didn’t happen. Then in Round 4, Poirier closed the show by TKO (punches).
The bout earned FOTN honors and was dubbed the 2018 Fight of the Year by Sherdog, MMAJunkie, CombatPress and MMAWeekly. Since that setback, the fourth-ranked Gaethje has won three straight fights to earn this shot at top-ranked Ferguson.
Gaethje owns 18 career wins by knockout. He has been scheduled for a slew of five-round fights, but the former World Series of Fighting lightweight champ has only been into the fourth round once (vs. Poirier).
PREDICTION: I’m on Gaethje for one unit at +160.
Cruz vs. Cejudo
In the co-main event, Henry Cejudo (15-2 MMA, 9-2 UFC) will defend his bantamweight belt for the first time against Dominick Cruz, who will be making his first Octagon appearance since Dec. 30 of 2016. In other words, he’s been out as long as Ronda Rousey has been.
As of Friday, FanDuel had Cejudo listed as a -215 ‘chalk’ with Cruz as a +180 underdog. The total was 3.5 rounds (‘over’ -270, ‘under’ +205).
5Dimes had a more generous payout available on Cruz (+200). Some other shops had the total at 4.5 rounds (‘over’ -185, ‘under’ +155).
For gamblers that are bullish on Cejudo but want to avoid the expensive straight price, FanDuel had Cejudo available to win by KO/TKO for a +260 return, by decision for a +150 payout and via submission for a 13/1 return.
Cejudo won the 135-pound strap left vacant by T.J. Dillashaw’s two-year USADA suspension by defeating Marlon Moraes via third-round KO at UFC 238 last June. Cejudo finished the Brazilian with ground-and-pound punishment with only nine seconds remaining in the third stanza.
Cejudo’s victory was even more impressive considering that he fought while his ankle was still purple from a sprain suffered a week before the bout. Furthermore, it was his debut at bantamweight after going up to join the double-champ club. The former gold-medal winner in freestyle wrestling at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing has relinquished his flyweight belt since then to concentrate on the 135-pound loop.
Cejudo takes a five-fight winning streak into this spot. Since losing a split decision to Joseph Benavidez on Dec. 3 of 2016, Cejudo has beaten Wilson Reis by TKO (punches) at UFC 215, Sergio Pettis via unanimous decision at UFC 218, Demetrious Johnson by split decision at UFC 227 and T.J. Dillashaw by first-round KO (punches in 32 seconds).
Before tasting defeat against Cejudo, Johnson had not lost in nearly seven years and Dillashaw had not been beaten in more than three years.
Cejudo has an elite wrestling base, but his striking has rapidly improved in recent years. His chin is extremely solid, evidenced by only one loss via finish in his 17-fight career. Johnson beat Cejudo in their first meeting by first-round KO (knees and punches) at UFC 197.
Cruz (22-2 MMA, 5-1 UFC) saw his 13-fight winning streak snapped at UFC 207. Cody Garbrandt took the bantamweight title from Cruz with a UD victory.
‘The Dominator’ had won his belt back by winning a split decision over Dillashaw on Jan. 17 of 2016 in Boston. He then successfully defended the belt with a UD victory over Urijah Faber to complete their trilogy at UFC 199.
The 35-year-old Cruz is no stranger to cage rust. After beating Johnson via UD on Oct. 1 of 2011, he had to deal with a broken hand sustained in Round 1. Next, Cruz dealt with two ACL surgeries and then his comeback was dealt another setback with a torn groin.
That extended absence forced the promotion to strip him of his belt due to inactivity. Cruz finally returned to the Octagon on Sept. 27 of 2014 at UFC 178, merely a handful of days shy of three years without fighting. His return did not last long, with Cruz destroying Takeya Mizugaki by 51-second KO (punches) to garner a Performance of the Night bonus.
Then in an unfathomable development just three months later, Cruz revealed that he had torn the ACL in his other knee. This kept him sidelined for all of 2015 before he bested Dillashaw.
Since the loss to Garbrandt, Cruz’s first defeat since losing by first-round submission to Faber on March 24 of 2007 at World Extreme Cagefighting 26, he has coped with a slew of additional injuries. First, plantar fascia tendinitis kept him out for most of 2017.
Then after being booked to face Jimmie Rivera at UFC 219 on Dec. 30 of 2017, Cruz had to pull out when he broke his arm. Next, a date with John Lineker at UFC 233 on Jan. 26 of 2019 was scrapped due to a serious shoulder injury.
Cruz is finally healthy now and for once, he’s catching a break with this opportunity. The global pandemic brought about by COVID-19 has led to a title shot, with Jose Aldo unable to face Cejudo due to the travel ban that has him stuck in Brazil.
Cruz’s loss to Faber was for the WEC featherweight belt. He moved down a weight class to bantamweight at WEC 34 and promptly won four fights in a row to get a title shot. Cruz defeated Brian Bowles by TKO (doctor stoppage) after Round 2. He defended his WEC bantamweight belt with wins over Joseph Benavidez via split decision at WEC 50 and Scott Jorgensen by UD at WEC 53.
When the WEC merged with the UFC, Cruz defended his bantamweight strap and avenged his only career defeat with a UD victory over Faber at UFC 132. That led to his win over Johnson and subsequent absence from the Octagon with injuries galore.
The faceoff looked like this:
PREDICTION: If someone had said in 2018 that Cejudo would one day be favored vs. Cruz, it would have been laughable. But here we are, and Cejudo is heavily favored against the landlord of the division. What matters is that Cruz is healthy now. His only career losses came against Faber and Garbrandt when both were both in their prime. I like Cruz at +200 ‘dog odds for one unit.
Francis Ngannou vs. Jairzinho Rozenstruik
As of Wednesday, most books had Francis Ngannou installed as a -300 favorite vs. Jairzinho Rozenstruik in a can’t-miss heavyweight showdown. The odds had slightly moved up to -310 at FanDuel by Friday afternoon, leaving Rozenstruik as an attractive +250 underdog.
The total was 1.5 rounds (-110 either way). The winner will most likely be at the front of the line to fight for the belt. That will be against Stipe Miocic if he can win his trilogy bout against Daniel Cormier. If ‘DC’ wins vs. Miocic, he’s most likely retiring and the belt could be left vacant.
Ngannou (14-3 MMA, 9-2 UFC) has a two-inch edge in height and a five-inch advantage in reach over Rozenstruik. ‘The Predator’ has won three fights in a row by first-round KO. His victims have included Curtis Blaydes in 45 seconds, Cain Velasquez in 26 seconds and Junior dos Santos in 61 seconds.
The 33-year-old Ngannou won his first six UFC fights by finish, including scalps of Anthony Hamilton, Arlovski and Overeem. These victories earned Ngannou a title shot vs. Miocic at UFC 220, but Miocic dominated Ngannou with his wrestling in a UD win. Six months later, Ngannou lost a UD to Derrick Lewis in a three-round snoozer.
Since then, though, Ngannou has been back on track and taken out two former champs in Velasquez and Dos Santos. Twelve of Ngannou’s 17 career fights have gone ‘under’ 1.5 rounds.
Rozenstruik (10-0 MMA, 4-0 UFC) has nine KO wins and seven have come in Round 1. ‘Bigi Boy’ burst on the scene in the heavyweight division in 2019 with four KO victories. The 32-year-old Rozenstruik won his UFC debut over Junior Albini with a KO 54 seconds into the second frame. Then he recorded the second-fastest KO in UFC history with his nine-second disposal of Allen Crowder in Greenville, S.C.
Rozenstruik needed only 29 seconds to finish former heavyweight champ Andrei Arlovski at UFC 244. Then in Washington D.C. on Dec. 7, Rozenstruik was about to lose a decision in a five-round main event against Alistair Overeem. However, he rallied and was able to KO Overeem with only four seconds left in the final stanza. It was the latest KO in heavyweight history.
PREDICTION: I like ‘under’ 1.5 rounds at a -110 price for three units, as it’s my favorite play on the entire card. I’ll also put one-half unit on Rozenstruik for a +250 payout.
Jeremy Stephens vs. Calvin Kattar
This featherweight scrap has fireworks written all over it. As of Friday, FanDuel had ninth-ranked Calvin Kattar (20-4 MMA, 4-2 UFC) installed as a -250 favorite vs. seventh-ranked Jeremy Stephens, who was a +205 underdog. The total was 2.5 rounds (‘over’ -166, ‘under’ +136).
Stephens was the only fighter on the card to miss weight. He tipped the scales at 150.5 pounds, 4.5 pounds above the 146-pound limit for featherweight non-title fights.
The last time Stephens missed weight? That was at UFC 189 when he took out Dennis Burmudez with a flying-knee KO early in the third frame.
The 32-year-old Kattar owns nine career wins by KO, three by submission and eight via decision. ‘The Boston Finisher’ is looking to get back into the win column after dropping a UD to Zabit Magomedsharipov (29-28, 29-28, 29-28) in Moscow this past November.
Kattar will have a 2.5-inch height advantage on Stephens and a one-inch edge in reach. He started his UFC tenure with a UD victory over Andre Fili at UFC 214 in Anaheim. Next, Kattar knocked off Shane Burgos with a third-round KO in a Fight of the Night at UFC 220 in Beantown.
Kattar saw his 10-fight winning streak snapped in a UD loss to Renato Moicano at UFC 223 in Brooklyn. However, he bounced back with a first-round KO win over Chris Fishgold on Oct. 27 of 2018. Then Kattar made a big splash with a first-round KO win over division stalwart Ricardo Lamas at UFC 238 in June of last year.
Stephens (28-17-1 MMA, 15-16-1 UFC) will make his 33rd career walk to the Octagon in this spot. The record for most all-time UFC appearances is shared by Jim Miller and Donald ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone with 34 apiece. Cerrone will surpass Miller on Saturday, and Stephens will be alone in third place ahead of Demian Maia (32).
Stephens is fourth in UFC history in total Octagon time, spending six hours, 20 minutes and 38 seconds in the cage against the world’s best mixed martial artists. If this bout goes the distance, ‘Lil’ Heathen’ will move into second place ahead of Dos Anjos and Maia. Frankie Edgar continues to set the pace with 7:16:11 of Octagon time.
Stephens is looking to get back in the win column for the first time in more than two years. Since scoring a second-round KO victory over Josh Emmett on Feb. 24 of 2018, the 33-year-old slugger has lost three times in a row with one no-contest.
None of those setbacks have been shameful, though. The win over Emmett had Stephens on a three-fight winning streak, and he appeared poised to enter the 145-pound title conversation if he could get past Aldo in Calgary two summers ago. Stephens had the former featherweight king in all sorts of trouble after stinging him with a plethora of big punches inside the fight’s first two minutes.
However, Aldo dug deep and found a way to survive, and then he was able to finish Stephens with strikes at the 4:19 mark of Round 1. The comeback win left Aldo emotional, as he burst into tears uncontrollably after the referee intervened.
Stephens dropped a UD to Magomedsharipov (29-28, 29-28, 29-28) at UFC 235 on March 2 of last year. Then in a main event in Mexico City vs. Yair Rodriguez last September, Stephens was rendered unable to continue by an eye poke only 15 seconds into the bout. Therefore, the promotion booked the same matchup in Boston last October, but Rodriguez prevailed via UD (29-28, 29-28, 29-28).
Stephens owns 19 career wins by KO, two via submission and seven by decision. Since moving up to the featherweight loop, he has an 8-8 record with one no-contest. Four of Stephens’ 17 career defeats have come against former UFC champions. He has two wins over former UFC champions, besting Dos Anjos by third-round KO at UFC 91 on Nov. 15 of 2008 and beating Renan Barao via UD in 2016. Stephens also has a win over Gilbert Melendez, the former Strikeforce lightweight champion.
Other notable scalps on Stephens’ resume include those over Cole Miller, Sam Stout, Marcus Davis, Darren Elkins, Dennis Bermudez and Doo Ho Choi.
PREDICTION: I’ll take Stephens for one-half unit. As of Friday afternoon, +240 odds were available for the underdog at 5Dimes.
Greg Hardy vs. Yorgan De Castro
As of Friday afternoon, FanDuel had Hardy (5-2-1 MMA, 4-2-1 UFC) listed as a -205 ‘chalk,’ leaving De Castro at +172 on the comeback. The total was 1.5 rounds (‘over’ -156, ‘under’ +128).
For bettors that like the 31-year-old Hardy and want to shave off some of the expensive price, he can be backed to win inside the distance for a +150 return. Hardy is +155 to win by KO.
Hardy’s first six fights went ‘under’ 1.5 rounds, but his last two have gone the three-round distance.
De Castro (6-0 MMA, 2-0 UFC) has five career KO wins and four have come in Round 1, including his first two UFC victories. In Season 3 of Dana White’s Contender Series, De Castro beat Sanford Alton Meeks by TKO (leg kick and punches) with 15 seconds left in the opening frame.
Then at UFC 243, De Castro took out Justin Tafa by first-round KO in 130 seconds.
At 6-foot-5, Hardy will have a five-inch height advantage and a six-inch advantage in reach (80-74).
PREDICTION: I’ll go with one-half unit on ‘under’ 1.5 rounds for the +128 payout.