UFC was hoping to be an entertaining respite for those starved for live sports during the global coronavirus pandemic. Consider that a mission accomplished, courtesy of Justin Gaethje and Tony Ferguson.
A bout billed as one involving two of the most exciting fighters in UFC history did not disappoint, with Gaethje prevailing with a TKO finish at 3 minutes, 39 seconds of the fifth round in the main event of UFC 249 on Saturday night in Jacksonville, Florida.
The victory earned Gaethje the interim UFC lightweight title, but Gaethje tossed the belt off after it was put around his waist by UFC president Dana White, saying in his interview in the Octagon, "I'll wait for the real one."
"I am proud to hold this belt," Gaethje said at the postfight news conference. "It feels good. Not many people in the world, much less fighters in the UFC, get to achieve this. So it feels fantastic, and I should enjoy it. But that was the competitor in me. You can never be satisfied. When I get the belt, I want the next one."
Gaethje battered Ferguson in every round, with Ferguson withstanding a wicked beating. By the end, both of Ferguson's eyes were swollen and he had a huge cut on his right cheek.
Gaethje landed a hard left hand in the fifth that wobbled Ferguson, and referee Herb Dean stepped in to wave it off.
For someone who has been deemed a brawler over the years, Gaethje put on a tactical performance. He was outlanded entering the fifth round but responded by landing 34 of 39 (87%) significant strikes.
The fighters combined for 279 significant strikes, the most ever in a UFC fight in which no strikes on the ground or in the clinch were attempted.
"I told my coaches, 'You're not gonna like it, but I'm ready to die tonight,'" Gaethje said in the cage afterward with Joe Rogan. "That's the mentality you have to come in there with."
White said he thought it was the right call to stop the fight.
"I actually thought the fight should have been stopped sooner," White said. "Tony took a lot of damage tonight. Not only did he take a lot of damage, it was from a guy who hits like a f---ing truck, a guy who punches very hard and usually knocks people unconscious when he hits them with those shots."
UFC 249, which took place without a crowd present, was one of the first major sporting events in the United States since the beginning of the pandemic. Everyone involved with the card was tested for COVID-19 before the event. This was UFC's first card since March 14.
President Donald Trump taped a message that was played before the bouts, congratulating White and UFC. The message said, in part, "We love it. We think it's important. Get the sports leagues back. Let's play. Do the social distancing and whatever else you have to do. We need sports. We want our sports back."
Gaethje said competing in Saturday's main event during a pandemic motivated him.
"I know where we're at now. I know where people's minds are -- anxiety, depression, those are very strong things that can take over anyone," he said. "I just want to inspire. I want to inspire people to do better tomorrow than they did today."
Ferguson came in as ESPN's No. 6-ranked pound-for-pound fighter. He was supposed to fight UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov on April 18, but Nurmagomedov said he was held up in his native Dagestan due to coronavirus-related travel restrictions. Gaethje filled in for Nurmagomedov before the card was postponed when UFC was asked to "stand down" by executives from broadcast partner ESPN. He stayed in when the card was moved to Saturday night.
"Justin is a tough son of a b----, I'll be real," Ferguson said. "I was prepared for Khabib, not a striker."
White questioned whether Ferguson cutting and making weight three weeks ago, the day before the canceled April 18 show, affected him Saturday night.
"I would have to imagine that cutting weight twice in a month would affect you," White said. "[But] the guy isn't f---ing human. Nobody can take Gaethje's punches like that."
White has said the winner of the UFC 249 main event would "100%" be next for a title shot against Nurmagomedov, and he reiterated after Saturday's card that Gaethje-Nurmagomedov to unify the belts is "the fight to make" next. Gaethje said it would be an honor to represent the United States against Russia's Nurmagomedov.
"I can't wait to face the challenge," Gaethje said at the postfight news conference. "We're competitors. That's why we're here. He owes it to me to try and kill me, and I owe him the same."
Nurmagomedov tweeted afterward to congratulate Gaethje on his performance.
@Justin_Gaethje it was so impressive, congratulations. Very smart fight.— khabib nurmagomedov (@TeamKhabib) May 10, 2020
Gaethje (22-2), 31, has won four straight, all via KO/TKO.
Ferguson (25-3), 36, saw his UFC lightweight record 12-fight winning streak come to an end. He had not lost since 2012 and had not been finished since 2009.
Gaethje and Ferguson each won $50,000 Fight of the Night bonuses, while Gaethje won another $50,000 bonus for Performance of the Night.