UFC 249: Tony Ferguson vs Justin Gaethje can alter course of stacked lightweight division

The coronavirus has altered the landscape of sports and potentially a stacked UFC lightweight division too as we take a look at the big fight on Saturday.

The UFC's lightweight division is stacked with Tony Ferguson, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Conor McGregor and Justin Gaethje.   -  Getty Images

When opportunity knocks in UFC you had better be ready to answer and Justin Gaethje has one hell of a chance to shake up a stacked lightweight division against Tony Ferguson on Saturday.

Things were supposed to be very different. For one thing Ferguson was finally meant to dance with long-term foe Khabib Nurmagomedov for the lightweight title in front a packed-out crowd at Brooklyn's Barclays Center on April 18.

But the coronavirus pandemic left champion Khabib unable to travel to the United States and, after Gaethje had been drafted in as an opponent, the plug was finally pulled on the event when ESPN and parent company Disney intervened.

Yet here we are just a few weeks later and the show will go on, albeit in vastly different circumstances.

UFC president Dana White confirmed last month UFC 249 will go ahead without fans on May 9 at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida, with only essential personnel permitted to attend.

Ferguson remains top of the bill and will go up against fellow American Gaethje for the interim lightweight belt in a bout that can alter the course of a division swimming in talent.

READ: UFC 249, Ferguson v Gaethje & Cejudo v Cruz: When and where to watch in India, live streaming details, time

As well as unbeaten champion Khabib, the return of Conor McGregor throws a monumental spanner into the works, while Dustin Poirier – who may have fallen short in his bid to defeat Khabib – remains an active threat.

Here's a recap of how things have played out at 145lbs in the past few months…


MCGREGOR RETURN SHAKES THINGS UP

Dana White believes that Conor McGregor is itching to return to action.   -  Getty Images

 

Love him or hate him, McGregor is money and the Irishman being active can only be a good thing for UFC and the bank balances of those facing him. The former two-weight champion appears to have rediscovered his love of the MMA game and he set out a three-fight plan for 2020 (which admittedly appears unlikely to be fulfilled now given the global health crisis). The first of those resulted in a convincing first-round stoppage of UFC legend Donald Cerrone and the plan, you would assume, was likely to face Gaethje before building towards a huge rematch with Khabib. Regardless of how the next chapter in this division plays out, an active, healthy and focused McGregor certainly makes this interesting.

ALSO READ: Evander Holyfield to follow Mike Tyson in returning to the ring
 

FERGUSON-KHABIB CANCELLED AGAIN

It was always hard to look beyond a McGregor win given Cerrone's advancing years and the next part of the lightweight story was meant to be Khabib and Ferguson finally going head-to-head in the Octagon. On four prior occasions these two huge names in the world of MMA were booked to fight only for a combination of injuries and rotten luck to deny fans this dream encounter. So, when the coronavirus outbreak meant the bout was scuppered for a fifth time it did little to change the perception of Khabib-Ferguson being a cursed fight. It would be a crying shame should these two never meet and surely one day their paths will cross but things may yet play out a little differently…


SURPRISE OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS FOR GAETHJE

Tony Ferguson

Tony Ferguson, the number one contender, will lock horns with Justin Gaethje for the interim championship at UFC 249.   -  Getty Images

 

White likes to reward fighters who are active and willing to go at short notice. Gaethje has certainly proven himself to be just that in recent weeks and that attitude could pay off in a huge way if he can find a way past Ferguson. Gaethje is ranked fourth in the lightweight division after rebounding from damaging defeats to Eddie Alvarez and Poirier with a trio of impressive wins over James Vick, Edson Barbosa and Cerrone. The natural order of things really should have been for Gaethje to face McGregor and the winner of that fight to meet the victor of Khabib-Ferguson. But we are where we are and Gaethje has a monumental opportunity to stake his claim as the next in line to face Khabib and truly mix things up in the lightweight division.

Support Sportstar


Dear Reader,

Support our journalism — where text and pictures intermingle so seamlessly — and help us scale up your experience as the world changes around us. Your contribution is vital to our brand of uninfluenced, boots-on-the-ground reportage that’s worth your while. Clickbait sensationalism is not for us, but editorial independence is — we owe it to you.