The UFC 249 Fight Card is Stacked, But There's No Shortage of Questions

The UFC's first promotion since March is set for Saturday with a full card must-see fights. But there are a lot of unanswered questions surrounding the sport's return and what comes next.
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Headlined by Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje fighting for the interim lightweight championship, UFC 249 is set to take place this Saturday at an empty VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Fla.

There has been considerable debate on whether the UFC should operate live shows amid a worldwide pandemic. But to the surprise of few, money talks in the fight world. Safety concerns still remain, but the UFC is set to put on a tremendous show with the prelims on ESPN and the main card on ESPN+.

From top to bottom, UFC 249 is a star-studded card, which includes a must-see fight, pitting Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone against “Showtime” Anthony Pettis on the ESPN prelims. It is a smart move by the UFC and the fighters, as that fight is likely to draw the highest viewership of the night.

There are also no shortage of questions entering the fight card. Was training impacted or interrupted during the pandemic? Will fighters be affected by an empty arena? In regards to the card, why would Ferguson take this fight against the extremely dangerous Gaethje? And will the winner of that match automatically face Khabib Nurmagomedov?

Here is a look at the top questions surrounding UFC 249.

1. Should the UFC be holding a card?

There are many legitimate health and safety questions that run parallel to the UFC’s decision. Are the fighters and their teams taking COVID-19 tests away from people in need of them? Health and safety should always come first, and not just for the fighters.

Ultimately, this card was happening. UFC and ESPN determined that the value this show stands to bring has outweighed any other concerns, and the state of Florida is a willing host. Though it will certainly bring excitement to people stuck in quarantine, it remains to be seen if running the show is the right decision. But fighters are eager to fight, fans are excited to watch, and the show will go on this Saturday night.

2. Are there any benefits for Tony Ferguson by fighting Justin Gaethje?

Tony Ferguson should no longer be on the UFC 249 card. Once his fight against Khabib Nurmagomedov was postponed, Ferguson should have announced he was also stepping away from the card.

The UFC interim lightweight championship is on the line, but Ferguson (25-3) is already in line for the next shot at Nurmagomedov’s belt. So outside of a pay day, what benefit does this fight hold for Ferguson?

Ferguson is, at worst, only a couple months away from a marquee fight against Nurmagomedov. Why risk that? There is nothing but danger in this fight for Ferguson. Even the pay day could come back to haunt him, as he’d make more in the fight against Nurmagomedov, which won’t happen if he loses to Gaethje.

Gaethje (21-2) is a legitimate threat. He brings the power to knock out Ferguson, has a chin that can withstand punishment, and can brawl at whatever Ferguson throws at him. Ferguson loves to grapple, but Gaethje is a wrestler. I don’t think you want Gaethje on top of you if you’re Ferguson. Gaethje won’t be scared, won’t get rattled, and Ferguson will likely have to knock him out in order to win.

And best-case for Ferguson is that he wins, which puts him right back where he started–waiting for his date with Nurmagomedov.

3. Dominick Cruz is back?

For the first time since December of 2016, Dominick Cruz is re-entering the Octagon. Cruz (22-2) has not fought since he was thoroughly out-classed by Cody Garbrandt at UFC 207, dropping the Bantamweight Championship in the process. But he is back for his championship rematch, challenging reigning champ Henry Cejudo.

Cejudo (15-2) is an incredibly talented fighter, but Cruz is simply a nightmare of a matchup for him. Cruz is one of the toughest matchups, ever, in this weight class. He is so dynamic, brings such power in his hands, and his exceptional footwork is likely to be the difference here.

Injuries have plagued Cruz, who is no stranger to a long break in action. He defeated Demetrious Johnson in October of 2011, then didn’t fight again until his outstanding victory against Takeya Mizugaki in September of 2014. Cruz overcame mountains to continually prove he was the best fighter in the game, and he never stopped evolving.

Cejudo has accomplished a lot, but this is a matchup that should allow Cruz to use his footwork to keep Cejudo away from him. Expect to see a new champion crowned.

4. Will this be Calvin Kattar’s breakout fight?

Calvin Kattar meets Jeremy Stephens in a fight that will bring more clarity to the featherweight rankings.

Kattar (20-4) headlined his last fight, which was a controversial unanimous decision defeat to Zabit Magomedsharipov this past November in Moscow, Russia. A win over Stephens would certainly elevate his standing in the division, but of course, that is easier said than done.

“Right now in the division, I’m number nine and he’s number seven,” said Kattar. “A win over Jeremy Stephens and the list get that much smaller. This is a chance to put some respect on my name. I’ve been in the game almost just as long, and I’m excited to be at the point where I’m fighting the best in the world.”

Stephens (28-17, 1 NC) is a marquee opponent with serious knockout power. This has all the makings of a slug fest. Kattar has shown a tendency to want to stand-and-bang with opponents, but he would be wise not to take that approach in the cage against Stephens.

“That’s playing into his strengths,” agreed Kattar. “But I’ll do whatever it takes. If I find holes in his stand-up, or holes in his takedown defense, I’ll take that and capitalize. I’ve got more tools in the toolbox, and whatever one I need to get the job done on Saturday night, I’ll use.”

Stephens trains with Dominick Cruz, and the pair would be thrilled to walk away from 249 with two victories. Obviously, Kattar has plans of his own.

“He trains with Cruz, and I train with Rob mother****** Font and the New England Cartel,” said Kattar. “Respect to Dominick Cruz, he’s a beast, but he ain’t going to be in there fighting for him. Jeremy is a tough kid. He didn’t come this far to lose, but nothing did I.”

5. Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone is fighting… on the undercard?

Not only is “Cowboy” Cerrone fighting on the preliminary card on ESPN, he will be in the Octagon against “Showtime” Anthony Pettis.

On paper, this is the prelims, but it is also the main event of the card airing on ESPN. Traditionally speaking, with notable exceptions in McGregor and Jon Jones, this is usually the peak of the night in terms of viewership for a card, so it is a great spot for two marquee fighters. And the stage at UFC 249 is set for a vintage performance from “Cowboy.”

Cerrone thrives in no-pressure situations. Whenever he finds himself in a pressure-packed situation, Cerrone exacerbates the situation by placing even more pressure on himself, turning himself into a nervous wreck. The magnitude of that was even further amplified in his main event loss to McGregor, which ended quickly and badly for Cerrone. But this fight is different, as Cerrone will not be burdened by pressure against Pettis.

Both fighters have a lot at stake. Cerrone has lost has last three fights, while Pettis has lost three of his past four. This should be a fantastic bout between two of the most popular fighters in the sport, and we should see this fight end in a finish.

6. Who else is on the main UFC 249 card?

Most of these fighters are already sparring and training in front of a small crowd, so it should be a fairly quick adjustment to the new empty arena environment. And there is no shortage of exciting fights on the card.

Francis Ngannou meets the undefeated Jairzinho Rozenstruik in a battle of heavyweights. Ngannou (14-3) needs this win to add to his case for another shot at Stipe Miocic’s Heavyweight Championship. He is certainly standing in line behind Daniel Cormier, and that should remain the case until we see some better grappling or until he cleans out the rest of the division. A win against Rozenstruik, who has knocked off big names in Andrei Arlovski and Alistair Overeem over his past two fights, will add even more of a case that Ngannou deserves a shot at the winner of Miocic-Cormier III.

Former NFL player Greg Hardy, who is one of UFC’s villains due to his ugly history with domestic violence charges, is also on the card. Fight fans would likely bid farewell to Hardy (5-2, 1 NC) with a loss, especially after underwhelming performances in his last two fights. Yorgan de Castro (6-0) is hungry and brings explosive knockout power, and an upset here would be his breakout moment.

Even without purchasing the pay per view, the prelims offer a lot. Aleksei Oleinik (58-13-1) is always exciting to watch, and he now has his sights set on Fabricio Werdum (23-8-1), one of the all-time greats. Can Oleinik find a way to lock in his choke? This meeting of 42-year-olds should, at the very least, be entertaining.

Michelle Waterson (17-7) meets Carla Esparza (15-6) in a women’s strawweight fight. These fighters always seem to be in the middle of their weight class, but both are gamers and this is another bout that adds excitement to the card.

The prelim opener, which is likely to be Uriah Hall vs. Ronaldo “Jacaré” Souza, is another outstanding matchup. Hall is still one of the most exciting fighters in the entire sport, but will be able to dictate the pace of this fight? If Hall is forced to wrestle, I don’t think he stands a chance. Jacaré will either come out as the powerhouse we know him as, or Hall will work his magic to set him up for a knockout. If they stand-and-bang, this is going to be a wildly entertaining fight.

7. What happens next for the main pieces of the 249 card?

The shadow of Conor McGregor looms over UFC 249. If Ferguson wins, then a title fight against Nurmagomedov is a lock. But if Gaethje is victorious, then it is highly likely that McGregor jumps ahead to the front of the line for a rematch with Nurmagomedov.

Another potentially great moment that could occur at 249 is if Dominick Cruz wins the bantamweight championship, then take his gloves off and retires following the victory. A win against the wildly talented Cejudo would mark the perfect time to hang it up, though there is reason to be suspect that will happen. Every fighter, and especially the champions, always seems to have one more fight left in the tank.

Questions will begin to be answered this Saturday, as the UFC returns to live action for the first time since March.

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.