It's been nearly two months since it last put on a fight card amid the coronavirus pandemic, but UFC will bring the show back on the road this Saturday for a stacked pay-per-view card in Jacksonville, Florida.
Two weeks after plans to put on the show in California were foiled, UFC president Dana White found a new home for UFC 249 and the stacked card features a pair of title bouts atop the marquee at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena. Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje will face off for the interim lightweight title in the main event and bantamweight king Henry Cejudo will face former two-time champ Dominick Cruz.
The event will be the first of three in eight days for UFC at the same location and will take place in front of an empty arena after Florida became the first state to deem professional sports as essential provided fans not attend. Lets take a look at the biggest storylines entering the card.
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1. Can the card go on without a major hitch?
That's the key question after a wild six weeks that saw UFC president Dana White determined to bring back fights at all costs. Some of the criticism White received along the way was deserved. But joining forces with the Florida state commission (as opposed to going around it like he attempted in California) seems to have turned the tide of public opinion back in White's favor. Yes, his refusal to confirm all fighters will be subject to COVID-19 testing is troubling, as is his constant belief the media is against him. None of that matters, of course, if the show comes off as planned without any major hiccups and kickstarts an aggressive return to business that will see UFC promote three fight cards in the first eight days in an attempt to get caught up and on schedule by late June. While preventing the spread of the coronavirus is Job 1, so will be pulling off the logistics of this unique undertaking from travel to producing an entertaining broadcast. How good will the fights be without full training camps? How might the haphazard matchmaking affect title pictures in different divisions? These are questions that can only be answered over the long term if May 9 is a success.
2. Is Ferguson risking too much (again)?
No one is more deserving than a full UFC title shot than Tony Ferguson, who is currently riding a 12-fight winning streak in the sport's deepest division (maybe in history). The problem for Ferguson is that he has deserved this shot for years and the combination of bad luck and freak injuries have halted him at every turn. Similar to his last two fights -- TKO wins over Anthony Pettis and Donald Cerrone -- Ferguson was ready to risk it all should he have suffered defeat rather than wait in line for the Khabib Nurmagomedov title fight to finally happen. In Ferguson's defense, he has seen that fight scheduled and canceled five separate times. He's also not getting any younger at 36. A matchup against Justin Gaethje is anything but a stay-busy affair and while a win would guarantee Ferguson a Nurmagomedov fight (one he has already earned countless times), the interim title at stake is largely irrelevant to the situation. Ferguson has already won that belt and been stripped of it for reasons that didn't make much sense. One could argue, neither does accepting this fight and adding one more dangerous hurdle to clear. With that said …
3. Ferguson-Gaethje is going to be hot fire
Please, let's not bury the lede here. With all of the never-ending talk surrounding pandemic response and the decisions of both Nurmagomedov and two-division champion Amanda Nunes to withdraw from this card, the replacement main event has the potential to be the fight of the decade. Two savages are set to square off at the peak of their current primes with much at stake and expectations for nothing but the unabashed violence both have made their names providing. This is a badass fight under any circumstances.
4. Cruz getting a title shot actually makes sense?
If we're being honest, the 35-year-old Cruz shouldn't be in this spot under normal circumstances. The bantamweight division already has a bottleneck of deserved title contenders, and Cruz is coming off a loss and hasn't fought in four years due to injury. But these aren't normal circumstances and Cejudo was originally scheduled to face an equally maligned choice in Jose Aldo, fresh off of two defeats. That surely won't come as a comforting excuse if you're name is Petr Yan, Aljamain Sterling or Cory Sandhagen. It does, however, make for a great story by adding Cruz to the fight, which is certainly UFC's mission as an entertainment provider. Cruz has already proved twice before he can come back from backbreaking layoffs and look like he never missed a beat. Should he do that again given his inspirational backstory and begin a third title reign, his legend would only grow. His awkward style and experience also have the potential to be an interesting Kryptonite for Cejudo.
5. The future at heavyweight on display
Remember everything that was typed above to hype up Ferguson-Gaethje? Most of that applies to Francis Ngannou vs. Jair Rozenstruik, too. One man will almost certainly end the fight on his back. The other will step up to the on-deck circle for next in line at Stipe Miocic's title (provided he doesn't take part in a trilogy with a retiring Daniel Cormier first). Ngannou has grown steadily since his first title shot against Miocic while Rozenstruik has been able to overcome his raw inexperience with brutal power punching. Both are scary and both can end a fight with one punch. This should be wild.
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