FROM Brooklyn New York, to a short-lived secret fight island, and its eventual home in Jacksonville Florida, UFC 249 is finally set to go down this weekend – albeit with an improvised starring cast. The long-awaited Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Tony Ferguson fight may have been scrapped for a fifth time, but fans are set to be treated to a barn-burning headliner as Justin Gaethje steps in for a shot at the interim lightweight title, capping off what is set to be the most stacked UFC event in some time. Combat will once again carry the sporting world on its shoulders with this 11-fight showcase, despite one of the scheduled athletes, Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Souza testing positive for COVID-19. The show must go on.
Check out the full card below, as well as our predictions from top to bottom in our UFC 249 card preview.
Spoiler, there are no boring fights on this card.
The wait for a Khabib-Ferguson bout continues after the undisputed champ revealed he would not be able to leave his homeland amid the current global pandemic, but we get an absolute belter in the meantime as Gaethje squares off with El Cucuy for his first shot at UFC gold.
Many bouts have had all the promise of fight of the year contendership, but this is one which should truly deliver with the pair in question two of the most entertaining fighters on the roster, period. Ferguson’s endless weapons and unique flow meet Gaethje’s knockout power and perennial forward movement, making for an interesting clash of styles.
The former WSOF champion is most dangerous in the early stages and Ferguson has been known to get hit much more often in the early rounds, meaning the challenger will have to strike while the iron is hot. Ferguson cuts up his opponents as they wilt in the later rounds, which has hardly been the case for Gaethje in his fights, but he’ll want to get it done quickly nonetheless.
While Gaethje is deserving of recognition as one of the world’s best, fans would largely agree that Ferguson should be next in line for a shot at the undisputed throne given his UFC-record 12-fight winning run. It won’t be easy, though, with his submission game pending on Gaethje’s underrated grappling prowess. We still back El Cucuy.
Prediction: Ferguson via submission.
Bantamweight [T] | Henry Cejudo [C] v. Dominick Cruz
Legacy is on the line as Cejudo defends his bantamweight strap against former champion, and the greatest 135’er of all time, Cruz. The bout will stand as Cejudo’s first 135-pound title defence since capturing the vacant belt at UFC 238 against Marlon Moraes, while Cruz steps back into the octagon he once dominated for the first time since losing the belt to Cody Garbrandt in December, 2016.
Those who see this as a one-sided, hand-picked fight are mistaken, as Cruz’s credentials need no introduction, and the lay-off period clearly has not impacted him in the past. His unlikely title victory over TJ Dillashaw in January, 2016 should be all the proof anyone needs, it is just a question of whether the 35-year-old still has what it takes and if his body can hold up.
Cejudo will test every bit of it with his heavy hands and dominant wrestling as he looks to take out another legend of the game. Cruz’s movement makes him almost impossible to hit, though Garbrandt managed to of late, and he is a high-level wrestler himself. That means the champ’s key strengths will be answered to, but he has proven before that he is capable of working through adversity to come out on top, even against the seemingly unbeatable. The new age wins again here.
Prediction: Cejudo via decision.
Heavyweight | Francis Ngannou  v. Jairzinho Rozenstruik 
A match-up between two hard hitting heavyweights jerks the curtain for the main and co-main events, as Ngannou and Rozenstruik look to push their case for entering the championship frame. Both men have achieved the feat of knocking out legendary striker Alistair Overeem in brutal fashion, and come in off incredible win streaks.
In the red corner, Ngannou has won three-straight bouts via first round KO after suffering the only two consecutive defeats of his professional career, while Rozenstruik has left it a touch later in two of his four promotional finishes. The Surinamese contender sits at a formidable 10-0, a winning run which his opponent had also previously managed – albeit after a loss.
For that extra bit of experience both in the octagon and cage overall, it seems that Ngannou should have the edge in this one. But either man can win at any time with just one blow, it will just be about who lands it first, or better. We doubt there’ll be much grappling, but keep our fingers crossed to avoid a Ngannou-Lewis repeat.
Prediction: Ngannou via T/KO.
Catchweight (150.5) | Jeremy Stephens  v. Calvin Kattar 
Stephens may have missed weight for this would-be featherweight match-up, but fans should forgive the veteran given the circumstances. This ranked bout between two terrific stand-up combatants should be an instant fan-favourite, and is an underrated choice for fight of the night.
Neither man has been known to take a backwards step, and have earned their notoriety among the world’s best having brought it to some of the greatest contenders of the time. That being said, both men come in off losses, with Stephens’ 0-3-1 run in his last four bouts reading worse than Kattar’s 2-2. With the chance to challenge for top five status and latch onto some winning momentum, this one should bang.
Prediction: Kattar via T/KO.
Heavyweight | Greg Hardy v. Yorgan de Castro
Another highly-anticipated bout between two (massive) heavyweights with serious power opens the main card, as Hardy and de Castro look to crack the rankings. Somewhat still on a quest to fully win fans over, Hardy has nonetheless made waves every time he has fought, not afraid to take on more seasoned opponents. Scary as de Castro may be, the 6-0 fighter lays claim to one-less professional fight than Hardy, and the American also has the edge in terms of dealing with the promotion’s bright lights.
That may not help him when he meets de Castro though, with the Cape Verde native putting away four of his six opponents within the first round. Hardy has tasted defeat within the octagon, and that sometimes puts fighters in better stead should the deep waters arise. It is difficult to split the pair, but their raw talent should deliver a good show in a test of their true credentials.
Prediction: Hardy via T/KO.
Two men who are no strangers to headlining shows this time spearhead the undercard, as Cerrone continues his welterweight dabble against Pettis. ‘Cowboy’ is of course coming in off his loss to Conor McGregor and two more before that, but there is no reason to doubt the promotion’s winningest fighter given he has faced the stiffest of competition.
Pettis has also had a difficult time of it of late, losing three of his last four bouts to similarly tough opposition while finding it hard to consistently find his form of old. ‘Showtime’ does boast a win over Cerrone though, back in 2013 via a body kick, so may look to test the veteran in a similar fashion given his susceptibility in that area.
Both men can win the fight in a multitude of ways, with terrific, crisp striking combining with their high-level grappling talent. Given Pettis’ recent loss via submission, Cerrone may look to exploit him on the mat, but every bout begins on the feet. If Cerrone can avoid Pettis’ power and respond in due course, it will be a tough night for the former champ.
Prediction: Cerrone via submission.
Heavyweight | Aleksei Oleinik  v. Fabricio Werdum
This bout between two veteran heavyweight grapplers and mixed martial artists is somewhat of a sleeper on the prelims, with former champion Werdum making his long-awaited return to competition against submission extraordinaire Oleinik.
Both men are 42 years old, but Oleinik’s 72-fight career is no mean feat, especially given someone as credentialed as Werdum only lays claim to 32 professional MMA bouts. There is no questioning the talent and experience of these two competitors, and it should prove a good test of just how ready the Brazilian is as Oleinik poses many threats on the ground.
But Werdum may look to gain the ascendancy on the feet despite his BJJ prowess, with an underrated striking game and some solid power behind him. This kind of step-up in competition has often proven one too far for Oleinik, and he will need to get the fight to the mat as quickly as possible to stand any chance. The two may cancel each other out on the ground, however.
Prediction: Werdum via decision.
W. Strawweight | Carla Esparza  v. Michelle Waterson 
The sole female fight on the card poises two strawweight contenders against each other in inaugural champion, Esparza, and women’s MMA staple, Waterson. The ‘Karate Hottie’ is a fan favourite, but fell short in her run to the 115-pound strap after going down to Joanna Jedrzejczyk last October.
Of course, it means both women have a loss to Joanna on their records, but can still lay claim to sharing the octagon with some fantastic fellow contenders. A revamped Esparza looks to be on the right track having lost her belt in 2015 and since embarked on a patchy run. Now an experienced member of the rankings, she will have to be at her best against an absolute OG of the game. Wrestling seems her most viable avenue, but Waterson is crafty on the ground and maintains distance well with her kicks.
Prediction: Waterson via decision.
Welterweight | Vicente Luque  v. Niko Price
This absolute gem of a fight, hidden at the bottom of the prelims is set to kick off a stacked card in style. Two of the most dynamic welterweights in Luque and Price face-off as they look to secure their status as ranked fighters, with the Brazilian currently locked in among the top 15. Price is not far off, especially after his vicious upkick victory over James Vick.
The enigmatic American has had just one of his 18 fights go to decision, and he has shown he can win the fight from just about anywhere. But Luque has already beaten his next opponent, in 2017, and possesses a slightly more consistent UFC record. His six-fight losing run was brought to an end by Stephen Thompson, and the top 10 kind of opponent has often tested him.
There are nine ‘of the night’ bonuses between the pair, and neither man will take a backwards step here. it should be another fun fight, and an interesting clash of unique styles. It could end in absolutely any way, so do not count out the fighter who may seem to be losing at any point.
Prediction: Luque via submission.
EARLY PRELIMINARY CARD:
Featherweight | Bryce Mitchell v. Charles Rosa
One of the most highly-touted promotional up-and-comers in Mitchell faces one of the toughest tasks of his young career as he looks to take out an experienced foe on the early prelims. Rosa, a six-fight UFC veteran has competed against some solid names while returning three fight of the night performances. Mitchell has been similarly entertaining in his three-fight UFC career having pulled off a twister, and boasts an undefeated professional record at 12-0. It’s tough to split them, but it’s always great to see the new age shine.
Prediction: Mitchell via decision.
Light Heavyweight | Ryan Spann v. Sam Alvey
A fun light heavyweight bout is set to open the show altogether, as the unranked Spann and Alvey go toe-to-toe at the bottom of the card. Spann is undefeated since earning a UFC contract via the Contender Series, showing a great all-round game along the way. ‘Smiling Sam’ has long been a promotional staple, but comes in having lost his last three bouts despite his notable experience.
Prediction: Spann via T/KO.