UFC 249: Preview and predictions

If it seems as if it has been months since we have watched meaningful, relevant live sports, that’s because, for the most part, it has been. And just as we are all at our whit’s end, our breaking point, our last strand of sanity, in rides Dana on his white horse, to rescue us from our COVID-19 educed coma. Sir Dana brings with him a UFC card that stacks up among some of the most anticipated in the history of the sport. After originally being scheduled for April 18 in Brooklyn, UFC 249 was postponed after a March 12 announcement by New York governor Andrew Cuomo that restricted mass gatherings and sporting events due to the COVID-19 pandemic.. Finally, on April 21, Dana White confirmed that UFC 249 would take place in Jacksonville, FL at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena on May 9. The initial main event featured a much anticipated UFC Lightweight Championship bout between the current champion Khabib Nurmagomedoz and former interim champion Tony Ferguson. However, Khabib eventually backed out of the fight, citing the COVID-19 pandemic, canceling their match-up for the fifth time. While the cancellation was obviously disappointing to UFC fans, Dana White more than made up for it by putting together the card previewed below. Let’s take a look at the stacked card along with my predictions and the predictions of Damon Smith, staff writer for the Maryland Sports Blog.

Breaking: The middleweight bout between Ronaldo Souza and Uriah Hall was canceled on Friday after Souza and two of his corner men tested positive for COVID-19.

Tony Ferguson vs. Justin Gaethje, Lightweight.

It seems almost impossible for this fight not to be one of the most exciting that we have ever seen. Gaethje and Ferguson are two of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the UFC and two of the most exciting. Expect offense, and expect a lot of it. Ferguson comes into the fight with the longest winning streak in lightweight history going at 12 and coming off of a second round TKO of Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone in June. The season 13 Ultimate Fighter winner boasts a 25-3 record and hasn’t lost a fight in eight years. During his twelve fight win streak, Ferguson has earned “Fight of the Night” or “Performance of the Night” during seven of those. For his part, Gaethje comes into this fight at 18-2 after winning three fights in a row, including a first round TKO over Cowboy Cerrone in September. The former Division 1 All-American wrestler has earned “Fight of the Night” or “Performance of the Night” in six straight fights.

Both of these fighters have incredible offensive striking skills and a toughness that allows them to absorb strikes and punishments. Ferguson’s 5.82 strikes per minute ranks eighth all-time in the UFC lightweight division. While that is certainly impressive, it doesn’t match the output from Gaethje. Gaethje’s 8.57 strikes per minute ranks first all-time in UFC history, regardless of weight class. These two will hit each other, a lot. These two will hurt each other, a lot. These two will make each other swell and bleed, a lot. Although Gaethje is a very accomplished wrestler, he tends to use that to keep fights standing, avoiding take-downs. This will serve him well in this fight given Ferguson’s ability on the ground. The key for Ferguson will be to have Gaethje waste as many of those eight plus punches per minute by staying just out of reach. For Gaethje to win, he will want to push Ferguson into the cage and unload strikes.

My Prediction: Ferguson has only gone the distance sonce in the past five years. Gaethje has gone to decision only twice in his 23-fight MMA career. Do not expect to see round five in this fight. I expect the +150 underdog, Justin Gaethje to avoid strikes, close distance, and force the fight to the cage, dropping Ferguson for his first defeat since 2012. KO round 3. Gaethje, KO/TKO

Damon Smith: Ferguson KO/TKO

Henry Cejudo vs. Dominick Cruz, Bantamweight.

The UFC Bantamweight Champion, Henry Cejudo enters this fight on an impressive five fight win streak that includes victories over T.J. Dillashaw, Demetrious Johnson, and Sergio Pettis. The 2008 Olympic gold medalist can obviously wrestle with the best of them and has a sound striking game. Dominick Cruz hasn’t stepped into the octagon since his December, 2016 loss to Cody Garbrandt. Since that time, Cruz has battled injury after injury forcing the cancellation of two fights. Before his September, 2016 loss Cruz had not lost since 2008.

Cejudo, a -240 favorite, obviously has a distinct advantage in the wrestling department. He will use those skills to avoid being taken down, even though Cruz averages over three take down attempts every 15 minutes. If Cejudo is taken down, it will be tough for Cruz to hold him down. Cruz is no slouch in defending the take down, either, defending 85% of attempts against him. Despite the skill of both fighters in the wrestling department, I expect this fight to stay vertical. I look for Cruz to move, circle and counter strike and Cejudo to chase him down. It should be noted, that Cruz defends 75% of significant strikes against and has a substantial reach advantage in this fight. Look for Cejudo to attack and try to knock Cruz out early.

My Prediction: Cruz is being underestimated due to his long layoff. We must rememeber, however, that Cruz was considered one of the best pound-for-pound fighters before the injuries. By all accounts, Cruz is healthy and I expect him to frustrate Cejudo and take the fight the distance for a victory by decision. Cruz, decision.

Damon Smith: Cejudo KO/TKO

Francis Ngannou vs. Jairzinho Rozenstruik, Heavyweight.

Two knockout artists square off in a heavyweight rumble that is sure to be an exciting affair. Ngannou, a former quarry worker, is a hard-hitter that can knock other fighters out without even landing cleanly. Rozenstruik also hit unbelievably hard (just ask Alistair Overeem’s lip which still has not been located). Ngannou has won three in a row, all by knockout and all in round one. Rozenstruik has won all ten of his professional fight, including nine by knockout.

These two will stand toe-to-toe and trade some heavy punches. Ngannou, a -275 favorite, will try to end this fight early, as he has in all of his recent victories. Rozenstruik, however, has a nice chin, as demonstrated in the Overeem fight. He will walk through some shots that would take other fighters out. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a Ngannou take-down attempt.

My Prediction: Rozenstruik has a great chin, but Ngannou’s power is off the charts. Rozenstruik will need to avoid the heavy hands and uppercuts all while keeping an eye on a takedown attempt. I think a Nganno knockout ends Rozenstruik’s undefeated streak. Ngannou KO/TKO

Damon Smith: Ngannou KO/TKO

Jeremy Stephens vs. Calvin Katter, Catchweight.

If it seems like Jeremy Stevens has been around forever, it is because he has. The 34 year old +205 underdog missed weight for the fight, coming in at 150.5 pounds. Stephens is a pedestrian 6-8 since 2014 and hasn’t won a fight since February of 2018. Calvin Katter is also coming off of a loss and has dropped two of his last four after putting together a ten fight win streak from 2010-2018.

Stephens will do what Stephens does and keep the fight pushing forward. Stephens will look to land his always loaded right hand given the right opportunity. Katter also likes to push forward, but unleashes more weapons, such as kicks and combinations. This will be a striking affair and should be fun to watch.

My Prediction: Katter has more offensive weapons and the better defense of the two. Katter’s strategy should be pretty simple, avoid the right hand of Stephens. I look for the -265 favorite, Katter, to win via decision. Katter, decision.

Damon Smith: Katter, decision

Greg Hardy vs. Yorgan De Castro, Heavyweight.

Greg Hardy is hungry to get back into the win column after a loss to Alexander Volkov and a no-contest fight against Ben Sosoli that saw the former Dallas Cowboy’s decision overturned due to his use of an inhaler in between rounds. Hardy has steadily improved in the UFC adding more weapons each time he steps into the octagon. Yorgan De Castro is a knockout artist that has stopped his opponent in five of his six victories, coming into the fight with an undefeated record.

De Castro will look to counter Hardy’s heavy punches with accurate and effective kicks and strikes. Hardy will look to use his nasty leg kicks to set up his strikes. Hardy will need to be careful, as we saw how powerful De Castro’s counter strikes can be when he dropped Justin Tafa in October.

My Prediction: Though Hardy, the -200 favorite, has a six inch reach advantage, I look for De Castro to use that to help lure Hardy in and counter his way to a knockout victory. De Castro, KO/TKO.

Damon Smith: Hardy KO/TKO

Existing ESPN yearly subscribers can order the fight on UFC Pay-Per-View for $65.00. Existing monthly ESPN Plus subscribers will be able to either upgrade to an annual plan and buy UFC PPV for $85 or purchase the ability to watch UFC PPV for $65 by itself. New ESPN Plus subscribers can buy a bundle of one UFC PPV event and an ESPN Plus annual recurring subscription for $85.

Leroy Travers

Follow my coverage of Lacrosse (College and MLL) as well as Georgetown Hoyas Basketball, the Washington Redskins, and most other sports here on the MSB. Living in neighboring Sussex County, Delaware, I have been a huge Maryland Sports fan for almost 40 years. Follow me on Twitter @el_travs, and on Instagram @Letrav.

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