UFC 249: Justin Gaethje 'so good', Henry Cejudo calls it quits as UFC makes explosive return

Knockout of the night goes to Francis Ngannou for his 20-second obliteration of Jairzinho Rozenstruik inside an empty VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena

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Justin Gaethje captured the UFC interim lightweight title at UFC 249, then waved away the belt and called for a fight with undisputed champion, Khabib Nurmagomedov.

Gaethje stepped in on just one month's notice to replace Nurmagomedov against former interim champion Tony Ferguson at the twice-rearranged event, which took place behind closed doors at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida.

The event carried additional significance, with it being the first major sporting event in the United States since the country launched quarantine and social distancing measures due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

But the lack of fans in the stands certainly didn't affect action inside the octagon, as the fighters put on a thrilling night that will live long in the memory.

The biggest winner of the night was undoubtedly Gaethje, whose reputation as a wild brawler with a "live by the sword, die by the sword" approach to his fights aptly matched his fighting moniker, "The Highlight".

But despite facing a fellow crowd pleaser in Ferguson, Gaethje didn't come out all guns blazing as seen in the past. Instead, he methodically, carefully yet still spectacularly, broke down Ferguson with a seemingly non-stop barrage of heavy punches mixed in with leg kicks, as he dominated much of the contest.

"I haven’t had time to soak it in. I can’t wait to watch the fight, I was so good tonight," Gaethje said in the post-event press conference. "I truly just believed in my skills and in my coaches and what a great time I just had.

"It was a great challenge and I’m very happy right now, I can’t wait to go home and see my family. I know how much happiness I just brought to people and that feels great.

"This is what I was born to do. You get one life and I’m living a crazy one and it’s so awesome. I can’t wait for that challenge, win or lose, I’m going to give it 100 per cent."

There was a brief scare in the final seconds of the second round, when he was dropped by a massive Ferguson uppercut as the buzzer sounded, but that slip-up aside, Gaethje delivered the finest performance of his career to capture his first UFC title.

Eventually, the sheer volume of strikes proved too much in the fifth round for a bloodied, battered Ferguson, who backed away shaking his head after a stiff Gaethje jab to the face. Referee Herb Dean immediately stepped in and waved off the contest, and Gaethje was declared the new interim champion.

But rather than celebrate with the belt, Gaethje waved away his new possession, telling UFC commentator Joe Rogan he was waiting for "the real thing". He then went on to state his intention to challenge Nurmagomedov for the undisputed title later this year.

"Khabib is the best in the world," he said. "I've been working since I was four for challenges like this, and I'm happy to represent the United States of America against Dagestan, or Russia's best. He's 28-0, and there's no other challenge I want right now. I want to fight him."

The official scorecards from Justin Gaethje v Tony Ferguson at UFC 249.

'Triple C' retains title, announces retirement

In the night's co-main event, Henry Cejudo defended his UFC bantamweight title by claiming a second round stoppage win over two-time former champion Dominick Cruz, then announced his retirement from MMA.

Despite conceding a significant height and reach advantage to Cruz, Cejudo used a solid gameplan, utilising a host of leg kicks, to slow the constant movement of the former champion before finding a home for his hands as the round progressed.

Cruz, who was returning to action after three and a half years away from the cage, looked in remarkably good shape as he stayed mobile and connected with some solid shots on the counter.

An accidental clash of heads left Cejudo opened up, but the cut wasn't in a problematic spot and the champion was able to continue without fuss

When the action restarted, Cejudo connected perfectly with a huge knee that dropped Cruz to the seat of his pants. It was the moment the champion had waited for, and he swarmed the challenger and unloaded a barrage of strikes to force referee Keith Petersen to step in and wave off the contest with just two seconds left in the round.

"I'm a chameleon, I can adjust. We stuck to the gameplan, and that's all she wrote," Cejudo said. "I"m ruthless. I may be cringey, corny, but boy can I fight. I am the greatest combat sports athlete of all time."

Cejudo then announced his decision to retire from the sport.

"I'm retiring tonight," he told commentator Joe Rogan. "I'm 33 years old, I'm happy with my career. Uncle Dana, I want say thank you for everything, you're the man. Everybody here, thank you so much. 'Triple C's' out. You guys don't have to hear [from me] no more."

Ngannou sends a terrifying statement

There were also potential title implications in the last non-title fight of the night, as heavyweight wrecking machine Francis Ngannou obliterated the previously unbeaten knockout artist Jairzinho Rozenstruik in just 20 seconds of their de-facto title eliminator.

Rozenstruik had called for a fight with Ngannou, but was knocked cold by a huge left hand in Ngannou's first punching combination of the fight. It left no doubt over the identity of the man who is next in line to fight for the heavyweight title once champion Stipe Miocic and former two-weight champion Daniel Cormier settle their world title trilogy later this year.