UFC 249: Tony Ferguson ready to 'keep sports alive' with fight against Justin Gaethje

Event in Florida will be the first for the company since the coronavirus pandemic

FILE - In this Oct. 5, 2018, file photo, Tony Ferguson poses during a ceremonial weigh-in for a UFC 229 mixed martial arts fight in Las Vegas. UFC 249 scheduled for May 9, 2020, at Jacksonville Arena will be headlined by lightweight title contenders Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje. (AP Photo/John Locher, File)
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Tony Ferguson believes his fight with Justin Gaethje at UFC 249 this weekend should be for the "real championship" and not the interim title after belt holder and initial opponent Khabib Nurmagomedov withdrew from the event.

Former collegiate wrestler Ferguson, coming into the bout on a 12-fight win streak, was supposed to fight Nurmagomedov for the lightweight title in Brooklyn on April 18 but that was postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak.

The unbeaten Nurmagomedov, who has returned to Russia, had previously been booked to fight Ferguson on another four occasions but each bout was cancelled because of health or fitness issues.

Ferguson said the Dagestan native and Irish fighter Conor McGregor "both need to retire".

"The only two real men out there are going to be me and Justin Gaethje," he told reporters ahead of Saturday's bout at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville.

Ferguson said UFC 249, which is taking place with stringent testing procedures and no fans in attendance due to the Covid-19 pandemic, could reach a sports-starved audience that may not otherwise tune in to a mixed martial arts event.

"Right now, there’s no Olympics, there’s no Wimbledon, there’s no NBA Draft, there’s no NFL Draft, there’s no tennis, there’s no soccer, hockey, there’s no baseball," he said.

"This is what we bring to the table ... and we’re going to do our best and we’re going to keep sports alive and that’s what we’re going to do.”

Nurmagomedov is reportedly set to face the winner of Saturday's fight, while also lurking in the wings is former two-weight title-holder McGregor, who made a return to winning ways with a swift TKO of Donald Cerrone in January.

Ferguson's run of 12 straight wins is a UFC lightweight record, and having already held the interim belt after beating Kevin Lee in 2017 before being stripped due to an injury, the Californian now feels his time has come.

"This is not for an interim title," he said. "This is for the real championship."