UFC returns this weekend (early Sunday, May 10) with a UFC 249 that looks markedly different to its original show scheduled for last month. Here we look at some of the highlight bouts taking place at the closed-doors event at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida.
Tony Ferguson v Justin Gaethje
OK, so Ferguson's not taking on undefeated champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, as had been originally slated. But a match-up with Gaethje is undoubtedly the next best thing.
The pair will contest the interim lightweight title, which seems sure only to be a thriller. Ferguson, the division’s No 1-ranked challenger, is unorthodox and unrelenting, and rides a 12-fight win streak dating back eight years. Five of his past six bouts have sealed fight-of-the night bonuses.
Gaethje, meanwhile, is typically a contender for fight-of-the-year accolades. Unbeaten in his past three bouts, the American will either knock out or be knocked out. Add into the mix that Nurmagomedov and Conor McGregor potentially await the winner and loser, respectively, and fireworks should ensue.
Henry Cejudo v Dominick Cruz
Dubbed the co-main event, and while Ferguson-Gaethje is rightfully viewed the headline bout, this should not disappoint either. Cejudo is one of only four athletes in UFC history to hold two championships at the same time, and puts his bantamweight title on the line in a clash that could decide the division’s all-time greatest.
That Cruz is fighting for the first time since December 2016 only adds to the intrigue. For the former belt-holder, there are understandable doubts that he can recapture the form of old.
Should he register a victory against the Olympic wrestling gold medalist, though, Cruz could claim to have completed the most notable comeback in UFC history. Saying that, a five-rounder, championship match after more than three years away? Cruz is most certainly jumping in at the deep end.
Francis Ngannou v Jairzinho Rozenstruik
Two of the sport’s hardest hitters take to the octagon in one of three full heavyweight bouts on what is a stacked card. This one, though, has every right to be billed a title-eliminator match.
In fairness, Ngannou should have already had his shot at the belt. Packing serious power, the No 2-ranked challenger has won his past three fights all via knockout. They lasted less than three minutes – combined.
In direct combat, Rozenstruik burst onto the scene last year with four knockout victories, the most gruesome arriving in December against Alistair Overeem. Almost no one expects this fight to go anywhere near the distance with Ngannou the favourite to underline his credentials for a bout against current champion Stipe Miocic, preferably not too far down the line.
Jeremy Stephens v Calvin Kattar
So a match-up between the No 7- and No 9-ranked featherweights wouldn't typically jump off the card, but Stephens and Kattar set up brilliantly against one another.
Even despite his place in the standings, Kattar is tipped by many to take on, and upset, the more prominent names in the division. He is coming off a loss in November, when he fronted up to fast-rising Russian star Zabit Magomedsharipov in Moscow.
In Stephens, Kattar will find a hugely experienced opponent no doubt incentivised by the opportunity to prove he’s still a threat. It’s hard to believe, but at 33, Stephens is only a year older than Kattar. Stylistically at least, on paper this is a potential fight of the night.
Donald Cerrone v Anthony Pettis
Just how will Cerrone bounce back from last time out, when he suffered a 40-second loss to Conor McGregor only four months ago. In the biggest fight of his life, "Cowboy" froze; he conceded as much last week.
Yet, one of the sport’s most popular fighters, and one of it’s most zealous, Cerrone has plunged straight back in against a familiar foe. He and Pettis met a long time ago, in 2013, when the latter prevailed courtesy of a crunching body kick in the first round.
It was Cerrone’s first knockout loss; Pettis, in contrast, went on to land the lightweight belt in his next bout. He has struggled since, across three weight divisions, and has lost his past two fights. Cerrone may be a veteran of (a remarkable) 51 mixed martial arts fights, but given what happened in January, he will be incredibly motivated to rack up a record-extending 24th UFC win.
UFC 249 is available for fans in the UAE to watch via the UFC Arabia app. The main card kicks off at 6am, Sunday May 10.