Division rivals

Division rivals react to the victories of Gaethje, Cejudo and Ngannou – ESPN

6:50 PM ET

  • Tim

When you build a card with as many big fights as UFC 249 had, the fallout is going to be considerable, especially coming from the top of the card.

Justin Gaethje put on the performance of his career in ending the 12-fight win streak of Tony Ferguson to become UFC interim lightweight champion (even though he threw that belt away and proclaimed his desire for the “real” belt Khabib Nurmagomedov holds). Henry Cejudo defended his UFC bantamweight championship against Dominick Cruz, one of the division’s innovators, and then promptly announced his retirement at the age of 33.

And then there’s Francis Ngannou, who took all of 20 seconds to remind the world of his devastating power as he knocked out Jairzinho Rozenstruik and stated his case for another heavyweight title shot.

At home, the fighters in each of those divisions were paying close attention.

Al Iaquinta, the UFC’s No. 9-ranked lightweight, fought Nurmagomedov for the belt Gaethje is currently after. Iaquinta lost the decision on April 7, 2018.

Urijah Faber, who defended the WEC featherweight title against Cruz and then fought him twice for the UFC bantamweight championship, was called out by Cejudo after he won the belt last June.

Curtis Blaydes is stuck right behind Ngannou in the heavyweight logjam, looking for some level of resolution in the championship picture as he hopes to push toward a title challenge of his own.

All three fighters offered their insights into UFC 249’s biggest fights, what the fallout could mean for each of those fighters and how the future of their respective divisions could shape up.

Al Iaquinta on Ferguson-Gaethje

When the main event of UFC 249 began, Al Iaquinta was on the edge of his seat in anticipation of watching Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje throw down. When the fight ultimately ended in the fifth round, Iaquinta, like most of the viewing audience, was thoroughly impressed by Gaethje’s performance.

“It was the perfect pace for Gaethje, and he just controlled that whole thing,” Iaquinta said. “He got caught with one big punch, but other than that, he was pretty much in control the whole time. And the toughness of Ferguson, the amount of shots he took was five, 10 fights worth of shots in one night.

“Ferguson just kept coming forward, like he did against the last 12 guys he fought, and beat. Usually guys can’t sustain it. They get caught up in that crazy fight, where Ferguson scrambles and he sinks in those chokes. The mayhem that Ferguson is comfortable in just never happened, because Gaethje really put on a massive masterpiece of a performance.”

Even though Gaethje didn’t have a full camp because he was a late replacement for Nurmagomedov, the three added weeks of preparation were more than enough to get him ready for this fight. While the early barrage wasn’t a surprise, maintaining that approach and volume of attacks for more than 20 minutes was staggering. Iaquinta said that boils down to preparation from fighter and coach alike.

“Trevor Wittman, in between rounds, was even like, ‘You’re throwing too much into his shot. Calm it down a little bit,'” Iaquinta said. “I think he listened, and it was great coaching in the corner. The one time he got a little crazy, and opened himself up for that uppercut, I think Wittman got him right back in focus.

“Gaethje beat him from top to bottom. It was so enjoyable to watch Gaethje put all of it together the way he did, and the power in every shot. But it was pretty unenjoyable watching Tony take all that. He was just too tough for his own good.”

While Ferguson was visibly upset that referee Herb Dean stepped in and stopped the fight while he was still on his feet, from an outside perspective, Iaquinta believed Ferguson had simply sustained too much damage to effectively defend himself.

“Those last two rounds were not good. That was a great stoppage,” Iaquinta said. “At that point, it was a done deal. It looked like he got hit with one last jab, and he shook his head. It looked like mentally he was just not aware. His legs were kind of giving out. You definitely don’t want to see him take more.”

The victory puts Gaethje in the same position Ferguson was in previously — in line for a shot at Nurmagomedov and the UFC lightweight championship. In terms of fight style, though, Nurmagomedov presents an entirely different challenge than Ferguson.

“I think with Gaethje’s scrambling ability, he poses some threats. It’s going to be an interesting fight, because Gaethje said he doesn’t really like to wrestle too much because he gets tired,” Iaquinta said. “I think that this pace, this fight, the way Gaethje fought tonight, I think he can do that pace forever. If Khabib gets his hands on him and Gaethje’s arms fill up with blood and tire out those muscles, it’s just going to be a different fight. I don’t know how that one goes, but what a great matchup.”

Urijah Faber on Cejudo-Cruz

Urijah Faber has probably seen more tape on Dominick Cruz than anyone else in the world of MMA. In addition to three title fights over the years, and a fourth bout that fell through, Faber also helped TJ Dillashaw and Cody Garbrandt prepare for their own title fights against Cruz.

In watching Saturday’s bantamweight title fight, Faber was impressed by how well Henry Cejudo had prepared.

“Dominick has gotten more dangerous throughout the years, but his bread and butter has always been winning points,” Faber said. “He hits timely takedowns, he’s very hard to really connect with and has a high output. That’s how he’s had so many victories at the highest level. I think Cejudo was doing a good job of countering that, and I didn’t think that he was going to be able to do it as well as he did.

“Henry was tight, kicking all the way through his legs so that even if you move one leg, he’s kicking the second leg. He also was playing the counter game, which I felt worked for me in 2011 with Dominick. Let him do his movement, and then when he sets, then you come in and attack.”

The only element of the fight Faber was disappointed about was the finish, as referee Keith Peterson stepped in with two seconds left in the second round. Cejudo had landed a devastating standing knee and several big-swinging left hands on the ground to Cruz, but the challenger looked to be standing back up when the fight was stopped.

“When you’re fighting for world championships, and you put your whole heart and your mind and your soul into being the best in the world, and then get your opportunity to fight and prove that you are, you want to be ultimately given every chance to show that you are the best,” Faber said. “I’ve seen fights that have been let go, and guys have come back. Crazy things have happened. People talk about the comebacks, and it’s what movies are made of.

“Dom was in the fight, for sure. I think, had he not got caught like he did, he would have continued to pick up some momentum. But it was pretty evident that Cejudo was the more dangerous of the two fighters. So, the longer the fight went, in my opinion, the more points Dominick would have scored, but there would’ve been more opportunity for Henry to show his finishing power and his danger.”

Faber feels like Cruz still has something to offer at 35 years old. Despite injuries, Cruz hasn’t suffered extensive damage inside the cage, and he has a number of intriguing matchups he could make, from legends like Frankie Edgar and Jose Aldo to previous opponents like Dillashaw and Garbrandt.

As for Cejudo and his retirement announcement, Faber is a bit more skeptical.

“I’ll tell you this much: I love Henry Cejudo. I’ve always respected him,” Faber said. “I met him before he was a fighter, when he was an Olympic gold medalist. But he is cringe-worthy and awkward, and sometimes not self-aware. Unfortunately, if he’s serious about it, it’s a super anticlimactic way to go out, in my opinion. I think it’s probably more of the fact that he wants to jockey for better money, which he should.

“The problem with the entertainment business, and William Morris Endeavor and the UFC understand this, accomplishments don’t always mean that you’re a bankable star. Demetrious Johnson is a testament to that. Putting pay-per-view buys on the books, and putting butts in the seats, being a person that other companies, brands, TV networks want to hang their hat on your endorsement, that’s not something that you choose.

“Anderson Silva was in the same boat. Anderson Silva wasn’t always the guy that was commanding big pay-per-view, and it took until he had a big fight with Chael Sonnen, with some real gamesmanship, as far as promoting by Chael. … It takes a long time for you to become a staple in the public eye, and I think Henry is going to be giving up a lot of money and opportunity, if he really just folds his tent up now.”

Curtis Blaydes on Ngannou-Rozenstruik

Francis Ngannou didn’t waste any time in enacting his game plan, as he pushed forward, connected with some truly devastating punches to Jairzinho Rozenstruik’s head and cemented his victory in a matter of 20 seconds.

It’s a feeling Curtis Blaydes knows personally, having dropped TKO losses (the only losses of his career) to Ngannou since joining the UFC.

“I think it was a combination of Ngannou’s aggression and length, because he’s got extremely long arms. I think also it was a bit of Jairzinho,” Blaydes said. “He knows deep down within that first 40 seconds, especially that first half minute, you’ve got to be super defensive. You can’t be looking at getting into a slugfest that early with Ngannou. That’s what Ngannou wants. I think it was lapse in judgment.

“I knew it had a possibility to go that way, because it’s Ngannou and he’s already shown a bunch of times that he’s got the power and the aggression to walk guys down,” Blaydes said. “But I was a little surprised, because I was hoping that Jairzinho would have more of a defensive game plan, at least initially in that opening minute. I thought he’d be a little more defensive, but he chose to stand his ground. I can’t hate him for that. That’s what most fighters would do, lean towards his ego, his pride. Probably not the best decision, though, but he did it and he paid the price.”

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While Ngannou added another win to his tally, the result ultimately didn’t do much to bring about change at the top of the heavyweight division. Champion Stipe Miocic, who won the belt back from Daniel Cormier last August after a year-long layoff, dealt with an eye injury suffered in that fight and has yet to defend the belt. Cormier has been waiting for his chance at a rematch, stating it’ll be his last fight before retirement, but in the meantime, little progress can be made by other heavyweight contenders.

“Stipe, he has the belt, and if he’s not going to take any fights — all the top-running guys, all the title contenders, and any one of us should be fighting him — then those guys should fight it out amongst each other. If he’s not going to give anyone an opportunity to take a crack at him, there’s nowhere to go. There’s no upward trajectory. Ngannou just won another fight, but he’s still behind DC.”

Miocic has pointed to a number of factors, from his job as a firefighter to the thought he won’t start a camp until his gym in Ohio, which will be closed until at least late May, reopens amid social distancing efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. Blaydes suggested that if Miocic is going to continue to wait, the heavyweights could utilize a similar approach to what was done with the lightweight division at UFC 249. But he also feels like the clock is ticking on Miocic — feelings echoed by UFC president Dana White, who said the division has to move on if Miocic can’t fight in a timely manner.

“His focus is on his actual job right now, and I get that,” Blaydes said. “For now, I wouldn’t be against an interim title fight, maybe DC versus Ngannou, and then I get the winner after I beat Volkov. But it’s really on Stipe.”

“We can’t make any moves until he makes a move. … I’m like, let’s be real, bro, you don’t need your coach’s permission to train. If you wanted to do a camp, you could have did your camp. You’re stalling, and I get why you’re stalling, because being the champ, he has a lot of endorsement deals, a lot of sponsorships that are exclusive to the guy with the belt, and the less times he has to fight minimizes the chances of him not getting those paychecks.

“He earned the belt, but you have to defend the belt. You don’t get to just hang out on the top of the mountain. There are guys who are scaling the mountain and when we get to the precipice, when we get to the edge, we expect to be met. We expect the challenge to be accepted, and he’s not doing it. He’s not holding up his end of being a champion. You have to continually prove you’re deserving of that strap around your waist.”

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