UFC 249 takeaways: Gaethje, Ngannou different beasts since losses

UFC 249 was being hyped as one of the most stacked fight cards in the company’s history and for the most part, it lived up to or even exceed those lofty expectations.

The night’s two biggest winners were Justin Gaethje, who beat Tony Ferguson to win the interim lightweight title, and Francis Ngannou, who cemented his status at the most feared heavyweight contender when he flattened fellow knockout artist Jairzinho Rozenstruik.

Gaethje and Ngannou have become two of the UFC’s most popular fighters and both are now riding four-fight winning streaks in which they’ve impressively finished each of their opponents.

In the summer of 2018, however, both Gaethje and Ngannou were on two-fight losing streaks and needed to adjust their respective styles in order to get back into the title picture.

Gaethje had been finished by former champion Eddie Alvarez and one-time interim champ Dustin Poirier in a pair of Fight of the Year contenders. They were the first two losses of his MMA career. At the time, Gaethje was known as a brawler far too willing to eat a shot to give one back. His incredible durability was one of his biggest weapons but he had developed a bad habit of being reckless.

Since then, his coach Trevor Wittman has helped streamline Gaethje’s technique and style and he fights far more intelligently than he used to. We saw the fruits of his labour in his brilliant performance against Ferguson. Gaethje, who ended up fracturing Ferguson’s orbital bone, has always been an efficient striker but he landed a whopping 72 per cent of his strike attempts against Ferguson.

A key moment occurred in between the fourth and fifth rounds Saturday night that underlined this change in mindset.

Gaethje, smiling on his stool in his corner, was clearly ahead on the scorecards and was having fun trading shots with Ferguson before Wittman reminded him: “The last time you got this comfortable, you got stopped.”

So, in the fifth round, he was methodical (by his high-paced standards at least) and capitalized off Ferguson’s relentless pressure rather than getting too aggressive and leaving himself exposed.

It ultimately led to the referee stopping the fight with less than 90 seconds remaining.

Two fights prior to Gaethje’s virtuoso performance, Ngannou added another scalp to his growing collection.

The Cameroonian has been a completely different, more refined, better conditioned and much scarier fighter since a humbling five-round loss to heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic. He was dominated by Miocic in January of 2018 and six months later he looked downright gun-shy against Derrick Lewis and lost a lacklustre decision.

Then came time for Ngannou’s evolution. His past four opponents, including former champions Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos, have lasted a combined two minutes and 42 seconds.

During the UFC 249 broadcast it was announced that Georges St-Pierre will be inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame this summer. GSP is on the Mount Rushmore of modern MMA but he was not invincible. The Canadian lost twice during his career but each loss forced him to make certain adjustments and improvements and it resulted in him being a better version of himself and a dominant force right up until he retired.

Gaethje’s and Ngannou’s current hot streaks wouldn’t have been possible without their previous failures.

Cruz deserved to see a third round, makes allegations against referee

Yes, you always want to air on the side of caution with a fighter’s safety front of mind, so you can’t really fault referee Keith Peterson for stopping the co-main event when he did – with two seconds left in the second round. Henry Cejudo landed a brilliant counter knee and several hard follow-up punches that had Dominick Cruz in trouble. However, Cruz was making a clear effort to avoid oncoming strikes and was working back to his feet along the cage.

In short, he was intelligently defending himself and the fight could have continued for an additional two seconds and Cruz would have been able to recover for a minute in between rounds. We’ve seen countless fighters come back and win fights after being in worse spots than Cruz and it’s a shame the former bantamweight champion wasn’t given that chance.

Cruz has incredible fight IQ and is a cerebral fighter, which helps make him an elite MMA analyst, and so it was no surprise he made an eloquent argument as to why he felt it was an early stoppage.

In an interview with ESPN after the fight, Cruz echoed what he said in the cage before alleging Peterson, a veteran referee who has officiated many UFC events in the past, may have been under the influence during the fight.

“You’re rocked. Sometimes you get hit,” Cruz said. “I’ve been in those positions many, many times though. I had seconds left in the round and I just think that sometimes I wish there was a way to keep these refs a little more responsible sometimes. The guy smelled like alcohol and cigarettes so who knows what he was doing?

“I wish (athletic commissions) drug tested (referees). I know Herb Dean is good. He’s one of the best refs. Immediately when I saw (Peterson), I was like man is there a way to veto a ref and get a new one? I wonder that. As fighters do we have that choice? I wish we did.”

These are some fairly serious allegations. Let’s hope Cruz isn’t being a sore loser because that would be a bad look and potentially tarnish his legacy. It’s certainly a very different tone than the one he had when he lost his title to Cody Garbrandt at UFC 207, so who knows?

Dana White takes pride in how UFC handled coronavirus

The UFC is priding itself on leading the charge in the return to normalcy during the COVID-19 situation and UFC 249 was a potentially positive step towards that.

“A lot can be learned by what we’re doing here,” the UFC president said at the post-fight press conference. “Not just sports but sending people back to work and lots of other things in life.”

One fighter, Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, and his cornermen tested positive for the coronavirus Friday so he was pulled from the card but everything else went off without any major hiccups. The UFC took extra health and safety precautions all throughout the week and on fight night.

The UFC is scheduled to hold two more events in the coming days – one on Wednesday and one next Saturday at the same venue in Jacksonville, Fla. – and White is confident things will run even smoother in the future.

“The way that this week went will just get better,” White said. “We’ll get better by Wednesday. Then we’ll be better by Saturday. Then after Saturday, we’ll start to catch our stride and really get this thing dialed in and get it figured out. The longer this goes, the better the testing technology is going to get and the faster it will get. We’re going to prove by next Saturday that professional sports can come back safely.”

U.S. President Donald Trump recorded a video message that was played during the broadcast.

“I want to congratulate Dana White and the UFC,” Trump said. “They’re going to have a big match. We love it. We think it’s important. Get the sports leagues back. Let’s play. Do the social distancing and whatever else you have to do. We need sports. We want our sports back. Congratulations to Dana White and UFC.”

Sound of silence added bizarre element to entertaining event

Much of UFC 249 sounded as if Rocky Balboa was wailing on a rack of ribs in a meat locker.

With no fans cheering on the action you could hear the crack of every punch, kick, elbow and knee that landed. You could hear fighters breathing heavily and corners giving directions.

UFC fans who have watched The Ultimate Fighter or Dana White’s Contender Series over the years are familiar to seeing and hearing fights taking place in a more-or-less empty venue. But the fights that happen on those shows feature athletes working towards earning a UFC contract. Watching a pay-per-view-calibre card with multiple title fights and some of the sport’s biggest stars without any fan reaction was odd.

Imagine what it would have sounded like if Gaethje vs. Ferguson took place in a sold-out arena? Watching high-level MMA with no crowd noise didn’t quite feel right – even though most of the fights were highly entertaining. It’s a novelty for the time being but one has to wonder how long it’ll last.

Also, heavyweight prospect Greg Hardy was among a handful of fighters who mentioned that hearing the cage-side commentary from Daniel Cormier, Joe Rogan and Jon Anik resulted in him making in-cage adjustments. This isn’t typically something that happens when fans are in the stands.

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