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The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday in Jacksonville, Florida, returned to the stage with UFC 249—an event headlined by an interim lightweight title bout pitting Tony Ferguson against Justin Gaethje. Some stocks rose, while others took a dive.
Justin Gaethje: In his five-round demolition of Ferguson, Gaethje looked better than ever, captured the interim lightweight crown and punched his ticket to a blockbuster showdown with undisputed champion Khabib Nurmagomedov in the second half of 2020. A more measured Gaethje proved even scarier than his previous iterations. He delivered more than 100 significant strikes to Ferguson’s head, resulting in a signature performance despite a shortened training camp. Gaethje, now firmly entrenched among the 155-pound elite, has himself pointed in the right direction after four straight knockouts.
Calvin Kattar: While he put forth an admirable effort in a decision loss to Zabit Magomedsharipov in November, Kattar put himself on the map as a potential contender when he wiped out Jeremy Stephens with a standing elbow strike and subsequent ground-and-pound in their featherweight showcase. “The Boston Finisher” made it a point to get off to a faster start, and it paid immediate dividends. He quickly found his boxing range and went to work on three- and four-punch combinations that began to wear on Stephens. By the middle of the second round, Kattar was landing virtually at will until he connected with the fight-ending blows. The win puts him position to take aim at a Top 5 opponent, and with so few fights booked within the division, he has a legitimate chance to secure a date with one of the big dogs at 145 pounds.
Bryce Mitchell: The undefeated Mitchell kept his perfect record intact by taking Charles Rosa into deep water and drowning him with a suffocating top game and repeated submission attempts. “Thug Nasty” never allowed Rosa to get in gear, as he cemented himself as a person of interest at 145 pounds moving forward. Having rattled off four UFC wins in a row since he competed on Season 27 of “The Ultimate Fighter,” Mitchell figures to receive a step up in competition, along with the Reebok-sponsored camouflage shorts he has long requested. Questions remain regarding the true depth of his game, but the Arkansas native has thus far exceeded expectations.
Dominick Cruz: Away from the sport for more than three years due to injuries, Cruz received an immediate title shot against bantamweight champion Henry Cejudo—a decision that was understandably criticized. Resume, track record and other circumstances won out, but “The Dominator” failed to last two rounds in what may have been his last crack at UFC gold. While Cruz’s signature footwork was present from start, it amounted to little in terms of meaningful offense. Cejudo walked down the Alliance MMA rep with powerful leg kicks and straight punches before he landed a crushing knee strike and prompted the stoppage from referee Keith Peterson with follow-up shots. Cruz blasted Peterson in the immediate aftermath. If he elects to move forward with his career, he will almost certainly have to do so in his first non-title bout since 2014.
Jeremy Stephens: As one of the longest-tenured veterans on the UFC roster, “Lil’ Heathen” has experienced his share of ups and down inside the Octagon. Drifting into his mid-30s, Stephens’ dreams of a chance to compete for a UFC title continue to fade. His loss to Kattar left him winless (0-4, one no contest) in his last five appearances and figures to push him out of the Top 10 at 145 pounds. Stephens remains one of the featherweight division’s preeminent power punches, but his inability to make adjustments on the fly and his failure to improve his defensive skills have given him a hard ceiling; and missing weight by five pounds does not help his cause. While there are plenty of compelling matchups available to Stephens, he looks increasingly vulnerable as the miles pile up.
Fabricio Werdum: The former heavyweight champion made his way back to the Octagon after serving a two-year suspension for a doping violation, only to drop a split decision to Alexey Oleynik on the undercard. Werdum looked the part of a rusty, past-his-prime veteran for much of the match. The Brazilian offered no legitimate response to the aggressive looping punches being hurled in his direction by Oleynik. Werdum adjusted in the latter stages of the fight and utilized his world-class grappling skills, but he appeared sluggish and struggled to regain his composure after “The Boa Constrictor” teed off on him in the first round. As “Vai Cavalo” approaches his 43rd birthday, the end may be near for one of the greatest heavyweights of all-time.