Sign up for ESPN+ right here, and you can then stream UFC 249 live on your smart TV, computer, phone, tablet or streaming device via the ESPN app.
Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends. We are so glad you could attend. Come inside, come inside. The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday in Jacksonville, Florida, returns in a major way with UFC 249—an event that, on paper, looks to be the best in recent memory. In this overstuffed edition of Prime Picks, rest assured that you will get your money’s worth. You have to see the show; it’s a dynamo.
Tony Ferguson (-174)
The value of the straight line of Ferguson defeating Justin Gaethje is relatively clear. While Gaethje unquestionably has the firepower to snap Ferguson’s lengthy winning streak, the short-notice aspect of the fight lends to the idea that Gaethje has upwards of two rounds of all-out blitz before he fatigues. Historically, “The Highlight” refuses to take short-notice fights, on the grounds that he will not have a proper training camp. This being under special circumstances for a UFC belt, Gaethje made an exception, and he could absolutely win this fight.
The only two losses in Gaethje’s career have come in later rounds after he ran out of gas and could not put away his opponent. Both Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier took extraordinary damage and likely needed lengthy recuperative time following their bouts with “The Highlight,” but they survived and won by staying composed in the face of unbridled ferocity. Gaethje’s nearly otherworldly durability ran dry due to exhaustion, and to paraphrase our own Brian Knapp, Gaethje could no longer “move forward with sadistic resilience.”
For Ferguson to come out of this bout with a win means he will almost certainly have to go through the proverbial meat grinder. In it, he will see looping hooks, snapping uppercuts and whipping leg kicks fired his way in the first 10 minutes. Although there are multiple examples of Ferguson taking massive damage and coming out with a win along his nearly historic stretch of victories, these instances of getting rocked belie his impressive significant strike defense rate of 63 percent. That rate is higher than most active lightweights on the roster, and that includes Gaethje, who is glad to take one to give another back harder. Ferguson’s footwork and elusiveness can beguile his opponents, and he presents a puzzle that few have ever solved.
Gaethje has a definite path to victory, which stems from his ability to land at a furious clip. It is telling that through his six UFC bouts, Gaethje currently averages the highest significant strike rate at over 8.5 over a 60-second span. This is a record among all fighters that have ever competed at least five times inside the Octagon. Ferguson will not likely reach that output, but what he brings to the table is an incredible amount of cardio and resilience that can match even the mighty Gaethje.
Ferguson may not need to outpace Gaethje in the early going, but as the fight progresses, he can gain the upper hand as the Safford, Arizona, native wanes. Should Gaethje get it done, it will be by knockout, so selecting Gaethje Wins by TKO/KO at +190 is a more enticing option than the flat line of Gaethje at +164. Ferguson could prevail in a late stoppage when Gaethje is a spent force, but could very well go five dramatic rounds with the former World Series of Fighting kingpin. If you believe Ferguson can get the finish, that line of -120 is not entirely risky: “El Cucuy” has stopped nine of the 12 opponents during his winning streak, including five of his last six.
Calvin Kattar vs. Jeremy Stephens Goes to Decision (-150)
On a card stuffed to the rafters with exciting matchups, a potentially thrilling featherweight encounter is almost forgotten when looking at the bonus-inducing headliner. Even though he has not recorded a win since 2018, Stephens still appears to have much left in the tank. In both of his three-round losses to Yair Rodriguez and Zabit Magomedsharipov in 2019, Stephens came on strong in the final frame; and while he holds the most losses in promotional history, Stephens is in a comfortable role of fulfilling action fights and serving as a litmus test for talent in the division.
Ten of Stephens’ last 15 bouts, including his no contest due to an accidental eye poke, have reached the scorecards. This is an identical tally for Kattar, who has reached the final bell in 10 of his last 15 appearances. If one fighter breaks this line, it is likely to be Kattar scoring a knockout over his opponent. This does not appear on its face to be a likely occurrence, as Jose Aldo is the only man dating back to 2012 to finish Stephens with strikes. On the other hand, Katter has never been knocked out.
A boxer by trade, Kattar does not appear interested in a prolonged grappling exchange, hitting and surrendering exactly two takedowns during his time inside the Octagon. Stephens is nearly as averse to bothering with the ground game, landing his first takedown in nearly five years when he grounded Rodriguez.
We expect this one to go the distance, and on any other night, it would be an instant contender for “Fight of the Night.” The actual line on the bout may be a little too lopsided to bring enough interest, as Kattar sits as a comfortable -240 favorite—in line with expectations of some around the community. If there is room for a flier in picks, the comeback of Stephens at +220 is intriguing, especially when considering that he has been training heavily with a healthy Dominick Cruz for this camp.
Yorgan De Castro (+180)
This main card opener is on pace to be one of the heaviest in modern UFC history, as both men cut weight to get to 266 pounds. The record stands with Greg Hardy—De Castro’s opponent—against Juan Adams at UFC on ESPN 4, where both hit the scales at the heavyweight limit for a combined total of 532 pounds. These two heavyweight sluggers will be aiming at that weight limit, and both will be looking to take one another’s head clean off.
The game plan of each fighter should be simple. In a heavyweight contest such as this, there is always an inherent risk of picking larger men because one punch can spell the end to a night. In this case, the value of the man from Cape Verde is appealing given Hardy’s issues in the past. Although Hardy has proven to be his worst enemy multiple times, his power cannot be questioned, even if his skill set is admittedly limited. What De Castro needs to do might be easier said than done: Keep his distance. Overcommitting to power strikes can result in undue harm, so if he stays on the outside and does not allow Hardy to get in on him, he can succeed.
Including Hardy’s no contest against Ben Sosoli, the two have gone the distance three times in total. Hardy’s 100 percent knockout rate stands above De Castro’s at 83 percent, and neither has bothered with the submission game or even a single takedown in their respective careers. Hardy can cause some serious damage by crowding his opponent, while De Castro can hold him off and implement his vicious leg kick game. De Castro put himself on the map and earned a spot on the UFC roster by kicking out Sanford Alton Meeks’ left leg repeatedly. Should De Castro batter the lead leg of the ex-NFL defensive end, he can come out on top. If you wish to follow this logic and believe that De Castro can get the finish, De Castro Wins by TKO/KO is a solid +265 option.
Anthony Pettis (-133)
In what could be considered a surprising turn of events, Pettis is currently less of a favorite against Cerrone than the first time they squared off. At that time, “Showtime” opened as the underdog for their UFC on Fox 6 matchup in 2013, only to later close at -150 before delivering a nasty first-round body kick finish. Both men are now thought to be towards the twilight of their careers and each of them sports a losing streak; it should be noted that Pettis is merely 33.
As an exciting a style matchup as it was the first time, with two kickboxers who are not afraid of the ground game, the question may be, “Who has more left in the tank?” While both have unquestionably progressed into better fighters, their actual styles are relatively the same when lined up against their 2013 selves. Did Cerrone improve at a more substantial rate than Pettis during this time? The activity for Cerrone is double that of his opponent, and he has generally struggled against top-flight competition. This bout will almost certainly answer whether Pettis is still towards the top of the ladder, and it will also be telling considering it takes place at 170 pounds instead of lightweight.
Unless Cerrone radically changes his approach in this fight and takes it more aggressively like in bouts against Alexander Hernandez or Al Iaquinta, Pettis should be able to replicate his success from their first meeting. The left liver kick has always been a vulnerability for Cerrone, and Pettis even remarked that during UFC 249 his “southpaw liver kick” could find its home more than once before the night is through. A path to victory for Cerrone is his ground game, which is a place that others have exploited on Pettis through the years. We expect that while Cerrone may have his moments and undoubtedly could still come out on top, Pettis will get his hand raised. Should you feel “Showtime” will replicate the same result as before, Pettis Wins by TKO/KO is a tempting +185.
Ronaldo Souza (-125)
Editor's note: The bout was canceled Friday night after it was discovered that Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza had tested positive for COVID-19. The news was first reported by ESPN's Stephen A. Smith.
After an unfortunate trip to 205 pounds, “Jacare” will return to the division in which he starred for years, as he takes a Top 10 matchup against Uriah Hall. This will be a tough test for Souza, taking on an opponent who has never before been submitted. Both men are pure finishers, with Souza’s career finish rate of 85 percent topping Hall’s at 80 percent. All but one of Hall’s stoppages have come by knockout, and this is likely his best path to victory; Hall by TKO/KO is +285 for those who wish to take a flier on “Primetime.”
Barring a miraculous spinning back kick to flying knee combination that shockingly dispatched Gegard Mousasi—remember, Mousasi avenged the loss with ease a year later—Hall has stumbled when facing the top tier of the middleweight division. Hall does hold an impressive list of names on his ledger, such as Thiago Santos, the aforementioned Mousasi, Chris Leben and two-division One Championship titleholder Aung La N Sang. However, those wins can easily be explained and written off, whether he faced them before they developed into what they are now or that they were “past their prime.”
Arguably his biggest win, beyond taking out Mousasi in spectacular fashion, is his most recent victory over Antonio Carlos Jr. In a razor-thin split decision that saw one Sherdog.com scorer mark the fight as a draw, Hall took the first two rounds before surrendering his back for the final frame. Despite Carlos Jr. maintaining back control for around five minutes, Hall survived to ride out the round and squeak out the win.
Should Hall find himself in a disadvantageous position against “Jacare” like surrendering his back, he will be squarely in the danger zone. Although Carlos Jr. sports a higher submission percentage (80 percent compared to 54 percent), the level of competition is lightyears higher for Souza. The Brazilian’s 2017 kimura over Tim Boetsch is his only sub since 2015, so picking Souza Wins Inside Distance at +190 could be a more reasonable option than Souza Wins by Submission +305. No matter how the match plays out—the odds are close to whether the fight will go to decision—Souza should still have enough left in the tank to snap the only losing streak of his career.