UFC 249 preview: Will Justin Gaethje end Tony Ferguson's 12-fight win streak?

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist

Only eight fighters have ever won 12 or more fights in a row in the UFC. Only four have ever been on a UFC winning streak that was seven years or longer.

Tony Ferguson is a member of both of those groups. Ferguson’s 12 consecutive victories are matched by lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov’s, trailing only Jon Jones (17), Anderson Silva (16) and Georges St-Pierre, Demetrious Johnson and Max Holloway (13).

Ferguson’s only UFC defeat came to Michael Johnson on May 5, 2012, which by fight night in Jacksonville, Florida, on Saturday will have been seven years, 11 months and 28 days ago.

The only UFC fighters to have been unbeaten for a longer period are Jones, Silva and Nurmagomedov.

Clearly, Ferguson belongs among the all-time greats in this sport.

Whether it’s his quirky personality or the fact that he wasn’t highly touted when he joined the cast of Season 13 of “The Ultimate Fighter” in 2010, Ferguson is one of the least appreciated fighters in the sport.

Here’s guessing that will change on Saturday when UFC 249 finally is held and he meets Justin Gaethje for the interim lightweight title in the main event of a stacked card.

(L-R) Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje face off during the UFC 249 official weigh-in on May 8, 2020, in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC)

UFC president Dana White put together on paper one of the greatest cards in the sport’s history, but as good as so many of the bouts promise to be, all eyes will be on Ferguson and Gaethje in the main event.

First-time viewers who tune in because it’s the only show in town will be treated to not only a level of violence in the Ferguson-Gaethje bout that one could barely imagine, but to an endearing personality that has the potential to help Ferguson become a superstar.

In the same way that Nate Diaz exploded in 2019 after being popular with a rabid segment of the UFC fan base, so, too, does Ferguson have that opportunity.

He’ll have to win to make that a reality, and he’s a bit better than a 9-5 favorite to do so at the MGM Grand Sports Book. Ferguson opened as a -170 favorite, but had been bet up to -185 following the weigh-in, in which he and Gaethje both hit the lightweight title fight limit of 155 pounds.

Both are former college wrestlers, but Gaethje almost never uses his wrestling as an offensive weapon. He’s like a kamikaze fighter, barreling out of his corner throwing kicks, elbows, knees and punches at his opponent.

It’s hard for an opponent to set his feet against Gaethje because he’s so often attacking. He also pushes the pace so much that his opponent will slow as the fight wears on.

That shouldn’t happen with Ferguson, though, who may have the best cardio in the business. And Ferguson has shown repeatedly that he’s difficult to finish. In 28 official fights and three in the TUF house that are regarded as exhibitions, Ferguson has only been finished once. Jamie Toney choked Ferguson unconscious with a triangle on Oct. 16, 2009.

Since then, against some of the toughest opposition in the world, Ferguson has not come close to being finished.

One of the reasons his fights are so exciting is that he can be, and is often, hit cleanly, but he doles out extraordinary punishment himself. Even on his back, Ferguson is highly dangerous. He refers to his elbows as “blades” and he’s cut many opponents with a well-placed elbow from the bottom.

This is the fight of Gaethje’s life, and Ferguson will no doubt see the best of him. Gaethje has the capability of winning it if he lands something big, but given Ferguson’s resilience and the fact that others have had success countering Gaethje, that seems unlikely.

Ferguson figures to win this by finish to set up a mega-fight with Nurmagomedov and potentially something down the line with Conor McGregor. They are the two biggest fights he could take in the UFC and a win will put him in position to get both of them.

Don’t think Ferguson doesn’t understand that, even though he disdainfully refers to Nurmagomedov as “Tiramisu” and McGregor as “McNuggets.” 

If the other fighters haven’t done it already, Ferguson and Gaethje will help turn new viewers into fans.

Tony Ferguson has always been must-watch TV. On Saturday, the rest of the world will find out what the MMA crowd has long known.

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