By the time Henry Cejudo left the Octagon on Saturday night at UFC 249, after defending his bantamweight title against Dominick Cruz and announcing his retirement, the skeptics among his fellow fighters questioned whether the champ was seriously quitting or putting on another performance.
But one thing skeptics didn’t question during the event was the ability of Justin Gaethje, who dominated Tony Ferguson in the main event and then refused to put on the interim lightweight belt. He wants the real thing, which currently belongs to Khabib Nurmagomedov. What would that fight look like? If Gaethje fights the way he did Saturday, he’ll be hard to beat.
On the opposite end of the spectrum was Donald Cerrone, who lost his fourth consecutive bout. This one — vs. Anthony Pettis — was much closer than the other three, but what now for the 37-year-old veteran with the most UFC fights, with 35?
Meanwhile, Francis Ngannou made an emphatic statement that he deserves a heavyweight title shot. But who will that come against? Stipe Miocic and Daniel Cormier are supposed to fight to settle that score, although Cormier said he’ll retire after he fights Miocic for a third time.
Most fight fans probably would agree UFC 249 was worth the wait. Originally scheduled for April 18 in Brooklyn, New York, the card changed locations and fighters before ending up in an empty VyStar Arena in Jacksonville, Florida. How did the empty crowd affect the overall product?
ESPN’s Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto and Marc Raimondi weigh in on the hottest topics from UFC 249.
Was that really the last time we’ve seen Henry Cejudo fight?
Helwani: I don’t believe so. It’s all coming together for him now. He’s about to become a legit draw and make serious money. He’s arguably a top-three pound-for-pound fighter now. I know he’s tired of making weight, as he noted in his postfight interview, and the grind of being a high-level athlete for over two decades, but this seems like a strange time to walk away. I know Cejudo was hoping to get a big pay raise following his win over Marlon Moraes last year, and when that didn’t happen he was disappointed, so perhaps this is a public negotiations play. That remains to be seen, but it would be a real shame if he never fights again. He’s too talented to walk away now.
Raimondi: Highly doubtful. If you filter out all the cringe and listen to Cejudo, you hear how much he talks about his goal of being the greatest combat-sports athlete of all time. He can’t do that if he steps away now. Could he move over into boxing or pro wrestling? Nothing would be out of the question for Cejudo. He flirted with the WWE before ever getting into MMA. But the smart money is on Cejudo returning, defending his bantamweight title and maybe even moving up to featherweight and challenging champion Alexander Volkanovski. There was one thing Cejudo said in that postfight interview that was very much legit, and that is that he knows how to fight.
Okamoto: Short answer: No. Longer answer: Almost certainly not, but let me walk through a few things. If Cejudo’s goal is to renegotiate his contract — he hinted after the retirement announcement that “money talks” — will he be successful? Will the UFC even meet him at the negotiating table? Cejudo is one of the top pound-for-pound fighters on the planet right now, but we all know when it comes to contract negotiations it’s about business and it’s about numbers. Is Cejudo a pay-per-view star? As of this moment, no. He’s a tremendous fighter, but he’s not a draw quite yet. He might be on his way to being one, but if he goes to the UFC and demands a significant pay increase, I honestly don’t know how successful he’ll be. And in the event that does happen, will he just take Saturday’s announcement back? “Just kidding?” I could see him taking a break from the sport due to this. But ultimately, end of the day, I expect we’ll see him again.
Justin Gaethje lands stiff punches throughout his interim lightweight title fight vs. Tony Ferguson en route to victory in Round 5.
If Justin Gaethje gets Khabib Nurmagomedov next, how does that fight look?
Helwani: First, let’s just state this happens to be the next fight. It must happen. You beat Tony Ferguson, you should fight Nurmagomedov next. I think Justin Gaethje will be Khabib Nurmagomedov’s toughest test in the UFC so far. No question about it. He has turned into a tremendous striker with immense power and is a great wrestler, too. He doesn’t use his wrestling as much, but make no mistake about it, he can wrestle. So, if he can keep this fight against Nurmagomedov standing — and yes, I know that would be easier said than done — he could have a real advantage in that fight. The other thing he has working for him is he is absolutely fearless. He said he was ready to die Saturday night, and I truly believe him. He won’t be intimidated by Nurmagomedov one bit. I like his chances a lot in that fight. What a matchup it would be.
Raimondi: Money. At least it should look that way. It’s a huge fight in the lightweight division. Gaethje might be the toughest matchup for Nurmagomedov in the division, and after his awe-inspiring performance against Tony Ferguson, how can anyone think any differently? Gaethje has the technical striking, the tactics, the power and the defensive wrestling — don’t forget he was a great college wrestler — to give Nurmagomedov everything he can handle. Gaethje reshaping himself from all-action brawler to tactician under coach Trevor Wittman has been a sight to behold. There’s no doubt he’s a huge problem for Nurmagomedov on the feet. It’ll be interesting to see if he can stop the Dagestani’s oppressive wrestling.
Okamoto: Man, Gaethje has a chance against Nurmagomedov. A real chance. He has been wrestling since he was 4 years old. He won two state wrestling championships in Arizona, and he was an NCAA All-American wrestler at the University of Northern Colorado. He hasn’t utilized his wrestling much — well, at all — as an offensive weapon in his MMA career, but you can see how strong and well he reacts when he ties up with opponents in the clinch. That stems from his wrestling experience. Every Nurmagomedov opponent goes into a fight wary of the takedown, and I don’t think Gaethje would be completely immune to that. But I do think, given his wrestling background and overwhelming confidence right now, it wouldn’t be a massive hurdle for him. I think he would go in a fight with Nurmagomedov very confident he could win. He hits with power and accuracy. He’s a very legitimate threat to Nurmagomedov.
Helwani: Am I allowed to say both? Both matchups would be fascinating, but if I had to pick one I’d go with Miocic. Their first fight more than two years ago had a ton of buzz going into it but didn’t quite live up to the hype. Though I loved the first round so much that I awarded it my 2018 round of the year because it was so darn tense throughout. I’d love to see them run that one back again, especially with Ngannou’s confidence so high, but only after Miocic vs. Cormier III happens. I really want that fight to happen first before Cormier rides off into the sunset. I also don’t think it’s a horrible idea for Ngannou to fight someone else in the meantime just to make some more money, because he didn’t fight for 11 months. I know MMA is very unpredictable, but I feel confident that this version of Ngannou would win over the rest of the heavyweights right now.
Raimondi: I’m not sure if Cormier beat Miocic that we’d even see him fight Ngannou. The former champ has said time and again that a trilogy bout against Miocic would be his retirement fight. The two men are 1-1 and that would be a fitting conclusion to both that amazing rivalry and Cormier’s incredible career. I’d love to see Ngannou fight Cormier, just to see how Ngannou would deal with DC’s Olympic-level wrestling. But the odds are with a Miocic vs. Ngannou rematch happening in the future. And I’m honestly just as interested in seeing how much better Ngannou has become since Miocic essentially dominated him for four-plus rounds two years ago. My guess is Ngannou has improved a whole lot and will be a serious threat for Miocic.
Okamoto: I’m gonna go with Miocic. You can’t go wrong with either one. Cormier has emerged as one of the biggest stars in the sport, and even though he was amazed by Ngannou’s knockout on Saturday, there is no doubt in my mind Cormier believes he can beat him. And remember, Ngannou beat Cormier’s good friend and teammate Cain Velasquez at the beginning of last year. But I prefer the Miocic rematch. Ngannou was undefeated when he ran into Miocic, and that loss still haunts him in a sense, and has helped him grow. I believe, based on conversations with him and those around him, he still thinks about it and it’s motivating for him. It would be a great rematch. But I’ve got a wild card for you. What if Miocic and Cormier fought, and then both retired? And Ngannou fought, wait for it, Jon Jones for the heavyweight championship. Now that’d be something.
Where does Donald ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone go from here?
Helwani: Cerrone is now officially on the first four-fight losing streak of his great career. However, this was a close fight to judge and, unlike his three previous losses, he went the distance in this one. A silver lining, I suppose. I certainly don’t think he should retire, but I do think he should take a break. He has taken a lot of damage over the past year. Now, do I think he’ll take a break? Absolutely not. I bet he’d be happy and willing to fight on Wednesday’s card. I know some thought he actually won that fight — and I don’t have a huge problem with that — but what can’t be argued is the man has taken a lot of shots over the past 53 weeks. That was his fifth fight in that stretch. If he returns in early 2021, I think it would do his body good.
Raimondi: I don’t believe in the media telling a fighter when he or she should retire. This is how these athletes make a living. It’s obviously a brutal and dangerous way to do so, but it is their choice. Sometimes it’s painful when older fighters continue to compete, but that isn’t the case with Cerrone, in my opinion. In fact, I thought he looked pretty good against Pettis — a case could even be made that he won. What Cerrone does need to do is adjust. At 37 years old with 52 pro fights, “Cowboy” needs to dial it back a bit more if he wants to maximize his longevity. That means no more turning around quickly after every bout. He could use a break. It could also mean a change in style.
Cerrone is an excellent wrestler and grappler with an underrated submission game. He can showcase that a bit more. Maybe that’s not exactly the “Cowboy” style, but I’m in favor of anything that keeps him around as long as possible. Cerrone will really be missed when his career comes to an end. He’s one of a kind.
Okamoto: Look, Cowboy said it himself in interviews leading up to this fight. He’s starting to feel old. And I have to say, hearing Cowboy say that — a man who has always acted and fought younger than his age — it got me in the feels a little bit, all right? Cowboy is a legend and a fan favorite. He has been part of this sport for so long, he was there during the days when it was just trying to make it. When it wasn’t on network television, or getting talked about on SportsCenter. He has been here a long time and we’ll see his name in the record books for years to come. But he’s definitely at the point in his career where matchmaking matters. I don’t want to see him fed to the young. And I hope he doesn’t fight past his expiration date. Some would say he’s already there; I think he can have a few more, depending on the opponent. Find some fan-friendly, manageable welterweight matchups for him, and then send him off in a shower of Budweiser.
Did the card suffer by not having a crowd?
Helwani: I didn’t think I would mind the fact that no one was there, and in the end, it didn’t bother me one bit. The UFC did a great job of just spotlighting the cage only, which blacked out the empty seats. Theater-style, if you will. Also, MMA fans are very accustomed to watching fights in an empty arena after years of watching “The Ultimate Fighter.” Also, if you’ve ever been to an event in Las Vegas you are no doubt used to watching the early prelims with 100 or so people in the crowd, so this was really not that much different, to be honest. Did we miss the crowd during the big moments? Absolutely. The experience is no doubt better with a crowd; however, I’d say I don’t think the event suffered given the fact that fans weren’t there.
Raimondi: I don’t feel as if it did. It’s certainly noticeable, especially during the walkouts and downtime. But once the fights start, most fans watching from home don’t really care if there is a crowd or not — they’re in front of their TVs to watch fights. It’s weird not hearing reactions to big strikes, key submission attempts or finishes. Again, though, it really is all about what’s happening, which is the art of the competition. One interesting thing about it: Several fighters said they could hear the broadcasters talking, because the arena was very quiet. That’s definitely worth watching to see how that could affect (or not affect) future bouts.
Okamoto: Yes. It did. I really thought I was going to answer, “No. It was just so great to have sports back, I didn’t even notice there was no crowd. It felt just like it always does.” But I felt it. And it was disappointing. When Henry Cejudo was screaming at the top of his lungs, and then made the shocking announcement of his retirement? That moment needed fans. When Tony Ferguson dropped Justin Gaethje right at the end of the second round with an uppercut, and it felt as if that might be a complete turning point in the fight — that moment needed a crowd. And when Gaethje did get the finish in the fifth round and jumped over the Octagon to celebrate with … anyone … he needed a crowd. But what can you do? This is what sports look like at this point in 2020, unfortunately. And I don’t think it’s changing any time soon. So, while it did suffer — how could it not? — I’ll still take fights without a crowd than no fights at all any day of the week.
Who was the star of the stacked prelims?
Helwani: This was an easy one. Bryce Mitchell looked fantastic. Heck, forget the prelims, he had one of the most impressive performances of the whole card. He has turned into a fantastic grappler. You know how Khabib Nurmagomedov suffocates his opponents on the ground with his wrestling? That’s what Mitchell has turned into with his submission attempts. I gave him three rounds at 10-8. That’s how good he looked. Also, I love that he kept going for the Twister submission, which has been pulled off only twice before in UFC history — once by Mitchell — because it sort of feels as if it’s now his finishing maneuver, and it’s perfect for him. Glad to hear the UFC will finally make him those camo shorts he has long been clamoring for. Here’s hoping he chooses to celebrate with something other than squirrel soup.
Raimondi: Vicente Luque, who reminded everyone just how darn good he is in a very stacked welterweight division. Luque stopped Niko Price via doctor’s stoppage in the third round after an absolutely beautiful left hook. Price’s face was busted up and his right eye ended up swollen completely shut. How about this stat: Luque now has the third-most finishes in UFC welterweight history (10), behind only Matt Brown and Matt Hughes. That’s pretty heady stuff for Luque, who is still only 28 years old and has the best years of his career ahead of him. Not only is Luque one of the most exciting fighters at 170 pounds, he also has a chance to be one of the best.
Okamoto: It has to be Bryce Mitchell. A big part of me wants to say Vicente Luque, because he went through adversity in his performance, rose to it, and showed yet again how big of a weapon that left hook of his is. He continues to impress me every time he fights. But if you want to talk about a star, there’s no other answer than Mitchell. I mean, the man has apparently talked Dana White into permission to wear camouflage into the Octagon for his next fight, and we all know White doesn’t approve those requests every day. Mitchell’s grappling is, visibly, on another level. He’s pulling moves out there that people need to Google from their couches, just to understand them. And his humble Arkansas personality lights up the screen.