These former champions will try to restore careers that have lost much of their luster, if not hope for another day in the limelight.
Throw former strawweight champ Carla Esparza, who’s 2-2 in her past four, into that mix of fighters trying to regain supremacy when the UFC returns to action on May 9 in Jacksonville, Florida.
The main event is different. Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje are at the top of their games. UFC president Dana White said the winner will challenge champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, who was scratched from this event because of coronavirus-related travel problems.
But with the UFC trying to regain its mojo after a hiatus due to the pandemic, can White resist the urge to book Nurmagomedov’s rematch with Conor McGregor first? With or without fans in attendance, that would be one of — if not the — biggest fights in UFC history.
With those scenarios as a backdrop, ESPN’s panel of MMA experts — Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim — weighs in with analysis and opinion.
How confident are you that the Ferguson vs. Gaethje winner gets Khabib next?
Helwani: Somewhat confident. The winner, especially if it is Ferguson, should fight for the belt next. No question about it. But will the UFC be able to resist the urge to book Nurmagomedov vs. McGregor in the fall? I’m not so sure.
Okamoto: Very confident, actually. Look, coming into 2020, the UFC was looking for any excuse it could to book Nurmagomedov vs. McGregor 2. And it’s easy to understand why. That’s a lucrative rematch. But sitting here today, I really doubt we see that fight this year. Dana White has made it clear, on the record, the winner of this interim title fight will face Nurmagomedov next — and I can guarantee you, Nurmagomedov wants the same. I doubt Nurmagomedov would even accept a fight against anyone other than the winner of Ferguson vs. Gaethje as his next bout. I think we will get the Nurmagomedov vs. McGregor rematch eventually, but it won’t be until 2021.
Raimondi: I’m going to remain optimistic, so I’d say there’s about a 75% chance. Nurmagomedov has been pretty clear that all he wants is to compete against the very best, and the winner of this fight is the top contender. The doubt arrives when money comes into play. And you’d have to believe that putting on the biggest possible fights will be a priority for the UFC the rest of the year. No one could blame the promotion, either. Not in a post-coronavirus world. So that 25% chance is the UFC pushing very hard to put together Nurmagomedov against Conor McGregor for a second time. That sequel could leave Ferguson or Gaethje out in the cold. Again, hopefully, it doesn’t.
Wagenheim: I’d be 100% confident if I were the matchmaker, because that’s the only lightweight title fight that makes sense within the hierarchy of the division. But all too often, UFC fans have witnessed dollars and cents cutting the line, rudely nudging sense and hierarchy out of the way. So even though Dana White says the Ferguson-Gaethje winner is next, and I believe he believes that now, all it would take is for “Dublin, Ireland” to appear as an incoming call on his cellphone, and what’s penciled in could be erased.
Is it too late for Fabricio Werdum to get back to a championship level?
Helwani: MMA heavyweights tend to have a longer shelf life, so I wouldn’t count him out, but his hiatus (two years) plus his age (42) are two factors working against him. That said, Werdum hasn’t taken a ton of damage throughout his career, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he has a couple more years left in him, especially if he used this time off to treat his body right.
Okamoto: Not at all. Werdum is 42. Daniel Cormier could end up winning back the heavyweight championship later this year, and he’s 41. As much as there is a logjam in that division right now, it’s also wide open, because it’s a notoriously shallow weight class in terms of depth. And think about it: Cormier has said he’ll retire after his next fight. I honestly don’t think Stipe Miocic, the current champ, has many left, either. I wouldn’t go so far as to predict Werdum winning the title, but he’s not out of that conversation by any means.
Raimondi: It’s definitely not too late, but the window is closing rapidly. Werdum is 42 years old. In most other divisions, that would be over the hill. Not at heavyweight, though. A heavyweight’s prime seems to be in the mid-to-late 30s, if history is any indication. So, Werdum has a chance to still make a run. He badly needs this win against Aleksei Oleinik. Werdum hasn’t fought since 2018 due to a USADA suspension, and his last bout was a knockout loss to Alexander Volkov. Werdum is a former UFC champion and one of the best heavyweight fighters in MMA history, especially on the ground. His legacy is basically set, but he’s trying to come back for more. I wouldn’t bet against him.
Wagenheim: The problem for Werdum is not that he’s 42. Heavyweights age differently from other fighters. But what’s concerning is that he has been away from the sport for over two years, serving a PED suspension. How will his body respond to ending that inactivity while no longer being fueled by the muscle-building enhancement of an anabolic steroid? His May 9 fight with Aleksei Oleinik, a fellow grappler who is the same age as Werdum, might not tell us much, but moving forward we’ll see Werdum tested by younger, faster, bigger, stronger men. It might not be too late for Werdum, but his clock is ticking fast.
Where would a win for Carla Esparza or Michelle Waterson put them in a crowded strawweight title picture?
Helwani: There’s a bit of a contender logjam brewing at 115 because you could make a case for Joanna Jedrzejczyk or Rose Namajunas next for champion Zhang Weili. However, a win for Esparza would mean three in a row and a win for Waterson would mean four in her past five, so that would put them right in the mix below the aforementioned names.
Okamoto: It will put the winner in the picture. That’s it. It won’t put her firmly in the picture, or at the center of the picture. Just in the picture. Waterson is coming off a loss, and Esparza is only 2-2 in her past four fights. This is a nice fight on paper because it’s two veterans with strong name value, and they’re both ranked in the top 10. But it’s not going to have an immediate impact on champion Zhang Weili’s schedule. The winner will at least remain relevant in terms of a title shot, while the loser might have a hard time doing the same.
Raimondi: In a solid position, but still probably one or two wins away from a title shot. Rose Namajunas, Jessica Andrade, Tatiana Suarez and even Joanna Jedrzejczyk are likely ahead of the winner in the 115-pound pecking order. It has been interesting to see the relatively young division evolve into one of the more intriguing in the UFC, especially at the top. Add in Zhang Weili’s title defense against Jedrzejczyk at UFC 248 being one of the best fights in UFC history, and strawweight is on fire right now. If Esparza wins, it will be three straight for her. It would be hard to deny her — a former champion, a top contender — the fight at that point. Maybe a rematch with Jedrzejczyk?
Wagenheim: The stakes for this fight have less to do with rising in the rankings and more to do with maintaining a spot among the contenders, albeit at the lower end of the list. A win for either of these women would not elevate her above Joanna Jedrzejczyk, Jessica Andrade, Rose Namajunas or Tatiana Suarez, and a loss could mean goodbye, top 10. So I look at this fight as one building block in an ongoing quest toward title contention, with a ways still to go.
What’s your one big question heading into this card?
Helwani: I’ll offer two: Does the event actually happen (I believe it will) and how will fight week/fight night look, if it does? I’m very curious to talk to the fighters and their camps about how this all went down and how the UFC ensured this event happened in the safest and healthiest manner possible for all involved.
Okamoto: Oh, man. I have so many. On paper, this is one of the UFC’s best cards we’ve seen in years. And there are a million questions to be answered … where to even begin? How will Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone look after suffering a sub-minute loss to Conor McGregor in what was arguably the biggest fight of his life just four months ago? Does Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza have anything left in the tank? Has Greg Hardy evolved since the first loss of his career? How good, truly, is Calvin Kattar, and can he get back in position to make a serious run at the bigger names at featherweight? Will Francis Ngannou vs. Jairzinho Rozenstruik last longer than a minute? What does Dominick Cruz look like in a five-rounder after more than three years off? But the million-dollar question is: Will Justin Gaethje snap Tony Ferguson’s 12-fight win streak and put an end to the cursed Ferguson vs. Nurmagomedov saga, which has featured five bookings and as many cancellations? Even if Ferguson loses, he could ultimately face Nurmagomedov, perhaps even for the title, but it wouldn’t have the same luster. It wouldn’t be two fighters on incredible runs. That’s the appeal of that fight. Take that away, it would still be a significant fight, but if Gaethje wins, the MMA world is no longer waiting for Khabib vs. Tony.
Raimondi: The more I look at the card and interview fighters about it, the more I’m really fascinated by Henry Cejudo vs. Cruz for the bantamweight title. I like this fight more than I did if Cejudo had defended the belt against Jose Aldo. Cruz has a strong argument to make that he’s the best bantamweight of all time, and he’s fighting for the first time since December 2016 against the current champion. It’s a terrific story. So, I guess my big question would be: Can Cruz return to his old form and pull off the greatest comeback win in MMA history? I really think that’s what it would be if he somehow dethrones Cejudo, a former two-division champion and Olympic wrestling gold medalist.
Wagenheim: Which fighters will look like shadows of themselves, and which will rise above their normal selves and turn the challenge of a pandemic into an opportunity? Training, traveling, cutting weight and fighting during these unprecedented times is going to negatively affect some athletes more than others, and it’s going to be interesting to watch the impact of society’s upheaval on how these fights play out. I’m anticipating some upside-down results. Glad I’m not a betting man.
Which bout will win the Fight of the Night bonus?
Helwani: Lots to choose from, but ultimately I’ll go with the easiest pick: the main event. Both men are rarely — if ever — in boring fights. I’d be absolutely shocked if this is a snoozer. I don’t think they know how to produce boring fights.
Raimondi: There are so many options. On paper, UFC 249 has a chance to be one of the most action-packed cards in a long time. How can you say Ferguson vs. Gaethje won’t be Fight of the Night? The two men have a combined nine Fight of the Night bonuses. Gaethje has won either Fight of the Night or Performance of the Night in all six of his UFC fights. However, I think the main event might play second fiddle. Vicente Luque vs. Niko Price is going to be Fight of the Night. Those two are wild men with a high propensity for violent brawls. They can both take a shot and give it back harder. Luque has three Fight of the Night showings in his past four fights. Price has won Performance of the Night in three of his past five. This one will be fireworks, an all-out war.
Wagenheim: Justin Gaethje has fought six times in the UFC, and he pocketed a Fight of the Night check after four of those bouts. He also has taken home three Performance of the Night bonuses. Tony Ferguson has won Fight of the Night for five of his past six trips inside the Octagon, and also has put on a Performance of the Night three times. Go ahead and write out the checks now, Dana.