Justin Gaethje batters Tony Ferguson to win UFC interim lightweight title

The UFC was hoping to be an entertaining respite for those starved for live sports during the global coronavirus pandemic. Consider that a mission accomplished, courtesy of Justin Gaethje and Tony Ferguson.

A bout billed as one involving two of the most exciting fighters in UFC history did not disappoint, with Gaethje prevailing with a TKO finish at 3 minutes, 39 seconds of the fifth round in the main event of UFC 249 on Saturday night in Jacksonville, Florida.

The victory earned Gaethje the interim UFC lightweight title, but Gaethje tossed the belt off after it was put around his waist by UFC president Dana White.

“I’ll wait for the real one,” Gaethje said.

Gaethje battered Ferguson in every round with Ferguson withstanding a wicked beating. By the end, both of Ferguson’s eyes were swelling and he had a huge cut on his right cheek. Gaethje landed a hard left hand in the fifth that wobbled Ferguson, and referee Herb Dean stepped in to wave it off.

For someone who has been deemed a brawler over the years, Gaethje put on a tactical performance. He was actually outlanded entering the fifth round but responded by landing 34 of 39 (87%) significant strikes.

The two fighters combined for 279 significant strikes, the most ever in a UFC fight in which no strikes on the ground or in the clinch were attempted.

“I told my coaches, ‘You’re not gonna like it, but I’m ready to die tonight,'” Gaethje said in the cage afterward with Joe Rogan. “That’s the mentality you have to come in there with.”

UFC 249, which took place without a crowd present, was one of the first major sporting events in the United States since the beginning of the global coronavirus pandemic. Everyone involved with the card was tested for COVID-19 prior to the event. This was the UFC’s first card since March 14.

Ferguson came in as ESPN’s No. 6-ranked pound-for-pound fighter. He was supposed to fight UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov on April 18, but Nurmagomedov said he was held up in his native Dagestan due to coronavirus-related travel restrictions. Gaethje filled in for Nurmagomedov before the card was postponed when the UFC was asked to “stand down” by execs from broadcast partner ESPN. He stayed in when the card was moved to Saturday night.

White has said the winner of the UFC 249 main event would “100 percent” be next for a title shot against Nurmagomedov. Gaethje said it would be an honor to represent the United States against Russia’s Nurmagomedov.

Nurmagomedov tweeted afterward to congratulate Gaethje on his performance.

“Justin is a tough son of a b—-, I’ll be real,” Ferguson said. “I was prepared for Khabib, not a striker.”

Gaethje (22-2), 31, has won four straight, all via KO/TKO.

Ferguson (25-3), 36, saw his UFC lightweight record 12-fight winning streak come to an end. He had not lost since 2012 and had not been finished since 2009.

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