Technical masterclasses. Short-notice schoolings. Bloody bruisings. All were witnessed inside the cage during 2020. But none compare to Justin Gaethje’s sole triumph of the year that featured all three.
Honorable mentions: Brian Ortega vs. Chan Sung Jung, Israel Adesanya vs. Paulo Costa and Deiveson Figueiredo vs. Joseph Benavidez 2.
UFC 249 – The Scrap’s 2020 Fight Card of the Year – marked the return of the UFC following the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic’s interference with the sport. Along with a pivotal heavyweight clash and bantamweight title fight, Justin Gaethje and Tony Ferguson were set to headline the card. To spice things up, an interim title was on the line.
Gaethje vs. Ferguson was not the route the promotion intended to go down. To begin with, they had booked Ferguson against reigning champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, albeit the pandemic had spoiled those plans for a fifth time. Despite previously claiming he’d never take a short notice fight (especially against Tony), Justin Gaethje found himself across from “El Cucuy” with just a few weeks preparation. What ensued was a performance for the ages.
Gaethje entered the fight with an incredibly polished gameplan, and asides from a knockdown in the second round, looked in no real danger. He knew that Tony would be looking to set a pace and preferably trap him against the cage, therefore staying on the outside and using his kicks was a winnable strategy. Low kicks were Gaethje’s weapon of choice, and these had a noticeable impact on Ferguson.
With his kicking game working well on the outside, Gaethje, searching to damage his opponent, used his lower limbs as a way to enter the pocket. From here, he’d target the chin with his right hand and commonly end attacking sequences with his left; you may remember his left hook in particular tagging Tony on multiple occasions.
While being a highly-ranked, skilful addition to the lightweight division, Ferguson lacked any real layers to his striking defence; durability is his middle name, yet since his 2018 triumph over Anthony Pettis, he had looked considerably flatter.
By the end of round four, it was clear who was in full control; Gaethje was running smoother than a Rolls-Royce Phantom, and the televised beatdown was turning from impressive to outright concerning. Its fights such as these that take years off not only a fighters career, but life, and the fact Ferguson was at the tender age of 36 increased the worry. However, this is the ‘Performance of the Year’ after all, and full credit must go to Gaethje and his head coach Trevor Wittman.
Referee Herb Dean would eventually step-in and call an end to the mauling succeeding Ferguson’s response to being stunned; his reaction to power shots was growing alarming. Justin Gaethje had just finished the divisional boogeyman, a fighter so revered that he had earned a living-legend type repute. The 13 fight win-streak had come to a close.
Some may consider Gaethje vs Ferguson as a ‘Fight of the Year’ candidate but for this writer, that doesn’t do the former’s performance justice; not to mention the lack of overall competitiveness (bar a quick knockdown). Whilst it may be a difficult rewatch, Gaethje’s sublime execution shouldn’t be buried in MMA’s substantial sized archive.
It was a display worth every Performance of the Year award, and more.
A cool gif from Gaethje Ferguson I found on reddit, 56 seconds of thudding shots. Credit in top reply. pic.twitter.com/bOLFHgb2yK
— SMESH (@SmeshJitsuOnly) September 28, 2020