Justin Gaethje crushes Tony Ferguson to win interim lightweight title

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist

A pair of disappointing losses he suffered are the primary reason that Justin Gaethje became the UFC’s interim lightweight champion on Saturday in the main event of UFC 249 at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida.

Gaethje was knocked out with a knee by Eddie Alvarez on Dec. 2, 2017, and stopped on strikes by Dustin Poirier in his next bout on April 14, 2018.

A little more than two years after that second consecutive loss, Gaethje put the lessons he learned all together and dominated Tony Ferguson in an astonishingly brilliant performance. 

Referee Herb Dean stepped in at 3:39 of the fifth as Ferguson, his face grotesquely swollen with blood streaming from every orifice, staggered away.

Gaethje dominated from the beginning, cracking Ferguson with crushing left hooks. Ferguson showed an incredible chin but little else in a fight that was shockingly one-sided.

“I have a world-class coach (Trevor Whitman) and I had to lose to change,” Gaethje said. “You can’t fix what is not broken. We figured out what was wrong. I was getting hit too much. I was getting — to be honest with you — I was having too much fun. Both times I lost, I became complacent because I was having so much fun.”

JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA - MAY 09: Justin Gaethje celebrates after his TKO victory over Tony Ferguson in their UFC interim lightweight championship fight during the UFC 249 event at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena on May 09, 2020 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

He had his fun at a fast, but more measured pace on Saturday. He was ripping Ferguson from the start but didn’t race in and put himself at risk the way he’s done so often. Even at times when he had Ferguson staggering, he remained poised and didn’t go in and leave himself open.

As a result, Ferguson had little to threaten him with. The biggest question as the fight went on was what was holding Ferguson up. His chin was incredible, but he’d taken so much punishment it was a matter of time.

UFC president Dana White wrapped the belt around his waist, but Gaethje quickly took it off and gave it to a team member. He said “I want the real thing.”

That’s the one held by unbeaten Khabib Nurmagomedov, who was originally slated to fight Ferguson in the main event but because of the coronavirus pandemic, went to his home in Russia and then couldn’t get back into the country to do the fight.

Gaethje stepped in and looked like he was a long-time champion.

It was an awesome, amazing performance that not only upset the oddsmakers but shocked those who felt Ferguson was on his way toward becoming the pound-for-pound best in the world. Ferguson had won 12 in a row and 15 of his last 16 and inflicted all manner of damage on his opponents.

Gaethje, though, was barely marked and looked incredible in doing it. 

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