With the UFC returning following their 8-week hiatus due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, this has been the longest layover between events the organization has had since 2005. With no major American Sports in operation, UFC 249 slates to be a combative reunion that transcends the MMA World. The event itself has been riddled with cancellations, re-booking of fights, and taking fights from other future events to stack the Pay-Per-View.

This is a fight night that will look different than many of its predecessors. No stare-downs at the weigh ins, no crowd, no post fight interviews, and all fighters have been tested. Despite the strange approach, fights are back and I could not be happier. Allow me to be your tour guide of what to expect this Saturday night in Jacksonville.

The Headliners

Tony Ferguson vs. Justin Gaethje are scheduled for 5 rounds for the UFC Interim Lightweight Championship In the Main Event. ‘Interim’ is the operative word to pay attention to, as Ferguson’s original opponent and current champion, Khabib Nurmagomedov, cannot travel to the United States due to COVID-19, allowing Gaethje to replace him last minute. Side note: This is the 5th cancellation between Nurmagomedov and Ferguson over the course of their career, making fans wonder whether there’s a curse attached to a bout between the best two lightweights on the planet.

What to expect

The matchup presented to us on Saturday is fascinating, both Ferguson and Gaethje have in-your-face, high output fight styles that lends to exciting bouts, but each fighter has a different approach to their madness. Ferguson (25-3 Career, 15-1 in the UFC), who has not lost in over 8 years, looks to drag fighters into deep water, absorbing shots just to give them out at higher volume and leaving his opponents bloody. Gaethje (21-2, 4-2 UFC), a fighter who dominated in the now-defunct World Series of Fighting, has been with the UFC for nearly three years now, and has established that he is always one big shot away from victory no matter how much abuse he takes.

I would expect Gaethje to step hard on the gas pedal early, forcing Ferguson to answer the million dollar question: Can you take his biggest shot and keep marching forward?

What’s at stake?

An interim championship under these circumstances is bizarre. The usual purpose of interim belts is to keep a championship active in case the active title holder cannot be. In the case of current champion Nurmagomedov, inactivity or injury is not present. Likely, the title is a move from the UFC to raise the stakes of their main event to a casual audience by adding a “Championship factor”. In most cases, the interim champion unquestionably has the next shot at the defending champion upon his return. However, with Conor McGregor looking for a Summer fight – a rematch that stands to make the UFC and Nurmagomedov a LOT of cash – Only time will tell the significance of the gold on the line Saturday.

The Co-Feature

No interim titles in the second to last bout of the night. UFC Bantamweight Champion Henry Cejudo will attempt his second title defense against former champion and bantamweight legend Dominick Cruz. Originally, Cejudo was scheduled to face former featherweight champion Jose Aldo, but like Nurmagomedov, COVID-19 kept Aldo out of the country, giving Cruz an opportunity to recapture gold.

What to Expect

While the main event is expected to be a blood bath, this fight has the makings of being a technical masterpiece. Cejudo (15-2 Career, 9-2 UFC), a 2008 Olympic Gold Medalist in freestyle wrestling, has displayed relentless takedown ability and cage control his entire career, and with time has had vastly improved striking. Cruz (22-2 Career, 12-2 UFC/WEC) is a fascinating matchup for Cejudo, with his wildly unorthodox movement and timing, can potentially give Cejudo fits while trying to push the pace and drive Cruz to the mat. However, Cruz will have to deal with what has to be the best wrestler he has ever fought, arguably in his fighting prime.

What’s at Stake?

Outside of a world title, which is enough at stake on its own, there are major legacy implications in this fight. With Cejudo, capturing a championship in two weight classes and becoming the premier fighter at 135 lbs is fantastic, but becoming a commercial success and attempting to enter that Hall of Fame Career category is his next goal. Beating an all-time great such as Cruz, even if it is later in Cruz’s career, is the first big step to cementing that story.

Cruz is aiming to shock the world and serve as one of fighting’s greatest comeback story. With multiple torn ACL’s on both knees, and sporadic injuries popping up from 2012 to present day, it has been tough for Cruz to stay healthy for a string of fights. Having not fought since 2018 when he lost his title, to take an opportunity short notice, slay the proverbial dragon and regain his throne will be something no one has ever done considering his circumstances.

Fighters to watch

Other fights on the Main Card and preliminaries should not disappoint, as the UFC has made an effort to stack their card top to bottom to match the hype of their anticipated return. Here are some names you should keep an eye on.

Francis Ngannou

Francis Ngannou (14-3 Career, 9-2 UFC)  has earned the reputation of being the scariest power puncher on the planet. His meteoric rise put the world on notice, fast tracking up the heavyweight ladder to earn a title shot in only 2 years of being in the UFC. After a disappointing performance against champion Stipe Miocic and a lackluster loss against Derrick Lewis, Ngannou is back on the hot streak with three consecutive destructive knockouts. Saturday, he fights fresh faced Jairzinho Rozenstruik (10-0 Career, 4-0 UFC). Rozenstruik is the Surinamese former pro kickboxer who is undefeated and trying to show he is as dangerous as Ngannou. A tough test for Ngannou, in which he is hoping to leverage a big victory into another crack at a championship.

Greg Hardy

Former Pro-Bowl NFL Pass Rusher Greg Hardy (5-2 (1) Career, 2-2 (1) UFC) is known to many for his years he spent with the Carolina Panthers and Dallas Cowboys, and also his controversial legal past surrounding Domestic violence. He is a polarizing character and will be starting off the Pay-Per-View portion of the evening Saturday.

Hardy has showcased freak athleticism in his young MMA Career. After starting his career 5-1 (1) (His loss being a disqualification and his no contest was an overturned victory for illegally using an inhaler), Hardy showed real promise, only to have his momentum derailed by top ranked heavyweight Alexander Volkov in Moscow last November.

Hardy looks to take this big stage and redeem himself against Yorgan De Castro (5-0 Career, 1-0 UFC) a slugger from Cape Verde who can make a real name for himself in an upset.

Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone

Returning from his 40-second knockout loss to Conor McGregor in January, Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone (36-14 Career, 23-11 UFC) Looks to keep his legendary career rolling in a rematch with former UFC Lightweight Champion Anthony Pettis (22-10 Career, 9-9 UFC).

The first fight between them was over 7 years ago, when Pettis knocked out Cerrone with a highlight-reel head kick to extend his hot streak en route to winning a title. Cerrone, who has the record for most wins, fights, finishes and post-fight bonuses in UFC History, looks to extend his career by avenging a loss against a Pettis who has struggles as of late. This will be the last fight before the Pay-Per-View starts, and will be sure to promise fireworks.

Bryce Mitchell

Last but not least, I wanted to spend some time profiling up and comer Bryce “Thug Nasty” Mitchell (12-0 Career, 3-0 UFC). Mitchell is one of my favorite rising stars. The unapologetically loud mouthed, hilarious Arkansas native has made headlines not just in the cage, but outside of it – famously tearing his scrotum with a power drill working on the roof of his barn in 2018. The 25-year-old has stellar potential, winning his last bout via unbelievably rare Twister submission (2nd in UFC History). He is set to square off with Charles Rose (12-3 Career, 3-3 UFC), a tough veteran with submission skills to combat the strengths of Mitchell. All in all, a fun way to start the night of fights, being the second fight of the entire event.

Predictions

Pay Per View (ESPN+ 7pm PST):

Gaethje def. Ferguson (KO)

Cejudo def. Cruz (Decision)

Ngannou def. Rozenstruik (KO)

Stephens def. Kattar (Decision)

De Castro def. Hardy (KO)

Prelims (ESPN 5pm PST)

Cerrone def. Pettis (Submission)

Werdum def. Oleinik (Decision)

Waterson def. Esparza (Submission)

Souza def. Hall (Submission)

Early Prelims (ESPN+ 3pm PST)

Luque def. Price (KO)

Mitchell def. Rose (Decision)

Spann def. Alvey (KO)

We are back ladies and gentlemen. Enjoy the bloodshed.