After Justin Gaethje stepped in to replace Khabib and fight Ferguson, many among the MMA masses still clung to the hope that even the latest pandemic-induced cancellation was merely another set-back – that Ferguson would see off the Gaethje threat and roll on to a eventual showdown with Khabib later this year.

Sixth time would surely be the charm.  

Gaethje, however, had other ideas. In just short of 25 destructive minutes at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, he picked apart Ferguson in brutal, clinical fashion – bringing a 12-fight, eight-year winning streak to a thundering halt.  

Barring an explosive uppercut that floored Gaethje at the end of the second round, Ferguson was barely in the contest. Even when it went into the championship rounds – the rarified territory during which Ferguson’s formidable cardio would be expected to come to the fore – Gaethje continued to dismantle his opponent at will.

The damage was such that, when referee Herb Dean decided he had seen enough with just under 90 seconds remaining, Ferguson was still on his feet but with his face a bloodied pulp. Few could argue with the stoppage. 

Most knew how dangerous Gaethje was going into the bout. One of the heaviest hitters in the 155lbs ranks, ‘The Highlight’ was on a three-fight win streak, all of which came via first-round knockouts.

He was the underdog against Ferguson, but far from a rank outsider. Indeed, Gaethje had been widely touted as future contender for a full title shot at Khabib – but has now expedited that path spectacularly with his brutal demolition of Ferguson.  

READ MORE: Tony Ferguson hospitalized after brutal battering at hands of Justin Gaethje at UFC 249 

El Cucuy, it must be said, appeared strangely bereft of his usual loose, free-flowing fighting style – he “looked off,” as Dana White put it afterwards. 

There may have extenuating circumstances for that: Ferguson said he had endured a “long f*cking camp” heading into bout, first having seen the disruption of the Khabib fight fall through, and then seeing the first date with Gaethje pushed back from April 18 (a fight he still insisted on making weight for).

He also hinted that he had been preparing for Khabib and his relentless grappling, only to then be faced with Gaethje’s big-hitting stand-up game.

But Ferguson will no longer have to concern himself with preparing for Khabib again any time soon – if ever. Instead, that task is likely to fall to Gaethje as the UFC unifies the 155lbs titles. 

Gaethje clearly appears in a hurry for that to happen; no sooner had he been presented with the interim belt by White than he removed it, vowing that he wanted the “real thing” currently around the waist of the undefeated Russian.

Khabib’s response came via social media and was one of respect for Gathje’s “impressive” performance, but also of warning that the undefeated Dagestani would not shirk a showdown. 

“In this sport, and especially in this weight there will always be hungry lions that will breathe down your neck, if you relax, then you’re finished,” Khabib wrote.  

“Some leave and others arrive, that’s nothing to be surprised about. But I won’t fall before the shot. We will still fight.”

The fans, meanwhile, were left to mourn the potentially fatal blow dealt to their hopes of seeing Khabib and Ferguson in a cage together – but in reality they should instead be relishing the prospect of a Khabib versus Gaethje meeting imbued with no less promise.

Since suffering back-to-back defeats against Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier – which halted an unblemished 18-0 start to pro MMA life – former World Series of Fighting champion Gaethje has rediscovered his destructive streak to devastating effect, dispatching James Vick, Edson Barboza, Donald Cerrone and now Tony Ferguson.  

Against the last of those names, what we saw was a distinct Gaethje upgrade; instead of opting for hell-for-leather fury, Gaethje picked his shots, content to chip away at Ferguson until by round five he was tagging his opponent at will. 

Saturday night’s fight was won on the feet – as Gaethje’s encounters almost invariably are – but the 31-year-old American does have a ground game to fall back on, having enjoyed a standout college wrestling career.

He has seemed reluctant to use that during his MMA career, instead opting to rely the concussive power contained in his fists. Many would also see that as his best shot at handing Khabib his first loss, given the Dagestani’s unrivalled prowess on the ground. 

The match-up between the pair – should it come later this year, as will now be anticipated – will not contain the expectation of a Khabib-Ferguson showdown, a fight which has acquired near-mythical status in MMA circles for its doomed destiny. Nor is Gaethje the showman or enigma that Ferguson is; he is far less yin to Khabib’s yang, and like the Russian much prefers to do his talking in cage.

But while that may diminish the entertainment before the bout, the excitement of what happens inside the cage between the pair should be no less fervent than if Khabib were facing Ferguson. Gaethje firmly proved that to be the case on Saturday night.        

So it’s RIP to Khabib versus Ferguson, but long live Khabib-Gaethje.  

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