The UFC's card scheduled for May 9 is staggering in terms of name value, expectations and impact. One thing it seems to lack at the moment is an official name. Is it UFC 249 or 250?
With three title fights and a number of other bouts with considerable title implications, it's safe to say that this card could shake up multiple divisions and realign the course of UFC for the rest of 2020 and beyond.
That is, if it's not postponed again. UFC 249 was originally scheduled for Saturday, but UFC president Dana White put it on hold as the coronavirus pandemic halted nearly the entire sporting world.
But on Tuesday, White vowed to forge ahead with a revamped card on May 9 at an undisclosed location.
The postponement could have a significant impact on the main event. Justin Gaethje went from a late replacement who wasn't going to get a full training camp to someone who should be near peak form, while his opponent, Tony Ferguson, may have peaked too soon.
ESPN's panel of Brett Okamoto, Ariel Helwani, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim address those topics and adds one bold prediction each for the UFC's unpredictable card.
How much will the extra time help Justin Gaethje?
Okamoto: Immensely, of course. The delay helps with his weight cut, his stamina and his timing. And probably most importantly, it should help his mindset. When I spoke to Gaethje last week, he told me the No. 1 reason he usually doesn't accept short-notice fights is he's not 100 percent mentally. He likes to go into a fight knowing he did everything he could to win. A shortened camp doesn't afford him that confidence. But he also told me he wasn't far off from where he needed to be, and one can only assume this extra time will help him feel more prepared if the fight does indeed happen on May 9.
Helwani: Unless he gets injured during this extra time, it will most certainly help Gaethje. More time to train, more time to fine-tune, more time to work on his cardio. At this point, he pretty much gets a full camp in. Also, Ferguson has been training for so long that there is a chance he peaks too soon. Remember, he was planning on making weight this week. That's not good either. I think Gaethje is a big winner here.
Raimondi: It will help, but realistically May 9 is only three weeks away. It still won't be a full camp for Gaethje, though it'll probably be enough time for him to be close to his best. Another question would be for Ferguson. In training camp, the idea is to peak for the fight. Ferguson has been training now for months with April 18 as the target date. He's even still cutting weight this week. Ferguson is a different breed, but you have to wonder if overtraining could come into play.
Wagenheim: The extra time will help immensely. Gaethje would have gone into an April 18 fight on 12 days' notice. Now he is adding another three weeks of preparation time. It's not a full training camp, but the main event is a fairer fight than it would have been. I'm not making any predictions, but Gaethje now has a far better chance of getting in the way of Khabib-Tony attempt No. 6.
Brett Okamoto: Dana White determined to be the first one back
Brett Okamoto discusses Dana White's plan to put on a UFC event May 9, plus how motivated he is to just put fights together.
Should the winner of Francis Ngannou-Jairzinho Rozenstruik be guaranteed a title shot?
Okamoto: It could be argued that "guaranteed title shots" don't exist in mixed martial arts. Everything is always subject to change. But the answer is yes, the winner should have the closest thing to a guaranteed shot that exists. But we all know how this works. If light heavyweight champion Jon Jones decides he wants to move up and there's a demand for it from the fans -- which, undoubtedly, there would be -- then all bets are off. Frankly, Ngannou deserves a title shot right now, but the division is still on hold for the time being as the UFC continues to wait on a resolution of the Stipe Miocic-Daniel Cormier trilogy.
Helwani: Yes, but only after Miocic vs. Cormier III plays out. If Cormier decides to retire, then the winner of this fight should without question be next for a title shot. There is no one else out there who comes close to them at the moment.
Raimondi: That seems like a no-brainer, especially if Ngannou is the winner. He has knocked out Curtis Blaydes and former champions Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos in succession. There isn't much left needed for him to do -- he could get the shot right now and no one would complain. Sure, Miocic has defeated Ngannou already, but that was more than two years ago. Ngannou was still learning MMA at that point. As for Rozenstruik, he's one of the hottest fighters on the roster. If he wins, that will make five straight victories in 15 months. I'd say that's more than title-shot-worthy.
Wagenheim: Ngannou already has earned his title shot. Three straight first-round knockouts, none of which took much more than a minute, will do that for you. But with Miocic and Cormier circling each other but not circling a date on the calendar, Ngannou had the choice to either sit and wait or stand and fight, and he chose the latter because sitting around doesn't pay the bills. Can the unbeaten Rozenstruik muscle his way in front of Ngannou and grab the brass ring? He sure can, although he's going to have to be better than he was in his most recent fight. Back in December, Alistair Overeem beat him to the punch for nearly their entire 25 minutes in the cage. The night did end with a spectacular, rabbit-out-of-a-hat KO win for Rozenstruik, but if he allows Ngannou to stick around for 24:56, Rozenstruik will not be awake to see the end of the story.
Cejudo needs notice from UFC if fight is still on
Henry Cejudo says he'd like to have a conversation with the UFC if he is to fight on May 9 so he can peak at the right time.
Dominick Cruz hasn't fought in nearly 3½ years. How much of a challenge will he be for Henry Cejudo?
Okamoto: A big one, in my opinion. Cruz is a very big bantamweight. He's difficult to take down and very difficult to hit. His extended time away from the sport is certainly a concern -- not to mention the reason he's been gone is serious injuries -- but he's also known for having one of the strongest work ethics in the sport. As crazy as it sounds, I don't worry too much about Cruz's ability to go five rounds, although he is technically taking this fight on a short camp. The odds are stacked against him, to be sure, but Cruz is still the best bantamweight of all time in my opinion. His fight IQ is off the charts and he's a tricky matchup for anyone due to his unorthodox style. I give him a real chance if this fight happens on May 9.
Helwani: Cruz has long maintained ring rust is a myth. He proved that to be true when he defeated Takeya Mizugaki after a three-year hiatus and again when he beat TJ Dillashaw after over a year away. But this is 3½ years away, and now he's 35. Father Time is a factor here too. Still, if Cruz loses this fight, I think he loses because Cejudo was the better man that night, not because of ring rust. Remember, Cejudo is coming off a serious shoulder surgery too, so it's not like he's been fully healthy since last year either.
Raimondi: Here's a crazy fact: The last time Cruz fought was also the last time Ronda Rousey fought. Think about that. Rousey has been out of the UFC, in and out of WWE and headlined WrestleMania since Cruz last competed, in a title loss to Cody Garbrandt at UFC 207 in December 2016. Cejudo is one of the very best fighters pound for pound on the planet, a two-division champion and an Olympic wrestling gold medalist. That is a hard test for anyone to deal with, let alone someone coming off more than three years away. If anyone could do it, though, it's the supremely cerebral, technical Cruz, who undoubtedly has been studying Cejudo's every move and tendency.
Wagenheim: Go ahead and ask Cruz about ring rust. He'll smirk at you. Maybe he'll give you a curt answer: "Does not exist." Or maybe he'll hand you his résumé, which will show that the last time he was being asked this question, going into his 2016 challenge of Dillashaw, Cruz had not fought in nearly 16 months and had competed just once in almost five years. He won the belt from Dillashaw that night. So there. This time, though, Cruz has been absent from the cage for nearly 3½ years, and that most recent fight was a loss in which Cruz didn't look so good. Plus, Cruz is now 35 years old. But perhaps he doesn't believe in the aging process either. So sure, he can give Cejudo a challenge. At his best, Cruz is the better fighter. But who knows whether that guy still exists.
Is Anthony Pettis the right opponent for Donald Cerrone as he tries to snap his losing streak?
Okamoto: I don't know if there's a right or wrong answer to that question. All I know is Cerrone is 37 and he's been fighting professionally for nearly 15 years. His ability to take damage in a fight and somehow turn around and seemingly fight the very next month, and not have it greatly impact his performance, seems to have finally gone. Cowboy is still the "Anyone, anywhere, anytime" king, but I personally don't want to see him against any young, up-and-coming competition perhaps ever again. This is a fun stylistic fight, with a history. It's good matchmaking. Whether it's the one that gets him back in the win column or not, I have no idea. We'll find out when it happens, but it's an appropriate fight.
Helwani: The opponent doesn't bother me as much as the fact that he is coming back so soon. And, yes, I know Cerrone returning after four months is actually long for him, but I really thought after the way he lost his last three fights that he should have taken the rest of 2020 off. Now he returns months after getting TKO'd by Conor McGregor against a guy who TKO'd him seven years ago? I know Pettis isn't rolling these days, but still, this is a tough fight to come back so soon to.
Raimondi: Donald Cerrone vs. Anthony Pettis is a classic case of two popular fighters, once at the top of their game, trying to get their mojo back. Both have had some hard times lately, although it's come against top competition for each of them. This does not represent a step down for either one of them either. It's a really tough fight. In a perfect world, both would be getting tuneup bouts to build them up for future big fights. But that's not how the UFC works -- it's sink or swim. Personally, it feels like a little too soon for "Cowboy" to come back after three straight KO/TKO losses, the most recent one coming just three months ago.
Wagenheim: The UFC sometimes hits just the right notes with its matchmaking. I had it in my head that Cowboy was fading, until I took a look at his record and was reminded that his three straight knockout losses came against Tony Ferguson, Gaethje and McGregor. He did look especially bad in those defeats, but those are three guys who can make you look awfully bad. Anthony Pettis can too, but this is the right test at the right time for Cerrone. And for Pettis as well. Something tells me one of these men is going to transport us back to the good times, and the other is going to make us glance painfully toward the exit door.
What's at stake for Greg Hardy?
Okamoto: Not much, honestly, after suffering his first clear defeat in the cage -- but not a blowout loss -- to Alexander Volkov last year. The reality is, Hardy continues to show a massive amount of potential as a heavyweight. He just went three rounds with an established, ranked veteran in Volkov and did not look out of his league. And he is only scratching the surface of his MMA development. His job is not in danger. He's a very talented athlete with a clear affinity for MMA, and he is still very raw as far as technique. Nothing that happens on May 9, if the fight happens, is going to change that.
Helwani: This is a real tough fight for Hardy. First off, he's coming off the first real (non-DQ) loss of his career. Second, De Castro is really good. He's one of the UFC's top heavyweight prospects and is a perfect 6-0. If Hardy can get the W here, he'd prove to a lot of people that he's still a name worth paying attention to at heavyweight.
Raimondi: Like Hardy, De Castro is a very dangerous guy with big power early in fights who doesn't have a ton of experience. De Castro has two straight first-round KO/TKO victories. Hardy got some nice cage time under his belt in a decision loss to Volkov last November. That will likely help him here. Hardy didn't win that fight but also didn't look like he was out of his depth against elite heavyweights. A knockout finish here for the former NFL star could lead to a big 2020 and beyond in MMA.
Wagenheim: The promotion doesn't seem to know what to do with the former NFL star. After feeding him a succession of pushovers, the matchmakers sent him to Moscow last November to face Volkov, a former Bellator and M-1 Global heavyweight champion who owns knockout wins over legit UFC talent. Hardy was outclassed, but what did we expect? Now he gets a test that will tell us something, as De Castro is an unbeaten fellow alum of Dana White's Contender Series who has KO power. One of these men is going down, and one is going up, along with his stock.
My bold prediction for the card is ...
Okamoto: It happens. The announcement of this "targeted card" has drawn a lot of doubt from the general public, but with U.S. states discussing preliminary plans to reopen their economies and the UFC's obsession with getting back on schedule, I think this card will take place on May 9. But as is the case with everything right now, there are obviously no guarantees.
Helwani: I think this one happens. I'm still confused as to why Dana White announced this so soon when he was trying to keep the details of April 18 under wraps, but my gut says he pulls this one off and we get a UFC event on May 9. Personally, I think this is too soon to return, but I hope they will take every precaution necessary to ensure the safety and health of all the athletes and staff members involved.
Raimondi: It will be one of the biggest and most significant events in UFC history. There will be documentaries and books written about how it all came together. Between all the champions, potential future champions and big names plus the circumstances in the world, it's very much a pivotal moment for the promotion. The world will be watching, not only the fights but how the UFC puts everything together from a regulation and medical standpoint.
Wagenheim: The mere existence of this card isn't bold enough? OK, I'll play. I say two 42-year-old heavyweights are going to put on an entertaining grappling show. Aleksei Oleinik has 46 submissions among his 58 career victories. And ex-champion Fabricio Werdum, though just 11 of his 23 wins have come by submission, has long been considered the greatest heavyweight grappler in MMA. This one promises to be a change of pace on a card with the potential to be a knockout fest.