The world embraced live sports for the first time in weeks on Saturday, as the UFC returned with a stacked lineup at UFC 249.
There were several breakout performances on the night, but none bigger than Justin Gaethje‘s interim lightweight title win over Tony Ferguson, Henry Cejudo‘s bantamweight title defense against Dominick Cruz, and heavyweight Francis Ngannou‘s 20-second knockout over Jairzinho Rozenstruik.
What’s next for the biggest names of UFC 249? Here’s Brett Okamoto’s take.
Justin Gaethje (defeated Tony Ferguson by TKO)
Who should be next: Khabib Nurmagomedov
When I asked UFC president Dana White a few weeks ago if the winner of this interim title fight would face Nurmagomedov next, he responded, “100 percent.” Let’s stick to that.
Gaethje wanted to be the most entertaining fighter in the world for years, and he accomplished that. Now, he has a new focus of becoming the best lightweight in the world, and he’s earned the right to prove it against Nurmagomedov.
All of a sudden, that is a massive fight at 155 pounds. Nurmagomedov will be the favorite, but Gaethje is a lifelong wrestler. Started at the age of 4. State titles. NCAA All-American. If he can keep Nurmagomedov standing, oh boy. What happens then?
Dark horse: Conor McGregor
Before the pandemic struck, and Khabib vs. Tony fell apart for the fifth time, there was chatter about Gaethje fighting McGregor this summer. We could certainly still visit that, if all parties are interested, but I don’t see this happening.
Nurmagomedov wants to fight. He was disappointed he couldn’t defend his title in April, due to the pandemic. There’s a need to unify the title again. McGregor doesn’t fit into this equation at all, but hey, if he starts chirping for Gaethje, anything can happen.
Tony Ferguson (lost to Justin Gaethje by TKO)
Who should be next: Conor McGregor
If you’ve been following this sport for a while, your heart breaks for Ferguson. He deserved a shot at the undisputed championship, not an interim title fight against an opponent he didn’t originally prepare for.
Ferguson risked it all to be a part of UFC 249. He won 12 fights in a row before losing on Saturday, and he’s still never fought for real UFC gold. It stings. So, reward the guy in another way. Book him against McGregor.
Honestly, I don’t see the UFC going for this. Ferguson has never been a household name, and as good of a story as him fighting McGregor would be, I just don’t see it. But if all things were equal, ratings didn’t matter, and I just wanted to see a real good fight as a fan, I’d love to see Ferguson vs. McGregor.
Dark horse: Charles Oliveira
Unfortunately, what I think happens to Ferguson is he gets thrown back in line. And he’ll be obligated to take a fight that some people might want to avoid. Right now, that’s Oliveira.
Oliveira is on an absolute tear — seven wins in a row, finishes in all of them. This would be a fantastic style matchup, and I could see the UFC booking it.
Henry Cejudo (defeated Dominick Cruz by TKO)
Henry Cejudo announces his retirement after successfully defending his bantamweight championship against Dominick Cruz.
What should be next: Retirement?
For real? Cejudo is 33 and on top of the combat sports world. He was the No. 3 pound-for-pound fighter in the world, according to ESPN, coming into this weekend. He’s at the very pinnacle of the sport. Is he really going to leave? Maybe. Probably not, but maybe. Look, Cejudo’s coach Eric Albarracin told me shortly after the bout over the phone that he is taking Cejudo’s claims at face value … but he also mentioned if the UFC “added another zero” to Cejudo’s pay, he thinks he’d have a hard time turning it down. We shall see.
Dark horse: Jose Aldo
In the event Cejudo does fight again, which at this point, I would still say is more likely than not, I believe it will be against the man we thought it was going to be on Saturday, and that’s Aldo.
Personally, it’s not my choice. Aldo is coming off a loss, and there are other, more deserving 135-pound contenders, but if Cejudo does stick around, he’s going to want the biggest fights.
Although I wouldn’t call a fight against Aldo a blockbuster, it’s probably the biggest fight in the division right now
Dominick Cruz (lost to Henry Cejudo by TKO)
What should be next: Frankie Edgar
Oh baby. Let’s go. This is actually a tremendous fight. And it’s perfect, because right now, there aren’t other options for these guys. Edgar has lost two in a row and is seeking a fresh start in a new weight class. Cruz has now lost two in a row, been knocked out for the first time in his career, and hadn’t even fought in 1,226 days going into Saturday.
In this fight, you have two respected veterans, former champions. They’re both very well known. I love this fight actually. I think I love it more than I love either of these two fighting for a title. This has some nostalgia to it.
Dark horse: Jose Aldo
In the event Aldo doesn’t fight for a title, seeing these two meet would be a lot of fun. Once upon a time, Cruz was the bantamweight king in the WEC, while Aldo was the featherweight king of the same company. They’re styles are very different. They’d have enormous respect for one another. I’d love to see it.
Francis Ngannou (defeated Jairzinho Rozenstruik by knockout)
That’s it. There is no other answer. I mean, it’s been the answer since his last fight, when he knocked out Junior dos Santos in 71 seconds. Ngannou has now put away each of his last four opponents inside one round. Three of those four didn’t even last a minute.
Ngannou is right where he was in early 2018, when he challenged Miocic for the heavyweight championship. He’s the scariest dude in the world, with a one million dollar question: Can he defend a takedown and fight into the later rounds of a championship fight if he has to? There are only two people I’m even interested in seeing Ngannou fight, and they would be Miocic and Cormier.
Dark horse: Jon Jones
Stop the presses. You want to think outside the box? How about Ngannou vs. Jon Jones? If Miocic vs. Cormier III takes some time to book — or, if both end up retiring afterwards (which, actually feels like a possibility to me) — how about Ngannou vs Jon Jones. Hey, it could happen.