The news that UFC 249 will indeed go ahead will come as good news for fans of MMA and, indeed, fans of sport in general. It’s a chance to watch some live sporting action for the first time in what feels like ages, as the coronavirus pandemic has felled so many sporting events across the globe.
UFC chief Dana White has always been keen for UFC 249 to go ahead, and while the event had to be moved from its original date of April 18th, it speaks of White’s persistence and passion for the sport that he has pulled some strings and managed to resurrect the event. Of course, it will look different than originally planned. Headline attraction Khabib Nurmagomedov is unable to take part due to being in lockdown in Russia, and so Justin Gaethje is the man pencilled in to take on Tony Ferguson on May 9th.
For Ferguson, the whole situation is a strange one. It would have already been far from ideal for a late replacement to be made in terms of his opponent. Ferguson would have been steeling himself for the prospect of taking on Khabib, who is without question the man to beat in the UFC at the moment. Gaethje, while undoubtedly a talented fighter, is a calibre of opponent much lower than Khabib, and so expectations have flipped in terms of the odds on Tony Ferguson winning the fight.
Then, to have the uncertainty surrounding the fact that the event was originally cancelled, and has now been reinstated, is another unhelpful blow to preparations. Of course, the nature of these top-level fighters is that they are able to adapt, and you can bet that Ferguson would not have taken his foot off the gas in terms of his preparation even after the announcement that UFC 249 would not take place.
There are a new set of pressures on Ferguson’s shoulders now. For one, he has gone from being the underdog against Khabib to the major favourite against Gaethje (in the air, below).
The mindset of a fighter, while always geared towards winning, is a very fixed one, and Ferguson would have been visualising for months the prospect of defeating Khabib. To suddenly be faced with a different opponent, one who by comparison with Khabib is a relative unknown quantity, requires a shift in terms of his mental preparation.
As well as that, there is the fact that UFC 249 is likely to attract a much larger audience than it otherwise would have. The world has been starved of live sporting action in recent months, and so sports fans who perhaps would not otherwise be interested in the UFC will be tuning in to sate their appetite for any kind of live sport. That will bring extra pressure on Ferguson, and indeed Gaethje, to produce a fine spectacle that can be a welcome distraction from the gloomy headlines dominating the news recently.
Of course, Ferguson has not made it to this level of the sport without an ability to adapt to different situations, both in the Octagon and outside of it. He’ll be counting on his experience on May 9th, to overcome the pressure and produce the kind of performance that proves his qualities as a fighter.