Tony Ferguson poses for photographs during an event. . File / AFP
The main event of Saturday’s UFC 249 card in Florida is billed as being for the interim lightweight title but Tony Ferguson says he should be considered the real champion if he beats opponent Justin Gaethje.
Former collegiate wrestler Ferguson, coming into the bout on a 12-fight win streak, was supposed to fight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov in Brooklyn on April 18 but that was postponed due to the novel coronavirus outbreak. The unbeaten Nurmagomedov, who has returned to Russia, had previously been booked to fight Ferguson on another four occasions but each bout was cancelled because of health or fitness issues.
Ferguson said the Dagestan native and Irish fighter Conor McGregor “both need to retire”.
“The only two real men out there are going to be me and Justin Gaethje,” he told reporters ahead of Saturday’s bout at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville.
Ferguson said UFC 249, which is taking place with stringent testing procedures and no fans in attendance due to the COVID-19 pandemic, could reach a sports-starved audience that may not otherwise tune in to a mixed martial arts event.
“Right now, there’s no Olympics, there’s no Wimbledon, there’s no NBA Draft, there’s no NFL Draft, there’s no tennis, there’s no soccer, hockey, there’s no baseball,” he added.
“This is what we bring to the table ... and we’re going to do our best and we’re going to keep sports alive and that’s what we’re going to do.”
Nurmagomedov is reportedly set to face the winner of Saturday’s fight, while also lurking in the wings is former two-weight title-holder McGregor, who made a return to winning ways with a swift TKO of Donald Cerrone in January.
Ferguson’s run of 12 straight wins is a UFC lightweight record, and having already held the interim belt after beating Kevin Lee in 2017 before being stripped due to an injury, the Californian now feels his time has come.
“This is not for an interim title,” he said. “This is for the real championship.”
The pair face off in the main event of an action-packed UFC 249 card, with the eyes of international sports fans fixed on the fighters stepping into the Octagon. Screening live across the Middle East live on the UFC Arabia app, UFC 249 also sees Henry Cejudo defend his bantamweight title against Dominick Cruz.
Cejudo, the reigning UFC bantamweight champ will lock horns Cruz, himself a two-time UFC bantamweight champion who is making a comeback after a three-year absence. Cejudo said that the returning Cruz would pose a challenge but one that he was confident of overcoming.
“I respect Dominick, but I think the difference between me and everyone else is I don’t ever fight everybody the same. I am someone who makes adjustments and you guys can see that during the fight,” said Cejudo.
Gaethje said: “You don’t very often get a chance to fight for a world title on the biggest stage in the world, much less during a pandemic when there are fewer sports going on and you’re going to be the only one on TV. It is going to be the perfect storm.”
To fight someone like Tony, I have to prepare mentally. You don’t just walk in and be mentally ready. My life does not exist after 9 May right now. Win or lose, I am focused on putting in maximum effort. That’s all that matters now,” added the 31-year-old.
Ferguson insists he is only focused on his preparation and is not worrying about his opponent or the noise surrounding the UFC’s return.
“I am not worried about anything else besides my game and certainly not about what anyone else is going to do. My preparation in the off-season was good, we are finetuning It now. I did a good warmup lasting a couple of hours when I got to Jacksonville. I ran six miles yesterday. I can’t wait for the show,” said the 36-year-old. “Justin’s a great opponent, that’s why we are the main event. We are where we belong. Both of us are focused on going in there and doing what we do.”
"I've received sad news, friends, that Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov has left this world," Kadyrov wrote on Telegram messenger, saying he was expressing the condolences of the "whole Chechen people."
Sheikh Hamdan captioned the images with an eagle emoji. Khabib is known as the Eagle.
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