The UFC’s most cursed piece of matchmaking was struck down cruelly for a fifth time when Khabib Nurmagomedov was forced to pull out of the main event at UFC 249 due to international travel restrictions brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic.

It was the Russian’s 28-fight undefeated record and undisputed lightweight title intended to be on the line when Tony Ferguson stepped onto the canvas in Jacksonville this weekend.

Under normal circumstances, many might mourn the loss of the elusive lightweight super-fight once again but in its place we have been gifted one of the most fan-friendly showdowns in recent years.

With the interim lightweight title now on the line, it will be Justin Gaethje who stands opposite ‘El Cucuy’ inside the Octagon on Saturday night, pitting two of the most exciting fighters on the UFC roster against one another in a bout that cannot fail to catch fire.

Gaethje, nicknamed ‘The Highlight’, has lived every bit up to his moniker since joining the UFC as the undisputed World Series of Fighting champion in 2017.

Four wins and two losses since only tell half the story of a man who relishes brutality in a way few others can comprehend; describing Gaethje’s mesmeric brand of barbarity for Fightland in 2016, MMA analyst Jack Slack surmised: “He is always flirting with absolute disaster. 

“He is always flirting with absolute disaster”
- Jack Slack on Justin Gaethje

“He is an accomplished wrestler who can stuff the best shots from even bad positions, and yet he insists his fights be contested on the feet and takes great pride in his record there. But he also does a ton of things which get him into trouble and force him to fight uphill.

“A man of Gaethje's ability who fought more conservatively might not get the knockouts but he would be cruising past the competition with little difficulty. It seems as though it is Gaethje who provides all of the back-and-forth in his fights.”

Looking back in 2020, those words are almost prophetic in describing Gaethje’s ascent through the UFC ranks.

The 31-year-old appeared to accept as much during an exclusive chat with BT Sport’s Dan Hardy last week, admitting that back-to-back defeats against Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier had made him reconsider his approach.

“[I told myself] If you don’t get hit, if you conserve your energy and if you pick your shots… I was never picking my shots, I was just trying to knock your head off from minute one to minute 25,” he explained.

Knockouts in 21 victories

Despite claiming to have adopted a more cautious mentality, Gaethje will step into the Octagon looking for a fourth straight first round stoppage on Saturday night having laid waste to James Vick, Edson Barboza and Cowboy Cerrone in that very manner.

Indeed, many believe an early onslaught would provide Gaethje with his best chance of victory against a man renowned for his relentless cardio in Tony Ferguson.

The 36-year-old is in the midst of a 12-fight win streak that has seen him go unbeaten since May 2012, elevating himself into the conversation as one of the best lightweights on the planet.

“I hit him with a right hand -- kick, punch, dropped him. He did a front roll. ”
- Anthony Pettis on Tony Ferguson

Combining an ultra-aggressive mentality with entirely unorthodox technique, Ferguson makes for box office viewing every time he competes – and this time should be no different.

Speaking to ESPN earlier this week, former opponent Anthony Pettis, who lost to Ferguson via TKO in October 2018, described the experience of facing ‘El Cucuy’, telling Marc Raimondi: “I hit him with a right hand -- kick, punch, dropped him. He did a front roll.

“His skill level and the way he does his standup is different. He doesn't come at you the traditional kickboxing way. He doesn't come at you with any kind of style -- it's like his own style. He mixes in breakdancing with it. It's really hard to prepare for and also he's nonstop with it, the elbows, the punches.

“His recklessness is why he wins, too. I caught him and I tried to kill him and I broke my hand, and that's what cost me the fight.

“He takes the hits and he likes that. It's part of his game plan, to get hit and ht back. That being said, though, he does get hit and Gaethje has that knockout power. So this is a great fight. If Gaethje catches him and puts him away, that's the only way he beats him: knockout.”

Inactivity may also be the undoing of the former interim champ; since July 2016, Ferguson has fought just four times through a combination of both bad luck and injury.

At 36, time is no longer on the TUF winner’s side – but with the prospect of becoming a two-time world champion on the line in Jacksonville, expect to see the very best Tony Ferguson on Saturday night.

Elsewhere on the card, Henry Cejudo puts his bantamweight title on the line against the returning Dominick Cruz in the second world championship fight of the evening.

Pound-for-pound contender Cejudo has enjoyed a stunning run in the sport since dropping a razor-thin decision to Joseph Benavidez in December 2016.

The 33-year-old waved flyweight god Demetrious Johnson off in his final fight before joining ONE Championship by inflicting Mighty Mouse’s first defeat in 12 title defences to secure the 125lb crown.

A 32-second victory over TJ Dillashaw teed Cejudo up perfectly for a bantamweight title shot against Brazil’s Marlon Moraes – a fight that ended in similar emphatic style as ‘Triple C’ won by TKO in the third round to become the UFC’s latest two-weight champion.

Now focusing solely on the 135lb division having vacated his flyweight crown, Cejudo has the chance to add another decorated great to his resume against Cruz this weekend with victory that would surely elevate him further up the P4P ranks.

“The guy is unbelievable and he’s looked incredible in his last several outings. He is the man right now in two different weight classes. ”
- Dana White on Henry Cejudo

For Cruz, this weekend presents the chance to complete one of the most remarkable comebacks in the promotion’s history.

Speaking exclusively to BT Sport’s Adam Catterall, UFC boss Dana White agreed.

“I think it’s the biggest upset ever,” White said.

“Say what you want about Henry Cejudo, [if] you don’t like his personality, the guy is unbelievable and he’s looked incredible in his last several outings. He is the man right now [in] two different weight classes.

“Dominick Cruz is the unluckiest fighter of all time. I mean the injuries that this guy’s had. If he can pull this off, it’s one of the biggest upsets. I’d put it right up there with Matt Serra vs. Georges St-Pierre.”

Cruz, 35, has endured his fair share of rotten luck with injuries, recovering from three separate ACL surgeries, a torn groin, a damaged shoulder, a heel injury and, most recently, a broken arm.

In his considerable time spent away from the Octagon, the former bantamweight champ has become a successful on-screen MMA analyst, even hosting his own ESPN show ‘Unlocking Victory’.

As such, Cruz could be forgiven for simply hanging up the gloves safe in the knowledge his legacy already places him among the very best in the 135lb division.

Knee surgeries for Cruz

But his desire remains and having made it through a training camp fully intact, the Alliance MMA man appears full of confidence heading into the weekend, telling reporters: “My body is healthy. I was fighting with a shoulder injury for about three title fights, I had that shoulder injury. I just put stem cells in my body and just tried to make do.

"I was constantly aching, constantly sore. I don’t have to do any of that anymore. My knees are stronger than ever; my hands are completely rebuilt.

“I feel great. To be honest, I really do. I feel stronger than I have in a long time.”

Setting the table for the evening’s two title fights will be action from the heavyweight division as two brick-fisted giants trade leather in what could be a title shot eliminator.

Frances Ngannou is a man that needs no introduction to UFC fans thanks to his sensational highlight reel of knockouts.

The Cameroonian powerhouse hulk-smashed his way to a shot at the heavyweight title in 2018 only to be outmanoeuvred by a well-rounded Stipe Miocic and after subsequently losing to Derrick Lewis, Ngannou was forced into a rethink on his career.

Three bruising wins since show he’s back on the right track and desperate to size the heavyweight crown once again – but to get there he’ll need to contend with a man who mirrors him in many ways.

Jairzinho Rozenstruik’s ascent through the division has been similarly destructive, producing four KO’s that include wins over heavyweight legends Andrei Arlovski and Alistair Overeem.

The 32-year-old Surinamese fighter is an equally raw MMA talent having fought just 12 times since transitioning from the world kickboxing so expect fireworks from the first bell on Saturday night.

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Click here to find out how to watch UFC 249 on BT Sport.