There was a lot at stake when the Ultimate Fighting Championship touched down in Jacksonville, Florida, for UFC 249. For one, the promotion was planting a flag as the first major sporting organization to resume live events during the COVID-19 pandemic—a controversial move which only became more contentious after it was revealed that event participants, including members of the media, were required to sign waivers preventing them from criticizing the company’s health protocols under threat of financial penalties.
One half of the headliner, the enigmatic Tony Ferguson, was also doing his share of gambling by putting his shot at the undisputed lightweight title and his eight-year undefeated streak on the line against a short-notice replacement opponent in Justin Gaethje. It was an opportunity that Ferguson had risked before many times over in his landmine-riddled career, having first earned an undisputed title shot more than two and a half years ago when he derailed Kevin Lee at UFC 216 to pick up the interim championship. A freak accident several months later in the buildup to UFC 223, where “El Cucuy” was set to meet Khabib Nurmagomedov to decide who would be crowned the undisputed champion, saw him jettisoned back into the queue of contenders. It forced him into dangerous fights with former champion Anthony Pettis and the then-surging Donald Cerrone for the sake of preserving his No. 1 spot.