UFC 249 was a monumental event. With an already exciting selection of preliminary fights that featured the return of Fabricio Werdum and Anthony Pettis, the main card was one for the ages. After impressive TKOs by both Calvin Kattar and Francis Ngannou, a controversial title defense by Henry Cejudo and a tenacious striking battle between Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje, ended UFC 249 on a jaw-dropping note. With the surprise announcement of Cejudo’s retirement and the revelation of George Saint Pierre’s induction into the UFC Hall of Fame, it’s fair to argue that this might have been the best sporting event of 2020 with half a year still left to go.
But looking back at this event that took place a little over a month ago, there’s still one, big, looming question that’s left to be answered coming out of the main card: Who does Tony Ferguson fight next to earn a shot at the title? What’s important to remember here is that Ferguson has been trying to fight Khabib Nurmagomedov since 2015. Their scheduled bout on April 18th this year, was the fifth time the two lightweight superstars were set to fight each other. And for the fifth time in five years, it was cancelled once again. Furthermore, Ferguson’s latest fight against Khabib was announced on November 25th, which means for about four months straight, Ferguson was immersed in his training camp to prepare for his fight against Khabib. However, when he was tasked to fight Gaethje instead, Ferguson had to adapt his training camp quickly to prepare for a fighter who is the complete opposite of Khabib. Gaethje is an incredibly talented wrestler; but almost everyone knew he was going into this fight standing up, something Khabib hardly ever does on the contrary. Essentially, Ferguson has still yet to get a chance to fight Khabib for the title, and when the opportunity finally arrived with Gaethje, he had about three weeks to prepare for it.
Although this was downright unfair for Ferguson (who’s been fighting for this opportunity for years), Tony’s not new to this position and is going to have to fight another contender outside of Khabib and Gaethje before he gets another real shot at the title. A rematch against Gaethje is certainly a must, whether he’s the new champion or not. But because that won’t be Ferguson’s next fight, he’s going to need to battle one of the other contenders to get his chance. But which candidate makes for the best fit?
1) The best challenger for Ferguson’s next fight, is Dustin Poirier. There’s a lot of reasons why this fight makes sense. First off, Poirier is right behind Ferguson in the lightweight rankings and hasn’t fought since September. After losing badly to Khabib, Poirier needs to jump back into the win column to be considered a true contender and has been scheduled to fight Dan Hooker on June 27th to put that to the test (ESPN). A lot rests on this fight: If he loses this bout, Poirier’s chances to fight Ferguson next would drop significantly. But because Poirier is the favorite to win, it would make plenty of sense to schedule a fight with Ferguson next if he comes away victorious to determine who fights for the belt. Moreover, Poirier is one of the best lightweight strikers in the division who happens to be in the prime of his career at age 31 (ESPN). Prior to fighting Khabib, Poirier was on a deadly four fight winning streak where he knocked out Anthony Pettis, Justin Gaethje, and Eddie Alvarez before he bashed Max Holloway for the Interim UFC Lightweight Championship (ESPN). Before Khabib mauled him on the ground in Abu Dhabi, Poirier was the talk of the town (ESPN). Coincidently, this was also the case for Ferguson prior to fighting Gaethje. Both of these lightweights are easily two of the best fighters in the division and both need a big fight in order to position themselves as the next contender for the belt. And alongside the fact that Ferguson has never fought Poirier before, this matchup makes for the best fit to solidify his spot as the next Lightweight Championship contender.
2) Outside of Dustin, the next best challenger is none other than Connor McGregor. Yes, the man just retired. But this is also the third time he’s done so, making the legitimacy of his retirement rather questionable and uncertain at only 31 years old (ESPN). However, if UFC President Dana White can reel in Connor back into the octagon, this is the fight that could propel either of these lightweight superstars towards the title shot they’ve been waiting for. McGregor is one of the deadliest strikers we’ve ever seen in UFC history and would be the greatest challenger to Ferguson outside of Gaethje. We’re talking about a fighter who not only took down Max Holloway but also TKO’d the likes of Dustin Poirier, Chad Mendes, Jose Aldo, Eddie Alvarez and most recently, Donald Cerrone (ESPN). That being said, the reason why McGregor’s second to Poirier is because he has shied away from fighting Ferguson when the occasion has presented itself, even most recently when he was offered to fill in for Khabib. In addition, Connor wants to fight Gaethje or Khabib, and one victory over Cerrone, won’t propel him towards the fight he wants. Although it’s a long shot, this certainly makes for an excellent lightweight bout that would grant Ferguson the chance at redemption. And if you want a “Showtime” kind of fight, this is it right here.
Outside of these two contenders, the rest don’t really qualify for a match up with Ferguson. If Dan Hooker does defeat Poirier, he would certainly rise as a potential challenger. But even then, Hooker has still a lot more to prove, considering he squeaked by with a split decision victory in his last fight against Paul Felder (ESPN). Moreover, Ferguson is a totally different monster than Poirier and Hooker hasn’t shown a whole lot of signs that he can last three vicious rounds against “El Cucuy.” Lastly, you could make an argument for Charles Oliveira, who’s won his last seven fights over the course of the last two years (ESPN). But during this stretch, the most dangerous opponents Oliveira’s had, consist of Jim Miller and Kevin Lee, two lightweights that haven’t even cracked ESPN’s Top 10 rankings (ESPN). Although Oliveira’s on the rise, putting him up against Ferguson is certainly a mismatch.
At the end of it all, Ferguson is still one of the most dangerous fighters in the UFC and deserves a fair title shot that he can fully prepare for. Ferguson vs Khabib has been the fight UFC fans have wanted to see for a very long time, with many believing he was the greatest threat towards Khabib’s reign and legacy. We’re talking about a man who won 12 fights in a row dating all the way back to 2013 before his loss to Gaethje; a man who bashed Anthony Pettis and forced a doctor’s stoppage with Donald Cerrone at UFC 238 (ESPN). At age 36, Ferguson still remains to be one of the most feared lightweights to ever set foot in this division (ESPN). But to earn his chance at the belt, he’s going to have to bounce back stronger than ever. And fighting Poirier or McGregor next, will confirm once and for all, whether Tony Ferguson deserves another shot at the UFC Lightweight Championship Belt.