Saturday’s interim lightweight title fight between Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje at UFC 249 is as can’t miss of a fight as there has ever been in the UFC. Gaethje has won seven post-fight bonuses in six career bouts in the UFC, while Ferguson has been in the Fight of the Night in five of his last six bouts.
Anyone who even marginally follows the sport knows that Ferguson-Gaethje is likely to be an all-timer.
Yet, strangely, most interesting is the heavyweight bout on the undercard between Francis Ngannou and Jairzinho Rozenstruik, which should determine who is next in line for a title shot after Stipe Miocic and Daniel Cormier complete their trilogy.
Ngannou just might be the hardest puncher in the history of the UFC. If he is, Rozenstruik is certainly up there close to him.
Often when there is a heavy puncher, we see him matched with someone with a contrasting style. But in this fight, it’s power versus power for as long as the fight lasts.
There is no such thing as a sure thing in fighting, and I was among those in 2018 saying that the Ngannou-Derrick Lewis was as close to a sure thing as it gets. Yet, that bout turned out to be a complete dud.
But while Lewis is a KO artist, his game is a lot more diverse.
Since that awful bout with Lewis, Ngannou has scored three consecutive first-round knockouts. He finished Curtis Blaydes in 45 seconds on Nov. 24, 2018, in Beijing. He followed that with a 26-second knockout of ex-champion Cain Velasquez on Feb. 17, 2019, and then KO’d ex-champion Junior dos Santos in 71 seconds on June 29.
Rozenstruik’s performances have been nearly as impressive. He’s 10-0 with nine KOs in his MMA career and is coming off a last-second finish of Alistair Overeem on Dec. 7 with just four seconds remaining in the fifth round. He was going to lose by decision until landing a blow that grossly split Overeem’s lip.
Rozenstruik opened 2019 on Feb. 7 in his UFC debut with a head-kick KO of Junior Albini at 54 seconds of the second round. He followed that with a nine-second KO of Allen Crowder on June 22 and a 29-second KO of ex-champion Andrei Arlovski on Nov. 2 at UFC 244.
So this one figures to go to the guy who lands the first big shot.
Ngannou showed against Velasquez that his power is so great, he doesn’t even need to land flush.
Ngannou appears to be in magnificent shape, but he told MMA Fighting that he’d struggled mentally with the ups-and-downs of not knowing if, or when, he’d get to fight because of the coronavirus pandemic.
It made it hard to push himself in training.
“Right now, after three cancellations, it’s very tough to be confident about something,” Ngannou said. “You just hope, cross your fingers and hopefully that happens. But you don’t know exactly. The reality is that things are not what they were before. You just have to make it work somehow. I think we are all going through this. This is not especially for you. So all the fighters are dealing with this.
“Maybe someone has a better way of dealing with this, or they adjusted very fast, [but] everyone has to go through this. It’s awkward, it’s weird, it’s not the best conditions that you would like to be in, but at the end of the day, it’s still some sort of challenge that you can take, so you take it.”
Rozenstruik isn’t yet the big name in the sport that Ngannou is, so he’s hungry to use the opportunity to beat Ngannou to seal his reputation.
He knows what he is in for and he’s vowed to put on a show.
“I’m going to make this one of the best fights of 2020,” he told BJPenn.com. “I’m going to get a knockout win. I have to. That’s the only thing that counts. I have trained so hard, I have to win this fight. I’ll KO him in the second round. But don’t be surprised if I knock him out in the first.”
The winner of the bout should not only get a title shot, but figures to earn the title of “Scariest Man in the Sport.” There are a number of fearsome fighters in the UFC, and Ferguson has carved the faces of opponent after opponent like a Halloween pumpkin, but that ability to end a fight with a single, thudding, crushing shot is something nobody is better at than Ngannou and Rozenstruik.
If this card lives up to its potential, it could be one of the best the UFC ever staged.
Something tells me, though, that no matter what happens on the rest of the card, the Ngannou-Rozenstruik bout is going to be one we’re talking about on Sunday, and for a long time after that.
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