As the UFC returns with a blockbuster card in Jacksonville on Saturday, here are the four biggest storylines going into the event.
Is Ferguson or Gaethje the UFC’s most exciting lightweight?
Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje are very different fighters, but they have one clear similarity: they’re box office.
Ferguson is a blur of flailing limbs, acrobatic rolls and creative submissions in the Octagon. His style appears wild but he’s deadly accurate, has boundless energy and always finds a way of winning – hence his current 12-fight streak.
Gaethje, meanwhile, plods forward into the danger zone. He’s happy to take damage as long as he can land one of his thumping uppercuts or leg kicks. Every fight is a war, and he’s won his last three inside a round.
Their meeting on Saturday night will decide not just who will hold the UFC interim lightweight belt, but also the title of the most exciting fighter in the division.
Khabib Nurmagomedov is the undisputed champion, but his suffocating wrestling hardly provides the kind of spectacular fights that many fans – and certainly Dana White – want to see.
Whoever wins this weekend will receive the next shot at Khabib and, given how thrilling this fight promises to be, will surely be the man the fans hope will next take the title.
Can Cruz do it again?
Four years ago, Dominick Cruz completed one of the most incredible comebacks in mixed martial arts history.
This Saturday, he attempts to do it all over again.
After establishing himself as the world’s elite fighter at 135lbs in 2010, Cruz was forced to vacate his UFC title after a string of devastating injuries sidelined him for two-and-a-half years.
‘The Dominator’ would slowly make his way back into the octagon, crowning his return by reclaiming the belt from T.J. Dillashaw in 2016, more than four years after his last title fight.
His loss to Cody Garbrandt in December of that year – his first in 10 years – was followed by another run of injuries, including tendinitis in his knee, a broken arm and a shoulder complaint.
Having made a seamless transition into the commentary box, many assumed he would quietly retire, content with his remarkable career.
Cruz had no such plans.
Following a three-and-a-half-year break, he gets an immediate shot at the title against Henry Cejudo this weekend.
Can he do it again? It won’t be easy – Cejudo lays claim to being the greatest combat athlete of all time, having won Olympic gold and UFC titles in two weight classes.
Cruz, though, has overcome every obstacle in his way so far.
Can Ngannou finally earn redemption?
Francis Ngannou once appeared destined to be the UFC’s next great heavyweight, but a humbling defeat to champion Stipe Miocic in January 2018 proved that the Cameroonian still had a long, long way to go.
Then, in his very night fight, Ngannou put in a performance so awful that it threatened his chances of ever being considered for another UFC main event.
He sleepwalked to a unanimous decision defeat to Derrick Lewis in one of the most boring fights of all time, barely throwing a punch and looking terrified to pull the trigger in fear of being caught with a counter.
The 33-year-old has since bounced back with three consecutive wins over Curtis Blaydes, Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos.
Though he isn’t the terrifying figure he once was, Ngannou is back in the title picture and could be in line for the next shot if he beats Jairzinho Rozenstruik on Saturday.
Rozenstruik, like Lewis, is a knockout artist who will be looking for one big punch. Ngannou can’t afford to freeze in the moment again – another terrible fight could be the end of his title chances.
Should he win convincingly, though, his reputation will be restored and that notorious snoozefest may finally be forgotten.
Will Cerrone or Pettis emerge from last chance saloon?
It is almost blasphemous that Donald Cerrone and Anthony Pettis find themselves on the prelims on Saturday, but let’s ignore that for now.
This fight represents a last chance saloon for both fighters, with the loser unlikely to recover from yet another defeat.
Cerrone is not just on a three-fight skid, but has been brutally knocked out in all of them. His age has showed more than ever.
Pettis has lost his last two, including a doomed return to 155lbs last time out, with the former UFC lightweight champion having now dropped eight of his last 12.
Their names and status as UFC greats can only carry them for so long, although a victory on Saturday would help either man soldier on, for now at least.
Whatever happens, this is sure to produce fireworks, with just two of their last 10 fights combined going the distance.
You may be tempted to skip the prelims and head straight to the main card, but you really don’t want to miss this one. Trust us.
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