When opportunity knocks in UFC you had better be ready to answer and Justin Gaethje has one hell of a chance to shake up a stacked lightweight division against Tony Ferguson on Saturday.
Things were supposed to be very different. For one thing Ferguson was finally meant to dance with long-term foe Khabib Nurmagomedov for the lightweight title in front a packed-out crowd at Brooklyn's Barclays Center on April 18.
But the coronavirus pandemic left champion Khabib unable to travel to the United States and, after Gaethje had been drafted in as an opponent, the plug was finally pulled on the event when ESPN and parent company Disney intervened.
Yet here we are just a few weeks later and the show will go on, albeit in vastly different circumstances.
UFC president Dana White confirmed last month UFC 249 will go ahead without fans on May 9 at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida, with only essential personnel permitted to attend.
Ferguson remains top of the bill and will go up against fellow American Gaethje for the interim lightweight belt in a bout that can alter the course of a division swimming in talent.
As well as unbeaten champion Khabib, the return of Conor McGregor throws a monumental spanner into the works, while Dustin Poirier – who may have fallen short in his bid to defeat Khabib – remains an active threat.
Here's a recap of how things have played out at 145lbs in the past few months…
MCGREGOR RETURN SHAKES THINGS UP
Love him or hate him, McGregor is money and the Irishman being active can only be a good thing for UFC and the bank balances of those facing him. The former two-weight champion appears to have rediscovered his love of the MMA game and he set out a three-fight plan for 2020 (which admittedly appears unlikely to be fulfilled now given the global health crisis). The first of those resulted in a convincing first-round stoppage of UFC legend Donald Cerrone and the plan, you would assume, was likely to face Gaethje before building towards a huge rematch with Khabib. Regardless of how the next chapter in this division plays out, an active, healthy and focused McGregor certainly makes this interesting.
FERGUSON-KHABIB CANCELLED AGAIN
It was always hard to look beyond a McGregor win given Cerrone's advancing years and the next part of the lightweight story was meant to be Khabib and Ferguson finally going head-to-head in the Octagon. On four prior occasions these two huge names in the world of MMA were booked to fight only for a combination of injuries and rotten luck to deny fans this dream encounter. So, when the coronavirus outbreak meant the bout was scuppered for a fifth time it did little to change the perception of Khabib-Ferguson being a cursed fight. It would be a crying shame should these two never meet and surely one day their paths will cross but things may yet play out a little differently…
SURPRISE OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS FOR GAETHJE
White likes to reward fighters who are active and willing to go at short notice. Gaethje has certainly proven himself to be just that in recent weeks and that attitude could pay off in a huge way if he can find a way past Ferguson. Gaethje is ranked fourth in the lightweight division after rebounding from damaging defeats to Eddie Alvarez and Poirier with a trio of impressive wins over James Vick, Edson Barbosa and Cerrone. The natural order of things really should have been for Gaethje to face McGregor and the winner of that fight to meet the victor of Khabib-Ferguson. But we are where we are and Gaethje has a monumental opportunity to stake his claim as the next in line to face Khabib and truly mix things up in the lightweight division.