UFC 249: Fight Club predicts the winners and losers for the return of the Octagon

The UFC makes its highly anticipated return in Jacksonville, Florida on Sunday with a star-studded card featuring a mouth-watering main event.

Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje do battle for the interim lightweight title in a highly-anticipated fight.

It doesn't end there with the UFC bantamweight belt on the line and two heavyweight blockbusters that could end violently.

The Fight Club Podcast's Brad Lewis and Stephen Foote run through the epic card with a few fearless and not so fearless predictions. 

Interim lightweight title - Tony Ferguson v Justin Gaethje

JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA - MAY 08: (L-R) Opponents Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje shake hands during the UFC 249 official weigh-in on May 08, 2020 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC)
Photo credit: Getty

Stephen - Ferguson submission R3

When Tony Ferguson was last defeated, Georges St-Pierre and Anderson Silva were UFC champions. Let that one marinate for a minute.

I can't see that changing this weekend. As legitimate a challenger as Justin Gaetjhe is, Ferguson's unpredictability, versatility, and relentless pressure should be enough to cement the victory.

He may not be Khabib Nurmagomedov, but Gaethje is a capable opponent who's arguably every bit as dangerous as the Russian. There are definite paths to victory here for him, and if Ferguson crosses that fine line from fearlessness to recklessness - as we've seen him do at times in the past, Gaethje's power will ensure he doesn't get a second chance.

Also, unsure how'd I cope if the Khabib v Ferguson dream were to be spoiled yet again. Yes, I'm still clinging to hope.

Brad - Ferguson TKO R4

If you're Tony Ferguson you need to look no further than Justin Gaethje's epic war with Dustin Poirer for a path to victory.

'The Diamond' overwhelmed Gaethje with pressure, heart and a granite chin - three qualities Ferguson possesses in spades.

No doubt Gaethje has the tools to end Ferguson's night in an instant, but 'El Cucuy's' cardio is off the chart, and if he can survive the power striking game of his fellow American, then I see Ferguson walking out as once again in the interim lightweight champion.

Henry Cejudo v Dominick Cruz

Henry Cejudo and Dominick Cruz
Henry Cejudo and Dominick Cruz Photo credit: Getty

Stephen - Cruz via unanimous decision 

For some reason, I'm still not buying Cejudo's stock. Dual champion and all, there's something there that leaves me unconvinced. Maybe it's the corny shtick, maybe it's because I thought Demetrious Johnson beat him in that flyweight title fight.

Either way, I'm going straight sentimental with the pick and leaning towards 'The Dominator' in this one.

Four years is an enormous layoff but, at his best, Cruz is arguably the greatest defensive fighter of all time. If he can find his rhythm, push Cejudo into the later rounds and use that reach advantage to accumulate shots, I can see Cejudo getting frustrated and trying to chase the fight. 

After the injury hell he's been forced to endure time and time again, seeing Cruz regain his flyweight throne would be a moment for the ages.

Brad: Cruz via unanimous decision 

This is a big call given 'The Dominator' has fought just once in the last four years, but if he's anything like the fighter he was in his prime, he's reclaiming the title.

Cruz is the greatest bantamweight champion in UFC history, with just one loss to his name in the Octagon - last time out against Cody Garbrandt in 2016.

Thirteen straight wins from 2008 - 2016 had most pundits ranking Cruz as a top three pound-for-pound mixed martial artist, alongside Jon Jones and Georges St-Pierre.

But several knee injuries have robbed Cruz and the MMA world of the best years of his career, although we have been rewarded with his astute analysis as part of the UFC commentary team. 

Cejudo is a legit athlete, an Olympic gold medallist and a tremendously gifted combat sports practitioner, but I just don't like him very much.

This will be a super close fight and my head says Cejudo given Cruz's long layoff, but something tells me we are in for a shock. 

Francis Ngannou v Jair Rozenstruik

Francis Ngannou and Jair Rozentruick
Francis Ngannou and Jair Rozentruick Photo credit: Getty

Stephen - Ngannou KO R1

The undefeated Rozenstruik's four stoppage wins in 10 months is undoubtedly eye-catching and this is a bout he's well and truly earned, as he looks to breach the top five of the heavyweight division.

But I think Ngannou may be a step too far here. The Cameroon native is on a tear, with three first KOs against the cream of the crop - Curtis Blaydes, Cain Velasquez, and Junior Dos Santos, and all in a combined 142 seconds.

We've seen Ngannou struggle in later rounds, and if Rozenstruik - who knocked out Alistair Overeem in the 5th round of their December bout - can push the fight into the final round there could be opportunities for him.

The more likely scenario, as far as I'm concerned, is another early Ngannou finish.

Time those beer breaks wisely, you'll want to make sure you're at your couch from the opening second of this one.

Brad - Ngannou KO R1

The two legitimate scariest dudes in the UFC are set to go to war and I can't wait.

Rozenstruick's rapid ascension to the verge of a heavyweight title fight has mirrored Ngannou's run back in 2016/17.

Rosenstruick's four KO's in four fights is impressive, particularly his fifth-round stoppage of veteran striker Alistair Overeem. That victory showed heart, late-round power and a high level of striking IQ, to hang with - and then beat - one of the very best kickboxers to have ever entered the Octagon. 

But you sense that Ngannou's curious fall from the heavyweight mountain top in 2018 has 'The Predator' focused on the prize and ready to kill.

Ngannou was hammered over five rounds by champion Stipe Miocic, then played a significant role in the worst heavyweight fight in UFC history in a losing effort against Derrick Lewis. 

That had many, including UFC President Dana White, questioning his future in the sport. 

Ngannou's reply has been terrifying and even more impressive than the 6-0 run that propelled him into a UFC heavyweight title fight.

Curtis Blaydes, Cain Velasquez, and Junior Dos Santos, all dispatched in a combined 142 seconds - the latter two are former rulers of the heavyweight landscape.

This fight plays into Ngannou's hands and I see him scoring another impressive early stoppage. 

Jeremy Stephens v Calvin Kattar

Jeremy Stephens and Calvin Kattar
Jeremy Stephens and Calvin Kattar Photo credit: Getty
UFC 249: Fight Club predicts the winners and losers for the return of the Octagon

Kattar via unanimous decision 

Stephens is as hard-nosed a veteran as it comes - comes to fight, loves to fight, and now and then, wins a fight.

But 'Lil Heathen" has transitioned into a gatekeeper role, through which his last three opponents (no contest in the first bout against Yair Rodriquez excluded) have walked through with relative ease.

I expect no different with Calvin Kattar. The 32-year-old has some of the crispiest, cleanest boxing technique in the division, and I think his ability to throw in combos together with supreme head movement is going to have Stephens chasing power shots.

I like Kattar to make a big statement to his fellow featherweights here.

Stephens via KO R2

This is an extremely well-matched fight. Two very accomplished strikers who both possess the weapons to end the fight in a flash.

Stephens is a UFC veteran with 32 Octagon appearances to his record and has fought a who's who of the UFC's lightweight and featherweight divisions.

But he is currently in a slump, without a win in more than two years when he was one fight away from a featherweight title fight.

Kattar has slick hands, the best boxing technique in the division and has proven he can hang with the featherweight elite - albeit in losing efforts against Zabit Magomedsharipov and Renato Moicano.

That's why I'm leaning towards Stephens here. 'Lil Heathen' could be fighting to save his career prospects and his experience, especially given the unusual circumstance of the build-up to this fight, has me leaning in his corner. - violently.

Greg Hardy v Yorgan De Castro

Greg Hardy and Yorgen de Castro
Greg Hardy and Yorgen de Castro Photo credit: Getty

Stephen - De Castro via KO R2

I was cageside for De Castro's mauling of local Justin Tafa at UFC 243 in Melbourne last year, and I'll take the thud of those shots with me to my deathbed.

Let's be honest, the combat sports world has been baying to see Hardy fall to a KO since his debut, and I think we've finally found the right guy to give the people what they want.

The undefeated De Castro is an exciting prospect who finishes fights, can more or less match Hardy athletically, and has the motor and chin that I think will be the undoing of the former NFL lineman.

Brad - Hardy KO R1

De Castro is another heavy heavyweight puncher with an impressive stoppage record through his six fights. Five KO's in six wins is evidence that the Brazilian could put Greg Hardy to sleep at UFC 249.

But the controversial former NFL player has been pretty impressive in his transition to MMA despite a few obvious flaws. 

Hardy's cardio is horrific and his ground game is highly limited but he has arguably the heaviest one-punch power in the division.

That's what I think might get the job done for Hardy. 

He trains with some of the best in the business at American Top Team, and in a fight where it's highly unlikely a takedown will be a threat, he can set his feet and throw with confidence. 

Donald Cerrone v Anthony Pettis

Anthony Pettis v Donald Cerrone
Anthony Pettis v Donald Cerrone Photo credit: Getty

Stephen - Pettis via submission R3

These two veterans will go at it for a second time this weekend, and I can see this one going very much the way of the first, when Pettis crumpled Cerrone with one of his patented body kicks to claim the win.

The man who once seemed indefatigable may finally be starting to show the effects of all of those short notice bouts and that famously hectic schedule. 

Cerrone admitted that the fire wasn't there for him in his 40-second mauling at the hands of Conor McGregor, and his inability to get up for that blockbuster should raise some serious red flags.

You can do nothing but respect Cerrone for his contribution to the fight game, but I think that the dawn may finally be starting to set on the 'Cowboy'.

Brad - Cerrone via TKO R3

Two of the most crowd-pleasing fighters to have ever thrown down will entertain us once more on Sunday - and not for the first time.

Pettis holds a career win over Cerrone in 2013, when 'Showtime' was in the middle of the most impressive patch of his career.

That first-round stoppage win led Pettis to a UFC lightweight title fight, which he won against Benson Henderson, and had some proclaiming a 'Showtime Era' with the American looking seemingly unbeatable. 

But that proved to be false dawn and Pettis hasn't won two straight fights since dropping the title in 2015.

Cerrone is just as desperate coming off the back of a humiliating loss to Conor McGregor, where he was knocked out in 40 seconds.

'Cowboy' is in danger of becoming an afterthought if he loses this fight, which is crazy considering how close he was to a title fight a year ago. 

That should motivate Cerrone enough, and Pettis' inability to combat pressure fighters has me leaning towards a 'Cowboy' win. 

Join us for live updates of UFC 249 from 2pm Sunday