(Reuters) – Justin Gaethje put on a striking masterclass to score a surprise knockout victory over Tony Ferguson and win the interim lightweight title at UFC 249, which took place at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida on Saturday.
Ferguson, who came into the fight on a 12-win streak, suffered damage as Gaethje chopped at his legs and landed thunderous hooks before referee Herb Dean stepped in to end the fight late in the fifth round.
With over 80,000 deaths in the United States due to COVID-19, the UFC has come under fire for putting on the event, which took place with no fans in the stands and with stringent health and safety protocols in place.
Despite the absence of a crowd, the fights themselves lacked nothing in intensity, with Francis Ngannou scoring the knockout of the night, blitzing Jairzinho Rozenstruik with a left hook to force a stoppage after just 20 seconds of the first round.
Sam Alvey was the first fighter into the empty arena on the night, pointing and high-fiving the imaginary crowd as he made his way to the cage where he fell to a decision loss to Ryan Spann in the evening’s opening fight on the prelim card.
Apart from the fighters, the referees and the commentators, event staff wore face masks and only one corner-man per fighter was allowed into the cage in the breaks between rounds.
“It was funny, I could hear a lot. Everybody out there I could hear really clearly, but at the same time … it wasn’t much different than if the crowd were there,” Vicente Luque told reporters following his stoppage win over Niko Price.
Such was the silence that Luque was able to hear the commentators, and heavyweight Greg Hardy said he was able to take the advice of TV commentator Daniel Cormier to counter Yorgan De Castro’s leg kicks en route to a decision victory.
In the co-main event, Henry Cejudo retained his bantamweight belt with a second-round stoppage win over Dominick Cruz before immediately retiring in the octagon. The 33-year-old, who won a gold medal for wrestling at the 2008 Olympics, has said he was happy with his career and that he wanted to start a family.
Returning after a long layoff, former champ Cruz was dropped with a knee to the head and suffered the first knockout of his career with just two seconds left in the second round.
However, the biggest prize of the night went to Gaethje, who is now next in line to face Khabib Nurmagomedov for the undisputed lightweight crown.
“I’ll wait for the real one,” Gaethje said as he tossed the interim belt aside moments after it was put around his waist.
(Reporting by Philip O’Connor)