As cordial a main-event pair as you’re likely to find in the UFC spoke to reporters on the UFC 249 conference call.
Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje were quite the relaxed, easygoing pair during the UFC 249 conference call. Especially in comparison to the co-main event duo who proceeded them on Tuesday, Henry Cejudo and Dominick Cruz. While Cejudo and Cruz bickered like children, Ferguson and Gaethje were laid back. And while both fighters have earned reputations as being somewhat prickly with media leading into fights, there was little of that on display on the call either.
In fact, the mood was pretty much just excitement from both corners. Ferguson even asked the first question. “How you doing, Justin?” he asked to start the call. “I’m good,” was Gaethje’s reply.
Forget trash talk in this one. Gaethje expressed how grateful he was that the fight was pushed back, from its original April 18 date.
“Twenty days is very short notice for a fight. I’ve had five weeks to train, six weeks total. It’s super necessary for me to mentally prepare,” Gaethje stated. “To fight someone like Tony, I have to mentally prepare for that. You just don’t walk in and be mentally ready. This time has definitely allowed for that, and I’m definitely thankful I got it.”
When both men were asked if they would consider themselves the real champ over Khabib Nurmagomedov, after winning the interim lightweight title, Ferguson interjected by saying “F*ck Khabib, I want to be real. Sorry Justin for cutting you off, bro. But f*ck Khabib. I’m defending my belt for the third time. This is for the real belt, this is not for the interim title, this is for the real championship, it’s champ sh*t only.”
“This is the biggest fight of my life. The interim belt means to me that you’re recognized as the number two man in the world,” said Gaethje. “Khabib can’t fight right now. This is the two baddest men on the planet in this weight class, fighting this weekend for the right to call themselves the best.”
For Gaethje, however, the interim title would mean a shot at the current champ, who is back in Russia. It’s worth noting, mind you, that Ferguson’s take is likely related to the five times his fight with Khabib has fallen through. Not to mention having previously won an interim title, only to be stripped of it.
Asked what impresses him about Justin Gaethje, Ferguson bristled at first, but later singled out the heart Gaethje has shown. Asked the same question, Justin Gaethje replied “I’m a huge fan of MMA. And first and foremost, I think humans recognize effort. And I recognize he gives mad effort. The tenacity he brings to the cage. I’m looking forward to the storm.”
“He’s the epitome of an athlete. The UFC athlete. He loves violence, he loves carnage,” Gaethje added.
One big difference between this and other bouts will be the environment. The atmosphere. The lack of fans in the stands.
“When I was on The Ultimate Fighter it was the exact same thing,” explained Ferguson, dismissing any concerns over an empty arena. “The only people that we had in the crowd were two sets of bleachers and our coaches. We had a couple cornermen, and we had the commission right there. It’s going to be exactly like how I was trained on The Ultimate Fighter when I was part of Team Lesnar.”
“Both me and Tony grew up wrestlers. You never knew how many people were going to be in that arena, in the gym. It didn’t matter. Sometimes no one showed up,” added Gaethje.
“Competition is competition,” he continued. “I believe it’s going to be much more of an intimate situation, as weird as that sounds. The fans are going to get to hear the shots, when we land our shots, they’re going to hear the breathing, they’re going to hear the talking, from the coaches.”
“I can’t wait to watch this fight when it’s over. Because I know it cannot disappoint,” added Gaethje.
It’s been an interesting journey to this point for “The Highlight.” A little less than a year ago, he was the odd man out. Finishes of James Vick, Edson Barboza, and Cowboy Cerrone, all within a round, stated his case for a shot at gold. Yet one of the most exciting and violent athletes to ever compete in the lightweight division was stuck on the sidelines while the trio of Nurmagomedov, Ferguson, and Conor McGregor were in a three-way dance. Mainly thanks to politics and, frankly, money.
“As a fighter, you want at least a say, or control of your destiny,” Gaethje said, reflecting on that situation. “That’s all I was asking for, to not get looked over, to not get passed by because of politics. Things worked out the way they did, and now, I got exactly what I asked for. I get the ultimate say in my destiny. And that’s all I ever wanted.”
Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje begin their portion of the UFC 249 conference call at 27:05 in the video above.