Why Justin Gaethje Ditched Conor McGregor for Tony Ferguson

Justin Gaethje and Conor McGregor

Getty Justin Gaethje and Conor McGregor.

UFC lightweight star Justin Gaethje seemed to be on his way to being Conor McGregor’s next opponent, but when the 31-year-old American was offered the chance to replace Khabib Nurmagomedov against Tony Ferguson in the main event of UFC 249 on April 18, Gaethje ultimately decided to take his chance against “El Cucuy”.

Why would he do a thing like that? Gaethje revealed the thought process behind his stunning choice to TMZ Sports on Tuesday.

“Heroes live forever, legends never die, and I’m literally here to make a statement, you know,” Gaethje said.

Gaethje said he initially didn’t even think he’d take the fight after it was first offered to him but thought better of it the next day.

“They called me. My coach said no,” Gaethje said. “Not no, but, you know, my coach said you don’t take late replacement fights. I said, ‘You’re right.’ So, I was like, you know, ‘Let’s sleep on it.’

But soon Gaethje realized he didn’t really have anything to lose in facing Ferguson at UFC 249.

The 31-year-old is currently ranked No. 4 in the UFC’s official lightweight rankings, and Ferguson is ranked No. 1.

Dustin Poirier, who stopped Gaethje in the fourth round two years ago, is ranked No. 2, and McGregor is slotted right behind Poirier at No. 3.

So the truth of the matter is that Gaethje probably wouldn’t lose any footing in the divisional rankings by losing to the No. 1 contender. Moreover, he could leap up all the way to the top if he ends up beating Ferguson.

“The next morning I woke up and said, ‘What else, you know, if I lose, where are we at?’ And for me, it’s in the same exact spot I’m in right now,” Gaethje said. “And, um, you know, I’m gonna go out there and I’m gonna get a paycheck, which is nice.”

Still, Gaethje also craves the glory that would come along with taking the short-notice megafight against Ferguson and pulling off the stunning win over a fighter who hasn’t lost a fight in over eight years.

“But ultimately, I get a chance at glory, you know,” Gaethje said.

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Gaethje Admits Feeling ‘Terrified’ of Strange Circumstance

Gaethje admitted the COVID-19 outbreak makes UFC 249 unlike any other event for which he’s ever had to prepare. There are just so many unknowns at this point. Heck, Gaethje isn’t even all that sure where he’s going to be fighting Ferguson in a couple weeks.

“Every time I’ve ever fought there’s never been this many unknowns, much less the unknowns that we’re dealing with right now,” Gaethje said. “So… It’s just, uh, it’s really a terrifying moment. And, um, it’s really, and I’m talking about on the competition side.”

Still, Gaethje said he’s focused on getting ready for the fight. He knows what he’s up against in Ferguson, but he still expects to win.

“I know what I’m facing,” Gaethje said. “Tony has been getting ready for Khabib Nurmagomedov to fight for a world title for the last three, four, five months, you know, I don’t know how long. It doesn’t matter.”

For Gaethje, facing Ferguson at UFC 249 under such strange circumstances is a great chance for Gaethje to face his fears. The tough-minded slugger loves that.

“I love to face adversity, Gaethje said. “I’m facing my fears right now, and I think that’s what we all need to do.”

Gaethje’s First Short-Notice Scrap a Big One

Regardless, Gaethje also admitted he’d never taken a fight on such short-notice before. That alone is something that would make getting ready for his next bout difficult no matter who the opponent was.

But facing Ferguson in such a spot? That’s borderline crazy.

Still, Gaethje believes the potential reward is worth the risk.

“But I’ve also never been out for the UFC title,” Gaethje said. “And, uh, that’s the only thing I’m working for. That’s all I’ve been working for since the beginning. So … I’m ready to gamble.”

Besides, Gaethje believes he and Ferguson are the only two fighters in the UFC who would take the main event battle at UFC 249. The fighter revealed in a separate interview with ESPN that it was important for him to help all the other UFC employees who get paid by events taking place during this difficult time, and in the interview with TMZ Sports he seemed to relish in the idea that he and Ferguson were cut from the same cloth.

“There’s very, very, very few people on earth that would sign up for what me and Tony just signed up for, including most UFC fighters,” Gaethje said per TMZ Sports. “A lot of the guys will say that they’re ready but a lot of guys will not put their name on that dotted line.”

But Gaethje also expects UFC brass to remember who signed the dotted line when the company was desperate for a big fight.

“I hope the UFC really gives me recognition for sticking my neck out here,” Gaethje said per ESPN. “I know that, and they should know that, too.”

So maybe Gaethje expects next crack at McGregor no matter what happens at UFC 249?

Regardless, Gaethje vs. Ferguson should be one heck of a battle.

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Twitter: @Kelsey_McCarson