By Nich Wolak

The UFC is one of the first pro sports organizations to return from the COVID-19 shutdown, and a local fighter will be headlining Saturday’s MMA pay-per-view event on ESPN+ at 10 p.m.

Tony Ferguson (25-3 overall, 15-1 UFC), the No. 1-ranked lightweight (155 pounds) contender, will take on No. 4 Justin Gaethje (21-2, 4-2) for the interim championship belt in Jacksonville, Florida. Listed below are several questions and answers leading into the fight.

What is Ferguson’s connection to the Muskegon area?

Ferguson graduated from Muskegon Catholic Central, where he wrestled and played football and baseball. He was All-State three times in wrestling and won a state title at 152 pounds in 2002, his senior season. He went on to wrestle at Grand Valley State University, capturing a National Collegiate Wrestling Association championship in 2006 at 165 pounds. 

Ferguson moved to California, where he still lives, and began to train in MMA. He got into the UFC by winning The Ultimate Fighter, a UFC reality show where fighters live in a house together and fight in a tournament against each other. For winning, Ferguson received a six-figure contract with the UFC.

What are the stakes in this fight?

This may be the biggest fight of Ferguson’s life.

The winner of Saturday’s bout will win the interim title and have a chance to take on undefeated champion Khabib Nurmagomedov (28-0, 12-0) for the undisputed championship. Ferguson also has a 12-fight winning streak on the line, which is tied with Nurmagomedov for the longest in the history of the lightweight division, which is typically one of the UFC’s strongest.

Wait a second, I thought Ferguson was supposed to be fighting Nurmagomedov?

The rivals were scheduled to headline UFC 249 on April 18 in Brooklyn, New York, but the COVID-19 outbreak in that state took that off the table. The UFC then began a search for a new location. In the meantime, Nurmagomedov flew from his current home in California to his native Dagestan, where they subsequently halted all flights, canceling the long awaited matchup once again.

The UFC plugged in Gaethje as a replacement and attempted to move the April 18 event to California, before ESPN, the organization’s TV partner, asked the UFC to stand down. That led to the event being rescheduled for Saturday in Jacksonville. 

Weren’t Ferguson and Nurmagomedov scheduled to fight each other a bunch of other times?

Yes, this is the fifth time the fight has been cancelled. MMA hasn’t been around for a long time, but this is the closest thing the sport has to a curse. Ferguson and Nurmagomedov, stalwarts at the top of the division, have been scheduled to fight going all the way back to when they were rising stars in 2015. 

This was the first travel-related issue to prevent a meeting. The other four postponements were health related – ribs and a bad weight cut for Nurmagomedov; blood and fluid in the lungs and a torn lateral collateral ligament for Ferguson. 

OK, so if Ferguson-Nurmagomedov is the dream matchup, why should I care about seeing Ferguson fight Gaethje?

While Ferguson and Nurmagomedov are considered to be the two best fighters in the lightweight division, the MCC grad and Gaethje might be the two most exciting.

Gaethje is a power puncher, with 20 of his 23 career fights ending in knockout or technical knockout – including 18 of his 21 wins. Some of that aggressive style has been tempered in his quest to earn the belt, but he is still more of a game opponent than most. 

Ferguson has always been a fan of movement, going back to his youth. He was known as a good dancer in his MCC days and loved to do flips off of whatever he could find. This shows in his fighting style, one of the most unique in MMA. He’s known to punch, kick and elbow at unique angles and he’s very good at combining that standup with a slick ground game. Expect fireworks Saturday night.