Khabib Nurmagomedov will be thousands of miles away from Jacksonville, Florida, on Saturday when UFC 249 kicks off at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena.
In many ways, though, even though the unbeaten UFC lightweight champion will be at his home in Daegstan, Russia, he will be the center of attention.
In Saturday’s main event, Tony Ferguson will face Justin Gaethje for the interim lightweight title, which is essentially a ticket for a unification fight later this year against Nurmagomedov.
UFC president Dana White told Yahoo Sports via text message Thursday that Nurmagomedov will fight the winner of the Ferguson-Gaethje fight.
A Ferguson victory would mean that for the sixth time, the UFC would try to put together a Nurmagomedov-Ferguson bout.
UFC 249 was supposed to be the night that they finally fought. And after four times of one or the other of them either getting injured or having an issue cutting weight, neither got hurt in training camp this time.
But Nurmagomedov, anticipating that the fight would be held in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates after it was announced that because of the coronavirus problem in New York, the event could not be held at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, left his training camp in San Jose, California, to go to Abu Dhabi.
Not long after he arrived, he learned that the country was going to shut its borders down, meaning UFC 249 would not be there. Given at that point he couldn’t get back into the U.S. because of travel restrictions related to the coronavirus, he went home to Russia.
Gaethje, thus, got the opportunity to fight for the belt.
Ferguson, though, showed little sympathy for Nurmagomedov during a conference call with reporters to promote UFC 249. When Ferguson was asked whether he’d fight Nurmagomedov if he won, he interrupted the reporter.
“You can stop right there, bro,” Ferguson said. “I am not going to answer that [expletive] question. We are worrying about UFC 249. The fight is with Justin Gaethje.”
Later during the call, he said “[Expletive] Khabib,” “Khabib is a b----,” and “Khabib doesn't [expletive] even exist to me right now. That dude fell off the face of the [expletive] Earth with McNuggets (Conor McGregor). Those dudes are a bunch of [expletive] b-----s. The only two people that signed on the dotted line are real [expletive] men.”
Nurmagomedov, of course, is a real man, and only circumstance and bad luck kept him away from this bout.
You have to feel sorry for him. He did what he thought was right by going to Abu Dhabi so he could complete his training there and be at his best on fight night, but it turned out to be the wrong decision.
Once that UFC 249 was pushed off of April 18 until Saturday, however, it wouldn’t have made a difference whether Nurmagomedov had stayed in San Jose or flown to the South Pole.
He’s a devout Muslim and is now observing Ramadan, so he couldn’t fight at this point no matter what.
He lost out on a chance to showcase his talents against one of the greatest fighters of his generation on one of the only nights ever that the UFC will have the eyes of the sporting world all to itself.
Dana White: Khabib ‘doesn’t need money’
From a pure action standpoint, a Ferguson-Gaethje fight probably will bring more fireworks than a Nurmagomedov-Ferguson fight, though it’s clearly debatable. But Nurmagomedov-Ferguson would have matched easily the two best lightweights who are on unbelievable rolls.
Ferguson is 15-1 in the UFC, or 18-1 if you count his three wins in “The Ultimate Fighter” house, and he’s 25-3 overall. Nurmagomedov is 12-0 in the UFC and 28-0 overall.
It would have been a match for the ages that would have been enhanced by having all of the attention on the sporting world squarely on it.
That’s where Nurmagomedov loses out. He’ll be 32 in September, and he’s not going to get a lot more chances for fights like that.
“Believe me, Khabib is rich, like big-time rich,” UFC president Dana White said. “He doesn’t need money. He’s not fighting because he needs the money.”
After he beat McGregor in 2018, Nurmagomedov went on a promotional tour of the Middle East. The governments of each country he went to paid him millions of dollars. He got more than a million to attend the Andy Ruiz Jr.-Anthony Joshua boxing match in Saudi Arabia in December.
It’s not often that he would have gotten a stage like he’d have had against Ferguson. And even if they do fight in the fall, presumably other sports will have returned and not all of the focus and attention will be on this great athlete.
It’s a pity, though those who have lost jobs and/or family members have had it far worse. Everyone gets that.
The opportunity to see an all-time great at his absolute best against his most dangerous opponent with the eyes of the world squarely on it is something we don’t often get.
That’s just another thing this pandemic has cost us.
More UFC 249 coverage from Yahoo Sports: