Without Khabib, is UFC 249 finally doomed?

Across two decades of staging fights in all corners of the globe — from Kansas to Kazakhstan — UFC president Dana White has seen pretty much every imaginable problem arise. He solved most of them, too. 

Then came a global pandemic that only further motivated White to run a major card, UFC 249, on April 18 as scheduled. Neither the obstacles nor the critics would stop him, he has promised.

The devil, he knows, is deep in the details however. It’s one reason he won’t divulge the location of the card, the full line-up of fights or the specific safety precautions he has promised. All he’ll say is that the show will go on.

“Listen, everyday I get up, it’s crazy,” White told Yahoo Sports late last week. “We always deal with craziness in this sport. Every single day when I get up, we get another curveball thrown at us. It’s like, as this thing continues to escalate, it gets crazier and crazier.

“I believe I am one of those people who thrives in chaos and I actually love it,” he continued. “So we’ll see. April 18, we’ll see what I can pull off. We’ll see what I can do.”

Monday, however, brought the biggest dose of “chaos” yet. 

Lightweight champion and headlining star Khabib Nurmagomedov confirmed on Instagram that he’s stuck in his native Russia, where the borders have been shut. He won’t be able to make his scheduled fight with challenger Tony Ferguson that, Nurmagomedov revealed, was almost certainly going to be in Abu Dhabi of the United Arab Emirates.

“Currently, I am in Dagestan [Russia] and I am training and preparing every day, although I don’t know what [I] am preparing for,” Nurmagomedov said, according to a translation from a Russian news site. “After we came to Russia we also learned that the borders are going to be locked. … The whole world is in quarantine right now.”

<img class="caas-img caas-lazy has-preview" alt="UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov won’t be able to make his April 18 title defense vs. Tony Ferguson. (Photo by Juan Cardenas/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)” src=”https://sports.yahoo.com/dana-whites-big-effort-to-stage-khabib-vs-tony-takes-a-hit-194555262.html?src=rss” data-src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/vdrR5Ug5Au1max9MUxfe0Q–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTY0MDtoPTQwNy4xMDgxNzgxNzU4MTk-/https://s.yimg.com/uu/api/res/1.2/GFc83x1FBmCPj14Go6esvQ–~B/aD0yNjk5O3c9NDI0MztzbT0xO2FwcGlkPXl0YWNoeW9u/https://media-mbst-pub-ue1.s3.amazonaws.com/creatr-images/2020-03/94e28500-72bd-11ea-bfbd-11a56c3d3e9e”><img alt="UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov won’t be able to make his April 18 title defense vs. Tony Ferguson. (Photo by Juan Cardenas/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)” src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/vdrR5Ug5Au1max9MUxfe0Q–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTY0MDtoPTQwNy4xMDgxNzgxNzU4MTk-/https://s.yimg.com/uu/api/res/1.2/GFc83x1FBmCPj14Go6esvQ–~B/aD0yNjk5O3c9NDI0MztzbT0xO2FwcGlkPXl0YWNoeW9u/https://media-mbst-pub-ue1.s3.amazonaws.com/creatr-images/2020-03/94e28500-72bd-11ea-bfbd-11a56c3d3e9e” class=”caas-img”>
UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov won’t be able to make his April 18 title defense vs. Tony Ferguson. (Photo by Juan Cardenas/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

So there, apparently, goes the highly anticipated main event. ESPN’s Ariel Helwani reported that the UFC is seeking to have top contender Justin Gaethje step in to fight fellow American Ferguson. Gaethje had been in talks to take on Conor McGregor sometime this summer. 

Know this. White isn’t going to just give up due to Russian borders or the challenge of finding a new headliner or even a place willing to sanction the card. The UAE appears to be one of if not the only place on Earth that was willing, even though White promises it will be done safely with no fans and a skeleton production crew in the building.

He certainly isn’t going to stop trying despite a chorus of critics who think he should just shut down for the foreseeable future like virtually every other major sports enterprise.

White maintains that the card should happen for the sake of normalcy, to serve as a distraction for fans and to be an inspiration to all businesses that they can adapt and carry on while maintaining safety standards.

“This is America,” White said last week. “And I don’t want to be the ‘rah, rah America [expletive] guy.’ But let’s be [expletive] honest. We have a lot of smart people here. We’ve overcome a lot. Let’s get out there and find some solutions. 

“Let’s not cause fear, panic and hide in our houses,” he continued. “Let’s figure this out and how we can live.”

That’s his philosophy. Take it or leave it.

How about the logistics though? How do you prepare for things like the largest landmass country on Earth closing all its borders and stranding one of your biggest stars?

The UFC is a global enterprise, which means it needs to get fighters — not to mention their teams, judges, referees and doctors — from all over the world to the Middle East. It also needs a crew to build the Octagon and broadcast the pay-per-view. 

Much of this seemingly would require private aircrafts and, White has acknowledged, incredible expense.

And now the best fight, between two rivals who don’t like each other and have had four previous scheduled bouts fall apart for various reasons, is off.

“You’re hiding in Russia,” Ferguson taunted Nurmagomedov on Twitter. “Travel bans will not prevent me from whoopin’ that ass. Don’t use it as an excuse to back out.”

It’s the kind of salt that sells a fight. Or could have.

White has been social-distancing inside his Las Vegas home, just as his governor has ordered, for over two weeks now, promising to pull this off and serve as some international symbol of overcoming obstacles. 

Even for a UFC that has managed through everything, this always seemed somewhat impossible. You can bet against White at your own peril, but Monday the event just got less possible. 

There is undoubtedly still a will. Is there still a way?

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