UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov was supposed to be defending his belt at UFC 249 on Saturday, April 18, but that of course is one of the many sidelined events because of the current coronavirus pandemic.
Instead, Nurmagomedov is locked down inside of his home country of Russia, training and waiting for the world to return to some sort of normalcy before he can fight again.
UFC President Dana White tried everything in his power to keep an April 18 date on the calendar for UFC 249 even when he had lost Nurmagomedov to the lockdown. White was prepared to hold UFC 249 with Nurmagomedov’s original opponent, Tony Ferguson, squaring off with fellow lightweight contender Justin Gaethje for an interim lightweight title at Tachi Palace on Tribal Land in California.
Even the makeshift UFC 249 was nixed when broadcast partner ESPN and parent company Disney asked White to stand down. While White was more than willing to move forward and take the heat from critics for holding a sporting event, albeit behind closed doors, during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Despite the cancellation, White promised to be the first sport back in business and appears hell bent on that happening rather soon. But what lightweight title fight waits in the wings? Will there be a return to Khabib vs. Ferguson or will the UFC move ahead with the interim title fight?
Why Tony Ferguson vs. Justin Gaethje is still the fight to make
Much of that depends upon just when the UFC is able to start promoting fights again, but if White gets his way, it will likely mean that if Ferguson fights, it will be against Gaethje, not a return to the Nurmagomedov bout.
Though it would seem logical to reinstate the Khabib vs. Ferguson fight as soon as possible, the postponement of the April 18 date likely puts Nurmagomedov out until about September, no matter how quickly the UFC is able to start promoting events again despite the pandemic.
“But until September, it’s not too far, though it’s hard to believe that everything will end by September, but yet one serious person said: that in the peaceful time you have to prepare for war. And how are your days going?” Nurmagomedov wrote on his Instagram account on Sunday, hinting that September is a likely time frame for him to fight next.
But why so far off? Because Nurmagomedov had been planning to fight on April 18 and then roll right into Ramadan.
The UFC’s first Muslim champion, Nurmagomedov observes Ramadan annually. The ninth month of the Islamic calendar, Ramadan is the holy month of fasting, spiritual reflection and prayer for Muslims.
In 2020, Ramadan runs from April 23 through May 23. That would appear to free up Nurmagomedov’s summer calendar should the UFC be back in business by then, as White hopes to be. But even in years without a global health crisis, Nurmagomedov usually takes a couple of months off after Ramadan to get his body back into fighting shape following a month of fasting.
Even if the UFC is cranking out events as soon as White hopes to be doing so, Nurmagomedov is likely off of the available roster until August or September anyway.
With that in mind, if and when the UFC begins rolling out events again, it is likely that White will still turn to Ferguson vs. Gaethje as one of his premier bouts, setting up a guaranteed contender to Nurmagomedov when the Russian fighter returns to the Octagon.