It looked for all the world like the final knockout combination, a one-two punch of a social media post from deepest Dagestan and a swiftly enacted piece of Kremlin legislation, apparently serving as the ultimate crushers of the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s will to fight on regardless.
Yet still, still, Dana White believes he can put on UFC 249.
On Monday, Khabib Nurmagomedov revealed he is stuck in his homeland, having returned there recently in order to undertake final preparations for his long-awaited battle with Tony Ferguson, which was due to be UFC 249’s blockbuster headliner.
He is stuck because, after initially being relatively spared from the COVID-19 crisis, Russia experienced a small surge of infections in the past days, forcing its government to implement the kind of restrictions that have become common elsewhere.
Which means that the Russian borders are closed. Nurmagomedov isn’t getting out and, if it came to it, Ferguson isn’t getting in.
The last part is worth mentioning because the card doesn’t have a confirmed venue yet, and the fighters, having had previously scheduled showdowns between them cancelled an incredible four times for various reasons of misfortune, would go anywhere to make this thing happen.
They were supposed to do it at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, but they’d do it in Russia, they’d do it in the middle of the desert, they’d do it on an ocean liner in international waters. Most likely before the Russia shutdown, they were going to do it in the United Arab Emirates, in front of no fans, but where a show with minimal staff present could have been staged.
That’s where Nurmagomedov tried to travel ahead of time, but returned to Russia when he learned the UAE was putting its own lockdown in place.
“I am training and preparing every day, although I don’t know what (I) am preparing for,” Nurmagomedov said. “After we came to Russia, we also learned that the borders are going to be locked. The whole world is in quarantine right now.”
I was worried about this fight too… but I will get this done #UFC249 @TeamKhabib @TonyFergusonXT pic.twitter.com/JnDOdvrMlr
— Dana White (@danawhite) March 24, 2020
His words, and the latest news, could have been the cue for White to give up. He has, while being in self-isolation in Las Vegas, taken an entirely different approach to other sports organizations.
The show, for White, must always go on, and he has done everything he can to put mixed martial arts back on television screens. He attempted to move former cards from Columbus and London to the UFC performance center in Vegas, before that idea got knocked back by Nevada authorities.
This is the one he wanted, though, one of the biggest fight sheets in the company’s recent history. Nurmagomedov is a beast, never beaten and never truly bothered, with a superstar cache built further by his dominating victory over Conor McGregor in 2018.
Ferguson is seen as the only guy who can really threaten him. A fight between them would do a monstrous number, because it is a great clash and for the obvious reasons regarding the absence of most other sporting entertainment.
maybe there’s a third option…
— Coach Kavanagh (@John_Kavanagh) March 31, 2020
Now it’s done — or appears to be, anyway. But there was White on Monday, refusing to throw in the towel once more.
“I woke up this morning and the whole world changed again,” White told fight podcast Heavyweight. “So, back to the drawing board, and we’re figuring this out right now as we’re speaking right now, I have people working on this thing as we speak. Listen, I am absolutely (expletive) relentless, and I said that this fight is going to go on. And it will.”
The UFC has a large stable of fighters, and there may still be some options if Nurmagomedov is unable to make the fight, which seems all but certain barring a major reversal in travel restrictions. MMA athletes pride themselves on their image of toughness, and nothing says tough more than stepping in to take on whoever at a couple of weeks’ notice.
The UFC 249 co-headliner of Jessica Andrade v. Rose Namajunas would have some appeal, but for a real juicy topper, all-action slugger Justin Gaethje against Ferguson would effectively guarantee fireworks.
Made an impact from the day he arrived 🕶 @TonyFergusonXT #UFC249 pic.twitter.com/YVLpFtwf2s
— UFC (@ufc) March 29, 2020
But where? The Middle East’s availability is now uncertain. Florida has permitted WWE to stage WrestleMania within its borders but that organization’s Performance Center is based there.
White is not giving up. Nor will he.
“Know this,” wrote Yahoo Sports columnist Dan Wetzel. “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.
“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 is indeed relentless. He doesn’t believe there is such a thing as an obstacle that can’t be overcome. He has money and leverage and no shortage of creativity.
But he’s running out of options and running out of time. If he somehow, against all the odds and obstacles, manages to get the card on the air, it will have been one heck of a journey. If the fights can provide drama to match, it would be one heck of a show.