Saturday’s card was scheduled to include a light bout between prospect Islam Mekhavev and Brazilian heavyweight Rafael dos Anjos. But Dos Anjos tested positive for coronovirus before a trip from California to Abu Dhabi, where he lives and trains.
Unable to bring a replacement on short notice, the UFC pulled the bout from the card.
Makashev and Dos Anjos are scheduled to meet in Las Vegas on November 14.
Nurmagomedov told reporters this week that he is only focused on defending his title against Gethje, but other fights – and other fighters – are still doing heavily in Saturday’s main event.
Tony Ferguson, whom Gethje defeated to earn a title shot, told reporters this week that he would like his long-awaited shot at Nurmagomedov. The two men have been matched four times, each of which has been ruled out for reasons ranging from a knee injury to a coronavirus epidemic.
ESPN’s “First Take,” Nurmagomedov rejected a suggestion in which he re-fought Connor McGregor.
“Right now, even, I don’t want to talk about it,” he said.
But Nurmagomedov admitted that he wanted to face former welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre, whose retirement was 2019 May or may not be permanent.
Nurmagomedov, 32, is a suffocating pressure fighter who complements his relentless wrestling with well-placed punches and kicks. Their 28–0 record is rare in a game in which elites are often pushed to contest top competition.
“I know he knows how wrestling is done,” Nurmagomedov told Gethje. “But what about wrestling for 25 minutes?”
Gathje, 31, was an All-American wrestler at the University of Northern Colorado. But as a mixed martial artist, he prioritizes crowd-pleasing, high-impact attacks. Against Nurmagomedov, Gaethje intended to wrestle just to continue the fight on his own terms, and he said that he has not even seen Nurmagomedov’s video during training camp.
“I always focus on being my best self,” Gathje said. He said, “I will not let him come in front of the fans.” If I do, I feel bad.
When New York State Athletic Commission refused to approve In April, as Nurmagomedov-Ferguson overwhelmed New York City in the form of coronovirus cases, the UFC began an intensive search for a new site, with a local commission to comfortably allow fights during the epidemic. White noted the possibility of a private island for fighters based outside the United States, and UFC also had a plan Native American in California to fight Nemragomedov-Ferguson on tribal lands.
Card Finally landed in Jacksonville, Fla., Gethje replaced Ferguson. And by June the UFC and Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism announced that they would be collaborating in a restricted environment on Yes Island, where the UFC would host four events in two-week intervals in mid-July.
After hosting 15 events at a UFC-owned training center in Las Vegas and the venue’s Apex in August and September, the company returned to Abu Dhabi for five more cards, including Saturday’s fights at UFC 254.
The position is serviceable – allowing the UFC to stick to its schedule and fight for its television partner, ESPN. And White proudly states that the company has not had to keep employees during the epidemic.
But it is not ideal for one of the biggest fights of the year, especially when the original plan involves filling an NFL stadium.
“If the world returns to normal, these fights can happen anywhere,” White said. “It was without a doubt the most challenging year of my career, but it has also been the most rewarding.”
Nurmagomedov, the UFC’s 155-pound champion, has competed only twice in the past 24 months, partly due to an epidemic. His most recent win came in September 2019 through a third-round presentation by Dustin Pourier.
Last October, he featured McGregor in the fourth round of his Grug match, squeezing McGregor’s neck and jaw. After the final bell, Nurmagomedov dived into the audience to fight Heckler by McGregor’s admission, and ignited a controversy that led to the suspension of both fighters in Nevada.
During Nurmagomedov’s absence, Gaethje’s profile has grown larger. He stepped in for Nurmagomedov and ousted Ferguson, earning the UFC’s interim lightweight title. This undisputed belt guaranteed Gomje a shot at Nurmagomedov.
From a business standpoint, White insisted that Nurmagomedov comes with an underlying audience of paying customers, even though the coronovirus ban would keep them from watching in person.
Nurmagomedov has 22 million followers on Instagram, and White said the recent Nurmagomedov video on the UFC’s Facebook page was viewed more than 100 million times. He also said that Nurmagomedov’s character was the most frequently selected by UFC video game online players.
Although most UFC pay-per-view events, wherever they are, occur during prime time hours for US viewers, Saturday’s main card begins at 2 pm Eastern Time. This early time is better for Nurmagomedov fans in Russia and the Republic of Dagestan, where he grew up. The pay-per-view will also begin at 10 pm local time in Abu Dhabi, where Nurmagomedov defeated Poir and where he trained for the fight.
“Obviously, business people don’t know this, but Khyb is one of the biggest stars in the game, not just the UFC,” White said at the news conference this week. “I could just rattle in numbers all day.”