By Jack Anderson
The most anticipated fight in UFC history is in jeopardy once again.
Lightweight (155 lb) champion Khabib Nurmagomedov is in danger of being stranded in his home country of Russia due to a COVID-19 travel ban.
Khabib would be forced out of his UFC 249 title defense against #1 contender Tony Ferguson, set to go down on April 18th.
The match is one of a very few major events still scheduled to take place during the pandemic.
Fans are devastated, as the history of Khabib vs. Ferguson has made UFC 249 one of the most hyped sporting events in recent memory.
“For me, 249 was my pandemic silver lining,” says Dane Pollock, a longtime fan of MMA. “I’d sit here doing nothing during the quarantine, thinking how bad this sucks, that I wanted to be with my friends, but then I’d realize, Khabib vs Ferguson is still happening soon and I’d get pumped.
“I can’t believe it got cancelled again,” he said.
The excitement generated is due to Nurmagomedov and Ferguson’s long history, and the “curse” of their matchup that has become infamous in MMA.
Khabib and Ferguson have been scheduled to fight five times now, but a variety of factors have forced one of them out of every single matchup.
First, a rib injury forced Khabib out of their initial fight in 2015.
In 2016, they were booked to fight again: Ferguson developed blood in his lungs. Weight issues forced Khabib out of their third fight the same year.
In their fourth booking, Ferguson tripped over cables at a pre-fight press conference and sustained a freak injury just before their 2017 matchup.
UFC President Dana White said the fight was “cursed” after Ferguson’s injury. He said he would never book it again for a 5th time…until he had no other choice.
The 5th booking of Khabib and Tony is a no-brainer three years later.
The two men were just up-and-coming prospects in their previous four matchups, but this time, the stakes are far different.
Khabib became the Lightweight champion after dethroning Conor McGregor in late 2018 with a dominant performance, while Ferguson extended his UFC win streak to an impressive 11 on the same night.
Everyone in the MMA world knew the two were destined to fight, yet White did his best to avoid the “cursed” fight anyways. White eventually gave in over a year later and the rivalry was back on.
And then a global pandemic came knocking.
“Training during a pandemic like this is challenging,” says Michael Fisco, a kickboxing coach. “A guy like Tony Ferguson has a very unique training style that he can do from home without training partners, but Khabib trains at a top-of-the-line gym at AKA (American Kickboxing Academy) in San Jose.” Khabib is currently in Dagestan.
“There’s a lot of talented guys that [Khabib] works with every day, and not having them is a big loss,” adds Fisco. “Instead, he’ll be focusing on cardio and his weight cut to 155 instead of sparring or training like he normally would. It can’t be easy.”
“Obviously I don’t coach any UFC fighters, but for our amateur or semi-pro guys, no way I would let them compete under these circumstances,” he says.
Major sports leagues started to suspend their seasons as the coronavirus spread, but White is notoriously hesitant to cancel any UFC event. They held a crowdless fight night in Brazil on March 14 with no issues, but with a variety of travel and public gathering bans, they cancelled the next three events to try and focus on UFC 249.
But it still might not just be meant to be.
Khabib went on Instagram Live on Monday, March 30, to explain his travel situation, saying that he was told the event would take place in Abu Dhabi, but was not allowed into the United Arab Emirates after flying there.
Khabib and his team decided to head back home to Russia to train while they waited for a venue confirmation, but learned that the borders were being locked upon arrival.
He added that White is still trying to keep UFC 249 going with a replacement opponent for Ferguson.
The curse of Khabib Nurmagomedov vs Tony Ferguson is still yet to be broken.
CAPTION: Nilson Nelson Gymnasium as the LAST UFC Fight Night was held without fans during the fights, after reports of the coronavirus in Brasilia, Brazil, March 12, 2020. REUTERS/Adriano Machado/File Photo