Khabib Nurmagomedov was forced to bow out of his scheduled Lightweight title fight against Tony Ferguson, which was set to headline UFC 249 on April 18, 2020. As a result, Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) tagged Justin Gaethje to step in and fill the void.
After Khabib vs. Ferguson was scratched for the unimaginable fifth time, critics came out of the woodwork, as fans and fighters alike, including Conor McGregor and Ferguson, criticized “The Eagle” for bailing on the bout. Even though it was through no fault of his own, as Russia was put on lockdown because of the coronavirus, preventing the 155-pound king from flying out of the country.
And though UFC 249 was ultimately postponed, Javier Mendez — Khabib’s head trainer — is still bothered by the unjust criticism his champion faced when all he was doing was following orders and waiting on a location.
“He didn’t choose to sit it out,” Mendez said during a fan Q&A on YouTube (via MMA Fighting). “He just went back home and he was waiting and training and waiting for a location. So he didn’t choose to sit out anything.”
Initially, Khabib left San Jose, Calif., which was already on lockdown, and flew to Abu Dhabi on the suggestion that the championship fight could take place there. When that wasn’t the case, “The Eagle” then went to Russia a few days before Vladimir Putin locked down the country. For Khabib, it didn’t make sense for him to fly back to the United States in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic since he still didn’t have a location.
That said, UFC president Dana White was so tight-lipped with UFC 249’s top-secret location — which we now know was Tachi Palace Resort Casino in California — that not even the fighters knew.
“They couldn’t give him a location and then he couldn’t get permission,” Mendez said. “He wasn’t gonna be able to get permission, so he didn’t really sit anything out. He didn’t get permission and he didn’t get the location and now we know why he didn’t get the location because of fear of it leaking out. Because it leaked out, now look, there is no show.
“He did absolutely the right thing when he was told to go to Abu Dhabi because the show more likely was going to be there, and then he would go home from there if that didn’t work out, but that was the plan, and then train at home and then see what happens,” he added.
With UFC now on hold for a couple of months, the promotion will have some decisions to make regarding Khabib, Ferguson and Gaethje. One would assume the time off gives the promotion the clear road to book Nurmagomedov against “El Cucuy” for a sixth time, but Khabib is about to take some time off for Ramadan and won’t return till until August or September.
That means if “Fight Island” gets the green light in a month, UFC could very well proceed with Ferguson vs. Gaethje for the interim strap, which could put the final nail in the coffin of ever seeing Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson should “The Highlight” pull off the upset.