At the beginning of March, UFC 249 was set for Saturday, April 18 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., with the highly anticipated fight between lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson at the top of the marquee.
But then the pandemic known as COVID-19 closed down the United States and much of the world. Sporting events were canceled or postponed. UFC 249 was forced to be moved to a location — and eventually a new date, May 9 — and a new headliner needed to found as Nurmagomedov couldn't leave his native Russia. The UFC replaced him with top lightweight contender Justin Gaethje to take on Ferguson for the interim lightweight title.
Here's how we got to the revamped UFC 249.
Why is Khabib Nurmagomedov out of UFC 249?
All systems were go for Nurmagomedov to compete at UFC 249 and attempt to defend his 155-pound title for the third time. The 31-year-old had been conducting his training camp at the American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, Calif., for about six weeks. But with UFC 249 not taking place in Brooklyn, Nurmagomedov was reportedly told by the UFC that UFC 249 would likely be held in the United Arab Emirates.
Nurmagomedov hopped on a plane and headed to the Middle Eastern country. He said that once he arrived, he was told to leave because the UAE would be closing its borders, and no one would be able to leave or arrive there.
The 31-year-old flew back to Russia to be with his family and continued to train and tried to get answers from UFC president Dana White on where the Ferguson fight would be. Travel restrictions were put into place that essentially meant Nurmagomedov would be unable to exit Russia.
"I understand everything and I'm definitely upset more than you to cancel the fight, probably like all others, I had many plans after the fight, but I can't control it all," Nurmagomedov wrote on his Instagram account. "The greatest countries and the largest companies of our time are shocked by what is happening, every day the situation changes unpredictably. But Khabib still has to fight, is that what you saying? Take care of yourself and put yourself in my shoes."
The next day, Nurmagomedov said he wanted to fight Ferguson, but he needed to know the location, and also would be willing to fight him later in the year.
“Right now, if they give me location and I can come out from Russia and I can go to any country,” Nurmagomedov said in an interview with ESPN. “U.S., Abu Dhabi, doesn’t matter. I’m going to fight, 100 percent. Just give me location. Every day, I send (UFC president) Dana White a message. ‘Hey, where’s my location.’”
Ultimately, with Nurmagomedov facing travel issues, Gaethje was added to the UFC 249 card to take on Ferguson.
Khabib vs. Ferguson timeline
This is the fifth time that Nurmagomedov-Ferguson has been scheduled and then not happened. Here's a breakdown of each instance the fight between the two best lightweights in the world has been tabled.
— 2015: The UFC booked them to initially meet at "The Ultimate Fighter" Season 22 on Dec. 11, 2015, one day before Conor McGregor faced Jose Aldo in a featherweight title unification bout at UFC 194. Nurmgomedov was 22-0 and on the rise as a title contender, and Ferguson had been on a six-fight winning streak. The winner would likely secure a title opportunity at then-champion Rafael dos Anjos.
The fight didn't come to pass when Nurmagomedov bowed out to a rib injury.
— 2016: Nurmagomedov healed from the rib injury, and UFC rebooked the bout for the second time at a UFC on Fox event in Tampa on April 16, 2016. Eleven days before the fight, Ferguson was the one who had to withdraw, saying he had an issue with his lungs.
— 2017: After both fighters got two victories, the UFC booked Nurmagomedov-Ferguson for the interim lightweight title at UFC 209 on March 4, 2017. But Nurmagomedov was hospitalized because of what his team called "weight management issues". White blamed Nurmagomedov's team not letting the UFC know there were issues instead of heading to the hospital.
— 2018: Ferguson won the interim belt against Kevin Lee at UFC 217 in October 2017, and Nurmagomedov blew out Edson Barboza two months later at UFC 219. White announced at the beginning of 2018 that he would schedule Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson for the fourth time at UFC 223 on April 7 for the "real title".
Everything was looking to be a go, but a week before UFC 223, Ferguson tripped over a cable and tore his lateral collateral ligament, which required surgery and was off the show. Nurmagomedov ended up defeating Al Iaquinta to become the undisputed lightweight champion.
UFC 249 main event: Ferguson vs. Gaethje
When hints of Nurmagomedov likely being off UFC 249 started to surface, the UFC reached out to Gaethje to gauge his interest in taking on Ferguson. He accepted, and Ferguson agreed to fight with the interim lightweight title at stake. After first trying to have the event on April 18 at the Tachi Palace Resort Casino in Lemoore, Calif., the event was eventually rescheduled for May 9 in Jacksonville, Fla.
Gaethje (20-2) comes into UFC 249 with a great deal of momentum, having won three consecutive fights by knockout, most recently a first-round finish of Donald Cerrone back in September.
Ferguson (25-3) enters UFC 249 on a fantastic run of his own by reeling off 12 straight wins and returns for the first time since also beating Cerrone by second-round stoppage UFC 239 in June. He looks to capture the interim belt for the second time, after he defeated Kevin Lee by third-round submission at UFC 216 in October 2017.
As for Nurmagomedov, White has said that he'll fight the winner of Ferguson vs. Gaethje later in the year.
UFC 249 fight card
- Date: May 9
- UFC Fight Pass prelims: 6:30 p.m. ET | 3:30 p.m. PT
- UFC 249 prelims: 8 p.m. ET | 5 p.m. PT
- UFC 249 PPV: 10 p.m. ET | 7 p.m. PT
- Location: Jacksonville, Fla.
- Tony Ferguson vs. Justin Gaethje for interim lightweight championship
- Henry Cejudo (c) vs. Dominick Cruz for the UFC bantamweight championship
- Francis Ngannou vs. Jairzinho Rozenstruik; Heavyweight
- Jeremy Stephens vs. Calvin Kattar; Featherweight
- Greg Hardy vs. Yorgan De Castro; Heavyweight
- Donald Cerrone vs. Anthony Pettis; Welterweight
- Alexey Oleynik vs. Fabricio Werdum; Heavyweight
- Carla Esparza vs. Michelle Waterson; Women's Strawweight
- Vicente Luque vs. Niko Price; Welterweight
- Bryce Mitchell vs. Charles Rosa; Featherweight
- Ryan Spann vs. Sam Alvey; Light heavyweight