Khabib Nurmagomedov locked down in Russia, a cursed fight with Tony Ferguson falling through for a FIFTH time and Justin Gaethje’s stunning upset win for the interim belt – how UFC 254’s main event was made
- Tony Ferguson’s long-awaited fight with Khabib Nurmagomedov seemed cursed
- He was due to fight lightweight champion but then the coronavirus pandemic hit
- Khabib had to stay on lockdown in Russia and Ferguson fought Justin Gaethje
- Gaethje beat him in fine style to grab interim belt and shot at the champion
October 24 has been circled in red pen by all MMA fans ever since the date was finalised for the most anticipated fight of the year between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Justin Gaethje.
Many believe this will be the hardest test of Khabib’s undefeated career thus far but at the start of the year, a title shot for Gaethje seemed some distance away.
How rapidly things can change in the UFC, a fact nobody will understand better than Tony Ferguson.
Justin Gaethje’s dominant win over Tony Ferguson (right) earned him a title shot
Khabib vs Ferguson collaped for a fifth time and Gaethje took full advantage of the situation
El Cucuy is perhaps the only man who won’t have his eyes glued to the lightweight title fight later this month.
It was supposed to be him walking into the octagon to face the dominant Russian wrestler but the opportunity has slipped painfully through his fingers.
Ferguson vs Khabib has been set up by the UFC a grand total of five times now. On each occasion, fans, the fighters themselves and Dana White have been left cursing the MMA Gods.
In 2015, when the fight was first was made, Khabib pulled out injured and the same thing happened to Ferguson months later.
At UFC 209 the Russian missed weight and was forced to withdraw. Then they were scheduled to face each other again at UFC 223 but on the week of the fight, Ferguson tripped over some camera cables while fulfilling media obligations and suffered a freak knee injury.
Finally, a fifth fight was booked for UFC 249 earlier this year only for the coronavirus pandemic to get in the way.
White recently said: ‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen a fight fall apart as many times as those two.
‘It almost scares me to make the fight again. What’s going to happen? An asteroid comes to earth? That’s the level of bad this thing is.’
The wheels of fate were set in motion for Gaethje when Khabib announced he could not fight Ferguson on April 18 in New York.
Khabib posted on Instagram: ‘Currently, I am in Dagestan and I am training and preparing every day, although I don’t know what am I preparing for, because after we came to Russia we also learned that the borders are going to be locked.
Dana White spoke of his disbelief that Khabib vs Ferguson had been ruined once again
‘Same as the States, same in Europe, Emirates — everywhere. The whole world is in quarantine right now.
‘So now I am hearing that they are looking to organise it with or without me. OK, go ahead.
‘I am even hearing that they are looking for an opponent for Tony, because he is in the States and I am here in Russia. But I am here not on my own will.’
In response to criticism over him being unable to fight, Khabib said he would still be eager if the UFC told him the location and how to get there.
A private jet out of Russia was one option with the approval of the Russian government but nothing materialised.
Ferguson, who more than deserved his shot at the title after stringing together 12 wins in a row, was then offered Gaethje as a replacement for an interim title and guaranteed fight with Khabib, even though he already had one.
Khabib came in for criticism but was replaced by Gaethje after Ferguson accepted it
Gaethje said he was willing to die in the Ferguson fight and put on a punishing pace
Despite the fact that he had been preparing all camp for a wrestler and Gaethje is primarily a stand-up fighter, El Cucuy took the risk and the fight was announced.
It took place on May 9 in Florida and beforehand, Gaethje confirmed that he was exactly the sort of character to enjoy a bloody war with Ferguson, which his fights inevitably become.
He said: ‘I’ll probably bleed. I hope he breaks my nose, I’ve been waiting for a long time for someone to break my nose, so I can get it fixed. It’s going to be fun.
‘I’m going to fight until I’m finished or until Tony’s finished. That’s what I do and that’s what I’ve always done.
‘I possess the power to turn his lights off and I believe I will.’
After dishing out some brutal punishment, the referee stopped the fight in the fifth round with Ferguson saved from himself and Gaethje winning by TKO.
Ferguson reflected: ‘We prepared for Khabib, not too much of a striker but s*** happens man, what can you do.’
Khabib’s father Abdulmanap died in July and there were whispers the champion could retire
Gaethje is regarded by many as the toughest test of Khabib’s undefeated career so far
And so Gaethje leapfrogged the man who had been waiting in the wings for so long.
In his post-fight interview, the American said: ‘He’s 28-0, there is no other challenge I want right now. I can’t wait to fight him.’
After the interim belt was wrapped around his waist, he tossed it to the mat and declared that he is ‘waiting for the real one’.
There was still a great deal of uncertainty about when exactly his title shot would come.
Khabib’s father Abdulmanap died aged 57 in July after complications stemming from contracting coronavirus. There were whispers that the champion may consider retirement but those were swiftly nipped in the bud.
He was afforded time to grieve and in the mean time, the UFC successfully executed their Covid-19 contingency plan on Fight Island.
That is where UFC 254 will take place and the showpiece event is shaping up to be a classic.
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