Published: March 19, 2020 12:17:15 pm
By Morgan Campbell
If the heavily hyped UFC lightweight title fight between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson takes place April 18, as scheduled, it will not be fought at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
The New York State Athletic Commission said Wednesday morning that the coronavirus pandemic would keep the event out of New York.
“Out of an abundance of caution and in line with recent guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and New York State, the New York State Athletic Commission informed the UFC that UFC 249 cannot be held in New York,” the commission said in an email message.
The pandemic has led many other state commissions to suspend combat sports altogether. Nevada has halted all pro boxing and mixed martial arts events through the end of March, and California has a similar moratorium.
The rapid spread of the virus also has promoters rearranging longer-term plans.
The UFC has resisted moving or delaying fights, in hopes of salvaging bouts that have been popular on pay-per-view, ESPN and the network’s streaming service ESPN+.
Dana White, the president of UFC, has been adamant that Nurmagomedov and Ferguson will fight April 18, even as the promotion postponed a London event set for this weekend and two more U.S. shows that were scheduled for early April.
“We’re hoping that this all clears up by April and this fight’s going to happen,” White told ESPN on Monday. “No crowd, whatever it takes.”
White later sent an email to UFC employees, directing office staff to work remotely until at least March 31.
“Right now, the No. 1 priority is to take care of yourselves and your family,” White wrote.
White said that fans had thanked him for holding a fight card in an empty arena in Brasília last week, two days after much of the sports world came to a standstill.
The health emergency is the latest in a series of twists that have so far kept Nurmagomedov and Ferguson from meeting in the octagon. The pair have had four previous fights canceled under progressively stranger circumstances. The first was scuttled because Nurmagomedov injured a rib, and the second because Ferguson was ill. A third matchup was called off because Nurmagomedov was hospitalized while trying to cut weight to 155 pounds, and in April 2018, their fourth bout fell apart when Ferguson tripped over some cords before a television interview, injuring a knee and prompting a cascade of replacements that left Nurmagomedov fighting Al Iaquinta.
New York has not issued a formal ban on fight events, as Nevada and California have. Brian Dunn, the president of the Association of Boxing Commissions and Combative Sports, said it was not practical to mandate a nationwide suspension of fight events, but he urged each state and provincial commission to follow federal and state guidelines and use common sense.
“The decisions are coming from up the ladder,” Dunn said. “The governors are making the decisions. We don’t really have a say.” He added, “When they give us the OK to restart, we restart.”
The prospect of an indefinite shutdown presents a problem for the UFC that is familiar to many other sports leagues, yet different because of UFC’s lack of a season and its model for staging large, singular events in different cities every few weeks.
The UFC started this year set to generate huge revenue with two of its biggest stars back in action. On Jan. 18, former lightweight champion Conor McGregor returned to the octagon after a tumultuous 15-month hiatus, easily beating rugged veteran Donald Cerrone in 40 seconds in a bout that generated $11.1 million in ticket sales.
That figure was the second best ever for an MMA event in Nevada, trailing only a McGregor-Nurmagomedov fight that sold $17.2 million in tickets in October 2018. McGregor and Nurmagomedov were suspended and fined after that bout devolved into a postmatch brawl, with Nurmagomedov leaping into the crowd to fight a member of McGregor’s entourage.
The melee had some negative consequences, but added sizzle to the prospect of a rematch and to McGregor’s return. After McGregor dispatched Cerrone, prompting a series of fighters to call him out in hopes of a payday, White spoke of a big-money grudge match against Nurmagomedov later this year.
But that plan depended on the undefeated Russian defeating Ferguson at UFC 249. The fighters are preparing as if the bout will happen on schedule; both are posting training camp highlights to their Instagram feeds.
“Just lock us in the arena and you will know the champion,” Nurmagomedov said in one recent post.
To ESPN, which made a deal with UFC to sell and stream its fights through ESPN+, White emphasized that he had no long-term plans to cancel events, and had even tried to avoid postponing a welterweight fight between Tyron Woodley and Leon Edwards scheduled for this weekend in London. When it became clear the event could not be staged at the O2 Arena, White said he had secured an arena run by the Citizen Potawatomi Nation outside Oklahoma City and was set to stage a full card.
He said that current CDC guidelines, which discourage gathering in groups of more than 10 people, forced the postponement of Saturday’s event, but he is confident UFC 249 will happen.
“Probably not even going to be in the United States, but this fight’s going to happen,” White said.
UFC officials had not announced a new location as of Wednesday afternoon.
The search for more permissive regulators amid a global pandemic is itself a twist for the UFC.
During the organization’s mid-2000s rise to mainstream prominence, its leadership targeted states with strict combat sports regulations because staging events in places with stringent standards helped legitimize the sport of mixed martial arts. New York was the last major North American jurisdiction to sanction MMA events, so when UFC 205 came to Madison Square Garden in November 2016, the event was seen as a breakthrough.
But with New York regulators canceling the April fight, the UFC is back to searching for a commission comfortable overseeing an event that others won’t allow. Nurmagomedov’s father, Abdulmanap, told reporters in Russia that Dubai was a likely destination for the fight card.
The UFC, like other promoters in mixed martial arts and boxing, has left its long-term plans intact for now, with the support of regulators.
“There’s a chance things could change,” said Dunn, the deputy commissioner for the Nebraska State Athletic Commission. “Maybe by mid-April we’ll be back to business. I’m hoping.”
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines
For all the latest Sports News, download Indian Express App.