Dana White has been promising that the UFC 249 fight card would still be coming to us live on Saturday, April 18, despite the growing threat of the coronavirus pandemic that has shut down much of the sports and entertainment world. White has delivered on that promise as the UFC president announced on Twitter on Monday that the not only will the card still run as planned, but it will be headlined by an interim lightweight championship fight between Tony Ferguson and Justin Gaethje.
UFC 249 was originally slated to feature Ferguson challenging undisputed lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov in a matchup five years in the making at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Those plans were halted, however, as Nurmagomedov flew back, leaving his training camp in San Jose, California behind as nations around the world tightened borders on travel.
With large gathering restrictions in place across the United States — and the world — the location of the closed-doors event has been one of the biggest questions regarding White’s insistence that “the show must go on.” When White tweeted out the announcement, his only hint of a location was no hint at all, saying the fight would happen “somewhere on Earth” and air on ESPN+ pay-per-view. ESPN’s Ariel Helwani previously reported the UFC was looking to hold the event somewhere on the west coast of the U.S.
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Gaethje is riding a three-fight winning streak, with all three victories coming by knockout in the first round. He has been positioned as one of the top contenders for the lightweight title but has been behind Ferguson and Conor McGregor in the UFC’s plans. White has expressed frustration with Gaethje for turning down other fights he felt would jeopardize his place in the division. With Nurmagomedov out and McGregor not in the picture as he urges his Irish countrymen to maintain social distancing, he has backdoored his way to a title shot in the most unique situation in UFC history.
Ferguson has now been matched with Nurmagomedov five times only to see the bout fall through each time. During that time, “El Cucuy” has gone on a 12-fight winning streak to position himself firmly as the No. 2 lightweight on the planet. He previously won the interim crown in a bout with Kevin Lee in October 2017. He was then stripped of that title after suffering a freak knee injury the week before he was scheduled to face Nurmagomedov for the fourth time in 2018.
Nurmagomedov’s return to Russia irked Ferguson, leading him to claim the champ was running from him. Rather than wait on the sidelines for his opportunity — which may not come until much later in the year with Nurmagomedov’s normal layoff during Ramadan — he accepted the bout with Gaethje to earn a title belt.
It is unclear what the rest of the fight card will look like. Rose Namajunas vs. Jessica Andrade II was expected to take place as the co-main event. Plus, Calvin Kattar vs. Jeremy Stephens as a featured bout. But with so much travel up in the air and plenty of fights canceled over the past fews weeks that could be rebooked, anything is possible at this point for a fight card scheduled to happen in 12 days.