Despite the card eventually being postponed and the circumstances seemingly being out of his control, Khabib Nurmagomedov has faced some criticism for his decision to return to Russia ahead of his scheduled UFC 249 title fight with Tony Ferguson.
The UFC lightweight champion was supposed to meet Ferguson on April 18, but after flying to his home country weeks before the show he had to stay there because of travel restrictions implemented due to the coronavirus pandemic. It was later revealed that UFC 249 was expected to take place in California on tribal grounds, which ruled Nurmagomedov out of the bout. A replacement main event between Ferguson and Justin Gaethje was then announced before the event was officially postponed last Thursday.
UFC 249 was originally booked for the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. However, coronavirus concerns led to restrictions on mass gatherings across the United States, so the location became to-be-announced, leaving Nurmagomedov and the rest of the fighters booked for that card with no clue where they would be fighting on April 18.
Nevertheless, Nurmagomedov’s coach Javier Mendez had a response to the fighter’s critics when asked about the backlash that Nurmagomedov faced for the travel decision that resulted in a fifth cancelled meeting with Ferguson.
“He didn’t choose to sit it out,” Mendez said during a fan Q&A on YouTube. “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. They couldn’t give him a location and then he couldn’t get permission. 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.”
It’s Mendez’s understanding that Nurmagomedov’s trip to Abu Dhabi was cut short, resulting in him returning to Russia, and it wasn’t until COVID-19 precautions further escalated that everyone later realized what this meant for Nurmagomedov’s fight with Ferguson.
Now, it appears that due to Nurmagomedov’s observation of Ramadan and the usual length of his fight camps (Mendez estimates that Nurmagomedov will need 10 weeks to three months to prepare for his next fight) “The Eagle” will not be competing until the fall. And that’s without knowing whether the UFC or any other sports organizations will even be able to return to a regular schedule by then.
“We may see him in August or we may see him in September,” Mendez said. “If it’s August, I believe it’s San Francisco. If it’s September, I believe it’s Abu Dhabi in United Arab Emirates. So yeah, that’s when we’ll see it. One of those.”
Mendez admitted that he feels the matchup with Nurmagomedov and Ferguson is snake-bitten after being called off for a fifth time. Asked how he felt about Ferguson possibly losing to Gaethje, thus setting up a duel between Gaethje and Nurmagomedov, Mendez actually likes the chances of Gaethje making it to fight night better than Ferguson’s given the history between Nurmagomedov and Ferguson.
“If I had my choice I want Gaethje because I want an assurance that we have a fight,” Mendez said. “For that reason and that reason only, because right now I’m not—Yeah, that’s why I would want Gaethje or anybody else other than that one. Only because of what’s happened. And that may change later.”
One thing is for certain and that is that Nurmagomedov is unlikely to face Ferguson on short notice. Even though Nurmagomedov and his team at the American Kickboxing Academy have prepared for Ferguson multiple times over the past few years, Mendez doesn’t think the matchup will require any less care should it be booked a sixth time.
“He’s gonna need the same amount of time to prepare because we have to respect Tony for the great champion that he is,” Mendez said. “If we don’t give him the same time, if not a little bit more, then shame on me. He’ll get the same attention, if not more, because we’ll probably see him fight one more time before we meet him again.
“If that doesn’t happen I’m okay with it just for fear of it not going through because five times? That’s never happened.”