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Khabib Nurmagomedov’s measured decision to skip UFC 249 is totally justified

For the fifth time, a planned match between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson has fallen through. UFC matchmakers tried to book them when they were rising lightweight contenders on the way up. They tried to book them for the interim UFC championship. They tried to book them for the lineal UFC championship. Still, a fight between them has yet to materialize. The issues separating them have gone like this: rib injury, pulmonary edema, botched weight cut, freak knee injury caused by television cable, worldwide pandemic. The barriers have gotten progressively stranger to the point you wonder if another attempt at matching them up may inadvertently launch World War III.

Up until today, the UFC had tried to move heaven and earth to make the UFC 249 main event happen. Even after almost every U.S. state that sanctions combat sports has closed up shop amid guidance from infectious disease experts and the federal government advocating social distancing, the promotion looked at arenas run on sovereign Native American tribal land as well as other global locations that don’t bog down events with pesky regulations. But as the clock ticked away with nothing concrete, Nurmagomedov bowed out, announcing his decision on social media Wednesday afternoon.

Nurmagomedov cited the uncertainty of the event’s execution as well as the danger to public health as determining factors in drawing a perfectly rational conclusion. Of course, he faced immediate backlash from critics who have stridently backed UFC president Dana White’s obsession that the show must go on, critics who now believe that Nurmagomedov should be stripped of his title.

Stripped of his title for declining to fight in one of the most disruptive, deadly outbreaks in the last century! This is what we’re dealing with, simpletons whose humanity has been rotted out by selfishness.

“The greatest countries and the largest companies of our time are shocked by what is happening, every day the situation changes unpredictably,” Nurmagomedov wrote in his Instagram post. “But Khabib still has to fight, is that what you (sic) saying? Take care of yourself and put yourself in my shoes.”

The problem is, too few people are willing to do that. They are unwilling or unable to take an empathetic approach toward anyone beyond the tips of their noses. Yes, the world would love to see live sports and entertainment options start up again, but none of that should come at the potential expense of other lives.

COVID-19 is not “just the flu,” as science deniers continually claim. The virus is stealthy, easily transmissible and far more deadly than the common flu, with fatality rates currently at 2.16 percent in the U.S., and five percent worldwide. To boot, on Tuesday, President Donald Trump acknowledged that U.S. deaths from coronavirus could reach 100,000, far exceeding the 34,000 that died from the flu in the 2018-19 flu season.

Over the last few weeks, White has been insistent that the fighters have overwhelmingly told him they want to fight, and while I fully believe that many are willing to compete, that does not cover the full picture. If you asked fighters whether they want to fight or they want to get paid, I would bet that the numbers would change significantly. Most people want to continue providing for their families, but not at the expense of their own health, or not if they are putting loved ones at risk. For most, there is simply no alternative. If they don’t fight, they don’t get paid. Nurmagomedov, a rare MMA fighter who has banked a small fortune, does not have such pressures, making it easier for him to speak more candidly than his colleagues.

At a time when many company leaders are sacrificing their own salaries and finding creative ways to retain workers, the UFC has gone in the exact opposite direction by putting the onus on its fighters to be the responsible ones and say no.

While it is true that most athletes are fit enough to survive the coronavirus, there are other factors that should be taken into account. One is the the strain of the medical community. Keep in mind that throughout the world, elective surgeries are being canceled so hospitals can brace for continuing waves of coronavirus patients. In nearly every MMA event, there are fighters that are transported to local hospitals to receive treatment. With coronavirus cases expected to spike in the next two or three weeks in many parts of the world (including the U.S.), the UFC is potentially putting its fighters in a dangerous spot as well as placing overwhelmed emergency rooms in the position of diverting precious resources to athletes injured in frivolous activity.

Another is training. No matter whether you want to see Nurmagomedov and Ferguson go at it on April 18 or not, you should readily admit this is not well set up for optimal performances. Nurmagomedov started his camp at American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, but the gym was eventually shut down, only allowing Nurmagomedov to conclude his camp with minimal training partners. Concerned about the fight’s uncertainty, he traveled to the United Arab Emirates, but when that country announced it would close its borders, Nurmagomedov returned home to Dagestan where he waited for instructions that never came. Does that sound like ideal fight preparation? Doesn’t this fight deserve better?

If we were using common sense, it would be an easy decision to delay this, but we’re not. It’s all about money, and so the UFC’s vision is clouded. And thus, Nurmagomedov’s viewpoint is a necessary perspective in a sobering situation. He is right. The world does not need cage fights at the moment. It needs empathy, humanity and understanding. With his decision not to fight, Nurmagomedov set a path for his bosses to follow.

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