At UFC 249, Justin Gaethje cemented his shot at the undisputed lightweight champion when he stopped Tony Ferguson to claim an interim title. Quickly the talk began to center around when champion Gaethje would get his chance to unify the belts with Khabib Nurmagomedov, and September was the targeted date for the UFC. But once again, the coronavirus waylaid the plans of the UFC.
Earlier this month, Khabib’s father and coach, Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, passed away due to complications from COVID-19. It was a stunning loss for the MMA community and one that sparked rumors that Khabib may retire from the sport in response to the tragedy. But speaking with TMZ Sports, Khabib’s manager, Ali Abdelaziz, assured everyone that “The Eagle” will fly again.
“Khabib is not retiring,” Abdelaziz said. “Khabib has some goals, he has some things he wants to accomplish. You will see him before the end of the year. Now him and Dana (are) talking and me talking to the matchmakers and we’ll try to set a date. I’m sure Dana is gonna let everybody know when Khabib is gonna fight.
“We have a blockbuster main event, him versus Justin Gaethje, two of the best lightweights in the world today and the recent era. We see what Khabib does to all his opponents. We see what Justin Gaethje did his last four opponents. He dismantled Tony Ferguson. He made him look like an absolute amateur and that’s the best two guys in the world. They’re gonna fight.”
White actually addressed this topic over the weekend at UFC on Fight Island 2, saying that the UFC was giving Khabib as much time as he needed in light of the tragedy. And given that stance, the UFC has already seemingly moved on from the targeted September date, having replaced the rumored lightweight title fight with a middleweight one between Israel Adesanya and Paulo Costa. It’s unlikely the UFC would put two of their biggest stars on one event, meaning Khabib’s next title defense will be pushed back to later in the year. The indeterminate timeline for Khabib could, in theory, open up the possibility for another fight for Gaethje in the interim, perhaps against Conor McGregor, however, Abdelaziz, who also manages the interim champion, says this is not going to happen.
“Listen, we dictate this,” Abdelaziz said. “Conor right now he can be a backup fighter, he can go make weight, and he can maybe make some money, but at the end of the day, that’s the two champions. He’s not even number three. He’s number four or five. Conor can go fight Nate (Diaz) or (Jorge) Masvidal. We’re not interested in fighting him. He needs to get some wins and he needs to fight some good opponents.”
All of this means that, for the time being, the UFC lightweight division is on hold, which pales in comparison to the champion’s current personal struggles. But while circumstances like this could have derailed the undefeated champion’s career, Abdelaziz insists that when Khabib comes back, he will only further cement himself as one of the greatest ever.
“Khabib is a different breed too,” Abdelaziz said. “Of course, he’s heartbroken. It’s his father, it’s his mentor, it’s his best friend, but at the end of the day, Khabib’s father had a legacy he wanted Khabib to accomplish. Khabib is a living legend and that’s where legend comes from, legends come from adversity, from death, from a lot of things. And that’s what Khabib does. He comes back from back surgery, from ACL surgery, from the death of his father. He’s gonna fight Justin Gaethje and they’re gonna put on a great display of martial arts, and we are the winners. The fans are the winners, the promotion are the winners. It’s gonna be a blockbuster fight card, for sure.”