Entering this year, the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s brain trust figured that 2020 would climax with a blockbuster rematch between the outlandish Irish star Conor McGregor and the undefeated lightweight champion, Khabib Nurmagomedov.
After McGregor’s 40-second dismantling of Donald Cerrone in January, Dana White, the U.F.C.’s president, spoke openly about matching McGregor against Nurmagomedov again, but in a venue befitting the fight’s appeal. White mentioned the O2 Arena in London and AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, as possible destinations, provided Nurmagomedov defeated Tony Ferguson in a title fight that was scheduled for April in Brooklyn.
Then the coronavirus pandemic scrambled those plans (and the rest of the sports world).
The April event was postponed, and its featured fight restructured when pandemic restrictions kept Nurmagomedov from traveling to the United States from Russia. Ferguson then lost over five punishing rounds in May to Justin Gaethje, a hard-hitting lightweight from Colorado.
Now the biggest U.F.C. bout of the year will pit Nurmagomedov against Gaethje on Saturday, on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi, in front of officials and a broadcast crew, but without spectators or revenue from ticket sales.
Yet White won’t categorize Saturday’s main event as a consolation prize for a Nurmagomedov-McGregor rematch that has not yet materialized. Instead, he calls the fight a potential record breaker and the high point in a trying year.
“You have all the ingredients for a massive fight,” White said this week. “This thing is tracking to be the biggest fight we’ve ever done.”
What makes White so confident that a matchup that wasn’t on the radar at the start of this year will be so appealing to fans?
The fighters’ styles, for one thing.
Nurmagomedov, 32, is a suffocating pressure fighter who supplements his relentless wrestling with well-placed punches and kicks. His 28-0 record is rare in a sport in which the elites are often pushed to fight top competition.
“I know he knows how to wrestle,” Nurmagomedov said of Gaethje. “But what about wrestling for 25 minutes?”
Gaethje, 31, was an All-American wrestler his junior year at the University of Northern Colorado. But as a mixed martial artist, he prefers crowd-pleasing, high-impact strikes. Against Nurmagomedov, Gaethje intends to wrestle just enough to keep the fight on his terms, and he has said he didn’t even study video of Nurmagomedov during training camp.
“I’m always focused on being my best self,” Gaethje said. “I will not allow him to put me on the fence. If I do, then I’m screwed.”
The path to Yas Island has been fraught — for fighters and the U.F.C.
When the New York State Athletic Commission refused to approve Nurmagomedov-Ferguson in April, as coronavirus cases overwhelmed New York City, the U.F.C. began an intensive search for a new site, with a local commission comfortable allowing fights during a pandemic. White mentioned the possibility of a private island for fighters based outside the United States, and the U.F.C. also hatched a plan to move the Nurmagomedov-Ferguson fight to an arena on Native American tribal land in California.
The card eventually landed in Jacksonville, Fla., with Gaethje replacing Ferguson. And by June the U.F.C. and Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism announced they would collaborate on a restricted environment on Yas Island, where the U.F.C. would host four events over a two-week span in mid-July.
After hosting 15 events at the Apex, a U.F.C.-owned training center and venue in Las Vegas, in August and September, the company returned to Abu Dhabi for five more cards, including Saturday’s fights at U.F.C. 254.
The situation is serviceable — allowing the U.F.C. to stick to its schedule and deliver fights for its television partner, ESPN. And White proudly points out that the company has not had to lay off employees during the pandemic.
But it is not ideal for one of the biggest fights of the year, especially when the original plan involved filling an N.F.L. stadium.
“If the world comes back to normal, these fights can happen anywhere,” White said. “This was, without a doubt, the most challenging year of my career, but it has also been the most rewarding.”
Saturday’s fight takes place at a key time for Nurmagomedov.
Nurmagomedov, the U.F.C.’s 155-pound champion, has competed only twice in the last 24 months, partly because of the pandemic. His most recent win came through a third-round submission by Dustin Poirier in September 2019.
The previous October, he collared McGregor in the fourth round of their grudge match, squeezing McGregor’s neck and jaw until he submitted. After the final bell, Nurmagomedov dived into the audience to fight hecklers from McGregor’s entourage, igniting a brawl that got both fighters suspended in Nevada.
During Nurmagomedov’s absence, Gaethje’s profile has grown. He stepped in for Nurmagomedov and knocked out Ferguson, earning the U.F.C.’s interim lightweight title. That guaranteed Gaethje a shot at Nurmagomedov for the undisputed belt.
The fight has an unusual start time.
From a business standpoint, White insists that Nurmagomedov comes with a built-in audience of paying customers, even if coronavirus restrictions will keep them from watching in person.
Nurmagomedov has 22 million followers on Instagram, and White said a recent Nurmagomedov video on the U.F.C.’s Facebook page had accumulated more than 100 million views. He also said that Nurmagomedov’s character was the most frequently selected by online players of the U.F.C.’s video game.
Though most U.F.C. pay-per-view events, regardless of where they occur, take place during prime time hours for U.S. viewers, Saturday’s main card begins at 2 p.m. Eastern time. That start time is better suited to Nurmagomedov fans in Russia and the Republic of Dagestan, where he grew up. The pay-per-view will also begin at 10 p.m. local time in Abu Dhabi, where Nurmagomedov defeated Poirier and where he trained for this fight.
“Apparently, people in the business don’t know this, but Khabib is one of the biggest stars in sport, not just the U.F.C.,” White said at the news conference this week. “I could just rattle off numbers all day.”