Written by Chris Kubala
The UFC made its triumphant return on Saturday with UFC 249 taking place in Jacksonville after being out of action for more than two months along with the rest of pro sports. As it turned out, there are reports that there were more than 700,000 buys on ESPN+ for the card. According to Dana White, that was more than any card in the last several months other than UFC 246, headlined by a bout with the returning Conor McGregor. Now, on the heels of that success and with events taking place on Wednesday and Saturday this week, White is already looking toward the next big fight or fights to promote.
In a report that came out Tuesday, White announced that he’s looking to have the lightweight unification title bout between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Justin Gaethje to take place later this summer on Fight Island. He also stated that he expects Fight Island to be finished next month and that the contest between the two champions could take place shortly after that. In his interview with ESPN 1000 Chicago, White had the following to say:
"I don't know if it will be the first one, but it will be on Fight Island, unless miraculously the world comes back together faster than I think it's gonna.” Regarding Fight Island, he added “Hopefully it will be done by mid-June, and I could put on a fight that weekend that it's done or end of June."
Gaethje stepped in for Nurmagomedov for UFC 249 when the champ flew home to Dagestan, Russia after the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States. He currently is still there and is observing the holy month of Ramadan, which runs through May 23. Prior to the original UFC 249 date, which was at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn on April 18, Nurmagomedov told ESPN that he’d need at least 45 days after Ramadan to train properly and get back up to speed. That would put his earliest fight in early to mid-July at best, if not later.
Gaethje won the interim lightweight belt by battering Tony Ferguson and snapping his 12-match win streak. He prevailed by TKO at 3:39 of the fifth round when referee Herb Dean stopped the fight. Ferguson sustained a fractured orbital bone and is one of a slew of fighters from the card who are facing suspension from their injuries sustained Saturday. Eight different fighters are facing potential 180-day suspensions that could be shorter or longer depending on when they are cleared by a physician. The minimum suspension for those individuals is 30 days with the exceptions of Calvin Kattar and Niko Price, who are out a minimum of 60 days.
Before Gaethje gets a shot at Nurmagomedov however, he may have to deal with another big name in the octagon. McGregor, who hasn’t fought since pounding Donald Cerrone in a TKO win at the 40 second mark of the opening round at UFC 246 back in January, has called out Gaethje. In a Twitter rant on Monday, McGregor demanded a shot at Gaethje in a rant that was laced with expletives:
"The fans make the sport! Watching the other night, I was against going in without them. But it will be my f---ing pleasure to display the power I possess with zero background noise for them. It's me and Justin next as khabib is the biggest bottle fighter in the game. Guarantee it. Justin, there is no danger in a man that hugs legs, we all know. Try and dance around what the real threat is here all you want. I am going to f---ing butcher you. Your teeth. I'm going to put them on a f---ing necklace. Speak on my skills as a father? You are f---ing dead."
It marks a quick turnaround for McGregor, who didn’t want to fight without fans leading into UFC 249. Now, he’s ready to step back in the octagon and deliver a message. It seems unlikely that the UFC would delay the unification title bout between Gaethje and Nurmagomedov. A more likely initial fight for McGregor upon his return would be a battle with Nate Diaz, marking the third time that pairing would take place. Perhaps then, McGregor could get a shot at Gaethje, depending on how things play out.
One thing is for sure: it’s an interesting time in the UFC on many levels. As for what comes next, no one is certain. Buckle up and enjoy the ride.