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Khabib Nurmagomedov casts doubt on UFC 249 appearance

The UFC’s plans to hold UFC 249 on April 18 have hit another snag.

Lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, scheduled to defend the belt against Tony Ferguson in the main event, said Monday during an Instagram live video that he is in Russia and probably won’t be able to leave because of travel bans in the country.

The event had been scheduled for Brooklyn, New York, but restrictions on nonessential events were going to make that impossible even if no fans were in attendance. UFC president Dana White then wanted to bring the card to the UFC’s production facility in Las Vegas, but similar rules are in place.

White has vowed the show will go on, but he has yet to announce a venue.

Nurmagomedov had been training in San Jose, California, until about March 20, when he decided to relocate to the United Arab Emirates, where his camp thought the fight would take place.

“We were training (in California) without any information regarding the fight — where and how is it going to happen,” he said, according to a translation from RT Sport. “Then the UFC told us that the fight 100 percent isn’t happening in the (U.S.), and they said that 99 percent that it will happen in Abu Dhabi.”

Nurmagomedov said when his team arrived to the United Arab Emirates, it was told that the borders were closing.

“So we had to fly back to Russia,” he said. “Currently I am in Dagestan, and I am training and preparing every day, although I don’t know what am I preparing for, because after we came to Russia, we also learned that the borders are going to be locked, same like in the States, same like in Europe, Emirates — everywhere. The whole world is in quarantine right now.”

The saga of Nurmagomedov and Ferguson is one of the most enigmatic rivalries the sport has seen. This is the fifth time the fight has been booked, with the first four canceled for a variety of reasons.

Ferguson has won 12 straight fights and hasn’t lost since 2012. Nurmagomedov is 28-0 as a professional.

Now their bout is in jeopardy of being called off again, though that wouldn’t necessarily mean the show would be scrapped.

It’s believed the UFC has been looking at sites in the United States, possibly in Florida, to put on the pay-per-view event. That plan might have hit a snag with Florida starting to adopt the type of restrictions other states already have enacted.

Nurmagomedov said he has heard the UFC is making plans to replace him on the card.

“I am not against it,” he said. “I know that fighters need to feed their families and pay their bills. I know how hard it is for the fighter. Unless they fight, they aren’t getting any money.

“I am even hearing that they are looking for an opponent for Tony, because he is in the States and I am here in Russia. But I am here not on my own will. The UFC told me that this fight 100 percent isn’t happening in the USA, and even if it’s not happening in the Emirates, it will happen on this side of (the) Atlantic. We discussed everything with the UFC. By that time, I already spent five weeks of hard training.”

Several fighters said through social media that they would replace Nurmagomedov.

Justin Gaethje has emerged as a favorite should Ferguson remain on the card. Conor McGregor previously guaranteed either Ferguson or Nurmagomedov would pull out of the fight and vowed to step in, but that was before the coronavirus pandemic. He has been one of the most vocal athletes in the world about social distancing and has used his platform to advocate for a full shutdown of his native Ireland. It would be shocking if he now agreed to fight.

White did not respond to a request for comment.

Any delay in the fight would push it back at least several months. Nurmagomedov is a devout Muslim and will not fight during Ramadan or for the ensuing six weeks, at a minimum. The month of prayer and fasting begins April 23.

Contact Adam Hill at ahill@reviewjournal.com. Follow @AdamHillLVRJ on Twitter.

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