Saturday’s card was scheduled to include a lightweight bout between prospect Islam Makhachev and Rafael dos Anjos, a Brazilian veteran. But dos Anjos tested positive for the coronavirus before traveling to Abu Dhabi from California, where he lives and trains.
Unable to bring a replacement on short notice, the U.F.C. pulled the bout from the card.
Makhachev and dos Anjos are now scheduled to meet Nov. 14 in Las Vegas.
Nurmagomedov told reporters this week that he’s focused only on his title defense against Gaethje, but other fights — and other fighters — still loom heavily over Saturday’s main event.
Tony Ferguson, whom Gaethje defeated to earn a title shot, told reporters this week that he’d like his long-awaited shot at Nurmagomedov. The two men have been matched up four times, with each bout canceled for reasons ranging from a knee injury to the coronavirus pandemic.
On ESPN’s “First Take,” Nurmagomedov grimly rejected a suggestion he fight Conor McGregor again.
“Right now, even, I don’t want to talk about this,” he said.
But Nurmagomedov did concede that he’d like to face former welterweight champ Georges St.-Pierre, whose 2019 retirement may or may not be permanent.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”