Khabib, Tony and the Coronavirus: A Brief and Tragic History

While we all sit at home twiddling our thumbs and googling solo BJJ drills because of the coronavirus, allow me to take you back to April 1st, 2018. Twitter lights up with talk of an injury to one Tony Ferguson. According to sources, the interim lightweight champion had sustained some kind of injury only a few days before his scheduled clash with Khabib Nurmagomedov. Apparently, “El Cucuy” had tripped over a wire doing media obligations for the UFC, tearing his ACL completely off the bone. It would be funny, if it wasn’t so God damned devastating.

Injuries are common in sports, and injuries halting fights mere days before they are scheduled to take place are a hazard we MMA fans are well accustomed to dealing with. This was different though. You see, Khabib Nurmagomedov vs Tony Ferguson is no ordinary fight. The two men were originally meant to lock horns in December of 2015. A rib injury to the Russian put that to a stop, but it was assumed the men would eventually meet.

A second meeting between the two is slated for April 16th, 2016. On April 5th, a lung issue forces Ferguson out of the bout. A year later, they are booked for the 4th March, 2017, this time for the interim lightweight championship. Khabib is hospitalised the day prior because of an atrocious weight cut. Something fishy seems to be going on here.

Fast forward another year. It’s finally going down. Ferguson has the interim belt now, and Khabib has mastered the sweet science of weight cutting. Then April Fool’s day comes around, because this all happens on April Fool’s day. It’s chaos all across social media. MMA Twitter is in meltdown, all because Tony tripped over a God damned wire; the fight is off. It would be funny if it wasn’t completely devastating. This event kicked off one of the single most insane weeks in the history of sports.

Reigning featherweight champion Max Holloway is drafted in to take on Khabib, in an attempt to somehow make something up to the fans with a superfight. His weight cut is halted by the commission the morning of weigh-ins because he presumably looks like a corpse on a fast day. So the UFC has to scramble to bump one of the lightweights already on the card up to the main event.

This wasn’t as difficult as you may imagine, because Conor McGregor and his goons attacked a bus injuring several fighters and taking them off the card. Al Iaquinta had to weigh his underwear and Bob’s your uncle, he’s fighting for the belt. Khabib would go on to win the most disputed undisputed championship in UFC history.

It was a mess, to be sure, but at least the division had a champion. In the wake of this, Dana White said he wouldn’t book Khabib vs Ferguson ever again. I am not a superstitious person, and I do not believe Dana White is a superstitious person, but in light of what happened in New York that week it’s hard to blame him.

Nurmagomedov would go on to defend his belt against McGregor later that year – (and some other stuff happened there but we don’t have time to go into that here) – leaving the path to an ultimate clash of the top two lightweights in Khabib and Tony with no obstacles. Obstacle seemingly manufacture themselves out of thin air when it comes to these pair however.

After the McGregor fight, Khabib jumped the cage to assault Dillon Danis (hard to blame him). This resulted in a lengthy suspension for the champion. So, once again we had to wait. With a surging Dustin Poirier hovering towards the top of the rankings, the UFC decided to make another interim title fight, offering it to Ferguson and Poirier. Poirier said yes. Tony said no. Ok.

The much put upon Max Holloway is once again drafted in. He took on Poirier in a classic slug fest, but came up short to the hard hitting Louisiana native. So Khabib fought Dustin. Well, fought might be the wrong word. The Dagestani mauled Poirier. He kept his belt, and finally, no more obstacles. We would finally find out who the greatest lightweight of all time is, and make no mistake, that is what’s at stake.

Both Khabib and Ferguson are on twelve fight win streaks in the toughest division in mixed martial arts. Plenty of greats have come through the division: BJ Penn, Frankie Edgar, Benson Henderson and Anthony Pettis all had good runs, but no one could produce the kind of longevity that Khabib and Tony have. Now we’re at a point where these two fighters can only fall to one another.

It’s a special matchup, and one that now extends beyond the MMA bubble we all float around in, thanks to Khabib’s star power in the wake of the McGregor campaign. In many minds Nurmagomedov vs Ferguson is the best representation of MMA, the highest level of competition in the sport’s history. For that sprawl out into the mainstream consciousness is a wonderful thing.

So Khabib and Tony are booked again, set for a year after the hell week that was UFC 223, in the same place, Brooklyn, New York. This time was meant to be different. Now was the right time, they’d beaten everyone else between them – Gaethje notwithstanding – and this was it, the fight would happen. Then… a global pandemic hit; a literal pandemic, stopping the world in its tracks.

Coronavirus talk started getting serious in February. We frolicked and made our little jokes, “lol, what if Khabib vs Ferguson is cancelled again because of the coronavirus, lol.” Well, who’s laughing now? No one – no one is laughing. Like Carel Struycken’s character the Giant famously said to Kyle Maclachlan’s Dale Cooper on the cult classic 90s supernatural mystery drama Twin Peaks, “It is happening again”. Over and over again he utters this phrase, and its sting never lessens.

Despite Dana White’s insistence that the fight will go ahead, regardless of literal bans on sporting events, it’s near impossible to believe the fight will happen. Every possible location is slowly being crossed off. Now Khabib is back in Russia, and travel bans are taking hold everywhere. We tried to convince ourselves Khabib and Tony going at it in an empty arena was the purest form of combat, but we didn’t mean it.

Letting go is much harder than holding on, and it’s time to let go. We’re not getting Khabib vs Ferguson this time folks, and that’s for the best. Everyone should stay safe and wait this out. To be honest, I can’t think of a better post-coronavirus celebration than the highest possible expression of unarmed combat that is Khabib vs Ferguson. Stay calm, stay safe, stay indoors, and most importantly, stay pious. We’ll get our supreme violence. You know, it would be funny, if it wasn’t so God Damned devastating.

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