Despite the UFC pulling out all the stops to try to make it happen, UFC 249 will no longer happen April 18.
On Thursday, UFC president Dana White told ESPN's Brett Okamoto that the card is off and all UFC events are postponed indefinitely due to the COVID-19 global pandemic.
The main event was initially supposed to be Khabib Nurmagomedov defending his UFC lightweight title against Tony Ferguson in Brooklyn, but the coronavirus forced the event out of New York and Nurmagomedov got stuck in Russia due to travel restrictions.
The backup plan was Ferguson taking on Justin Gaethje for the interim lightweight title at Tachi Palace Casino Resort in Lemoore, California. The venue is on Native American, sovereign land, and therefore didn't have to abide by the state's regulations. But Thursday, the UFC pulled the plug, White said, due to intervention from the "highest level you can go at Disney, and the highest level at ESPN."
ESPN said in a statement: "ESPN has been in constant contact with the UFC regarding UFC 249. Nobody wants to see sports return more than we do, but we didn't feel this was the right time for a variety of reasons. ESPN expressed its concerns to the UFC and they understood."
With UFC 249 off and no events happening for at least several weeks, ESPN insiders Brett Okamoto, Jeff Wagenheim and Marc Raimondi take a look at what could be next for Ferguson, Gaethje and the UFC in general.
What should the UFC do with Tony Ferguson?
Okamoto: Pay him some compensation for a camp that began back in December, and a willingness to move on to Justin Gaethje when Khabib Nurmagomedov became unavailable. Then promote him during this downtime, encourage people to watch his fights, get to know him, see what an entertaining and talented fighter he is. And then book that man to a championship fight against Nurmagomedov for the sixth time. Because nobody likes a quitter. We can't quit on this matchup.
Raimondi: It really depends on how quickly the UFC will get back up and running. Could it be May? June? Normally, I'd say Khabib Nurmagomedov should be the opponent. It's possible no one has deserved a title shot more in UFC history and not gotten one than Ferguson, who has not lost since 2012. Just think about that!
But, on the other hand, Nurmagomedov is unlikely to fight until August or September, after he takes ample time to get ready following Ramadan, which begins in two weeks. Will Ferguson want to wait until late summer or early fall? If so, then absolutely he must get a chance at the lightweight belt against Nurmagomedov. If he doesn't want to wait, then let's bring Ferguson and Gaethje to "Fight Island."
Wagenheim: Pay the man, first of all. He didn't flinch when his opponent changed from smothering grappler to thunder-fisted KO artist -- and who among us wouldn't flinch when confronted by Justin Gaethje? The UFC owes Ferguson big-time for saving the UFC 249 card, if only temporarily. Moving forward, Ferguson's near future depends upon the UFC's near future. If the fights resume on some private island within the coming weeks or even the next couple of months, the UFC can resurrect Ferguson vs. Gaethje. But if this delay goes well beyond Ramadan and Nurmagomedov is ready to return, then it's got to be Khabib vs. Tony. Sixth time is the charm.
What about Justin Gaethje? Does he get some sort of title shot?
Okamoto: Unfortunately, probably not. I mean, at least not the next one. The reality is that Gaethje is the second-most deserving lightweight for a title shot, right after Ferguson. He deserves to fight the winner of Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson, but everyone knows there is a 5,000-pound gorilla in the room by the name of Conor McGregor. Maybe McGregor will agree to face Gaethje. Or, because Nurmagomedov and Ferguson won't happen until August at the earliest, maybe McGregor will sit back and wait. Gaethje might get the short end of the stick on this one, unfortunately.
Raimondi: The chips will likely fall for Gaethje depending on what the UFC decides to do next with Nurmagomedov and Ferguson. If Ferguson decides to wait for Nurmagomedov's return in August or September, then Gaethje's next opponent should be clear: the one and only Conor McGregor. McGregor vs. Gaethje is the bout the UFC was contemplating for summer before the whole coronavirus pandemic changed everyone's plans. That should certainly be revisited, as it is a coherent path -- for McGregor or Gaethje -- to a title shot.
In the event that Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson is not the direction the UFC goes, then you can slot Gaethje in against Ferguson, which was the short-notice plan for UFC 249. McGregor would obviously be the most attractive opponent for Gaethje, especially given the payday, but who wouldn't want to see Ferguson vs. Gaethje where both get full camps? That's a potential fight of the century.
Wagenheim: If the UFC resumes before Khabib is ready to return, Ferguson vs. Gaethje should be right back in play. If he ends up as the odd man out when the champ returns to face Ferguson, Gaethje could secure a title shot of his own by stepping in the cage with another candidate for a championship bout -- McGregor. Gaethje could also earn some nice pocket change with that booking. Which reminds me -- just like Ferguson, Gaethje deserves a payday from the UFC too for being the other UFC 249 savior.
What's the one fight from UFC 249 that must stay together whenever fights resume?
Okamoto: It has to be the strawweight matchup between Rose Namajunas and Jessica Andrade. Namajunas' manager Brian Butler released a statement on Thursday saying Namajunas wouldn't compete at UFC 249 due to two deaths in her family related to COVID-19. My heart goes out to Namajunas and who knows when she will want to resume her career. But if she's ready whenever the UFC is ready, that's a marquee fight. Rematch. Title implications. All of it.
Raimondi: I'd vote for Namajunas vs. Andrade. First of all, how compelling has matchmaker Mick Maynard made the UFC's women's strawweight division? Champion Zhang Weili vs. Joanna Jedrzejczyk just had one of the greatest fights in UFC history last month. Namajunas has beaten Jedrzejczyk twice, only to lose the belt -- via incredible slam knockout -- to Andrade last June. Then, Zhang stopped Andrade by TKO two months later to take the title.
Every one of those matchups is can't-miss and there is no shortage of interesting contenders for Zhang. And we haven't even brought up Tatiana Suarez, who once seemed like the heir apparent at 115 pounds before a neck injury sidelined her. Namajunas vs. Andrade would be an amazing rematch -- Namajunas was winning until the slam -- and a title eliminator. It was terrific matchmaking and should be rebooked once Namajunas is able to get back in the Octagon.
Wagenheim: The fight I'm most married to is the one that was canceled on Wednesday, and my deep condolences to Namajunas, who dropped out of her strawweight co-main event against Andrade because of two deaths in her family related to the coronavirus. Rose should take all the time she needs to mourn, obviously, but when Namajunas is ready to come back, whenever that is, Andrade should be there waiting for her. They're both former champions, and Andrade was the one who dethroned Namajunas last year -- in a bout Rose was clearly winning (until she wasn't).
There's intrigue in this rematch, not the least of which is that the winner should be the next challenger for Zhang Weili. There were two other No. 1 contender fights booked for UFC 249, but this was the only one that was irreplaceable.
Assuming that the fights don't resume for a few more weeks, what is your No. 1 question for the second half of the year?
Okamoto: Right now, it feels like: Will Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson actually fight? It's all we've thought about for months and then, once again, it didn't happen. In heartbreaking fashion.
Beyond that though, and honestly, more importantly, how many events will the UFC really be able to pull off? White told me he still wants to put on the original number of events scheduled for 2020, which is 42. Will that happen? What will that kind of frenzied schedule look like, and how will it impact matchmaking?
And like many others, I really wonder what will the new normal even look like? If things get back "to normal" for the UFC in the second half, what happens to the live audiences? What precautions for this virus will remain in place?
Raimondi: What does the UFC's schedule look like? How will the fights be organized? Where will fights be placed? Will fans be in the stands? OK, that's more than one question.
Let's start with the first thought. UFC president Dana White said that the plan is to still run 42 events this year. The UFC already has eight done in 2020. That leaves 34 more with 37 weeks remaining. And no one knows when the UFC will be back up and running. Just by doing the math, it seems like we're talking about two events in a given week late in 2020. Maybe three? There will be plenty of fighters who want to compete, so that should not be a problem.
How cool would back-to-back-to-back days of events -- all with huge fights -- be? It's definitely something to look forward to later this year. Fingers crossed.
Wagenheim: So much is up in the air right now that it feels silly to speculate on specifics. Instead, my question will be philosophical: Once the UFC resumes, will the focus be on presenting stacked mega-cards to make a big splash and draw fans back in, or will the big fights be spread out, perhaps week after week, to get the revenue flow churning along? Will title fights and bouts leading to title fights be the focus, or will the UFC veer in the direction of fun fights and outside-the-box matchmaking?