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UFC returns in US, with ‘fight island’ just around the corner

But a fight between Khabib Nurmagomedov – who defeated Conor McGregor – and challenger Tony Ferguson, who are a combined 27-1 in the UFC, was cancelled. The highly-anticipated bout has now been scrapped five times.

But while the first four were for an array of injuries and ailments, it was a global pandemic that thwarted them this time.

“It’s pretty amazing – I’ve never seen anything like it,” White said.

Stepping in: Justin Gaethje will headline the event at short notice.

Stepping in: Justin Gaethje will headline the event at short notice.Credit:AP

Nurmagomedov won’t be at the revamped UFC 249 – travelling from Russia was almost impossible – with the fight card filled with US-based fighters. Ferguson will instead battle Justin Gaethje.

“If you’re not going to do Khabib vs Tony, you do Tony vs Gaethje. It’s the second-best fight you can make,” White said.

Former women’s straw-weight champion Rose Namajunas withdrew from this weekend’s event after two COVID-19-related deaths in her family.

Meanwhile, from the moment the pandemic started and lockdown restrictions increased, White was scheming on how to keep the sport going – one idea floated was setting up a fighting facility on a remote island, allowing international fighters to return to the sport.

It sounded like a fantasy. But White was serious and says it is almost ready to go.

“All the infrastructure [including hotels and training facilities] is being built and set up right now – we’re hoping it will be done mid-June and we can have our first international fights then,” he said.

White hasn’t publicly said where the island will be – and is keeping his cards close to his chest.

“I’ve learned over the past seven weeks the less the media knows, the better.”

White said his original plan was to host events at the UFC’s headquarters in Las Vegas, but that was scuppered.

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“I haven’t been frustrated with the government, but the problem is you’ve got casinos losing billions of dollars right now. How do they say ‘you can open, but the casinos can’t’? They don’t want to tell me yes, and tell them no,” he said.

Most of the fighters arrived in Jacksonville, Florida on Wednesday, and will be tested for COVID-19 multiple times during the build-up to Sunday’s card – the usual production staff has been almost halved, and post-fight interviews will be conducted via a headset, rather than in the ring with announcer Joe Rogan standing next to the fighters.

“I’m trying to keep things as normal as possible, we did this a few weeks ago in Brazil and we didn’t have any problems,” White said.

With people starved for sport, the UFC knows the world will be watching this weekend.

“Obviously, it helps a lot when you have four cancelled cards in a row. But when you think about it, there’s going to be a lot of eyeballs on this event and this card is going to deliver.”

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