A certain something has been missing this week as we build toward UFC 254.
What on paper appears to be one of the most epic fights of all time is slated for the main event Saturday in Abu Dhabi, where undefeated UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov(28-0 MMA, 12-0 UFC) takes on interim titleholder Justin Gaethje (22-2 MMA, 5-2 UFC).
A promotion that bills itself as the Ultimate Fighting Championship is putting on the ultimate fight for a championship between the two best fighters in a division, and the simple idea of finding out who is the better man could very well turn this into the biggest-selling card of the year.
This is the same appeal that got people to start taking notice of boxing sometime during the 19th century. That’s the hook. No gimmicks needed, no Twitter trash talk, no phony hype.
The days leading up to a major fight card are supposed to be where all the madness happens. Story lines build, hype feeds upon itself, controversial quotes take on lives of their own.
If Conor McGregor’s involved, chances are the entire week turns into a three-ring circus. By the time the fighters hit the scales, we’re relieved the nonsense is over, and we can finally look forward to fight night.
That’s been missing this week. And in 2020, that’s a breath of fresh air.
The well has seemed particularly poisoned in recent times. Last month’s UFC 253 main event between Israel Adesanya and Paulo Costa was noteworthy for the buildup in which Costa tried way too hard to be controversial and get under Adesanya’s skin, only to have Adesanya keep his yap shut until fight night, and then engage in a series of crude gestures after he delivered a thorough beating to the pretender of the throne.
That came on the heels of the ugliest display we’ve seen in quite some time. Colby Covington’s matchup with Tyron Woodley at UFC on ESPN+ 36 wasn’t on pay-per-view, but it received attention like an A-list event, and for all the wrong reasons. Covington’s shtick is the sort in which he needs to constantly top himself in order to keep generating headlines. This time around, he trampled whatever lines he had previously blurred and went full-on racist, both toward Woodley before the fight and to Kamaru Usman afterward, delighting the dumbest among us and making anyone who follows the sport and still has a sense of decency embarrassed by association.
By contrast, neither Nurmagomedov nor Gaethje have a history of starting with anyone who doesn’t start with them first. Khabib has made abundantly clear that if you try to come at him, you’ll have an enemy for life, a lesson McGregor learned the hard way at UFC 229. But if you leave him alone, he’ll leave you alone.
Gaethje, meanwhile, has long come off as a happy warrior. If someone tried to manufacture beef with Justin Gaethje, your first thought would be “what’s that guy’s problem.” Gaethje is so allergic to BS that he’s even rebelled against the concept of the interim title itself, acknowledging it as the cheap promotional prop that it is, to the degree that he ditched it mid-photo pose following his Wednesday news conference with Nurmagomedov.
If simple fighting skill minus hype and controversy sold pay-per-views, Demetrious Johnson and Amanda Nunes would have bigger bank accounts than McGregor. But Khabib vs. Gaethje is the exception that proves the rule.
Nurmagomedov, for some reason, doesn’t get the shoutouts on the GOAT short list that others with similar accomplishments routinely receive. A record of 28-0 against the level of competition he’s faced is simply unheard of in this day and age. He’s 12-0 in the UFC, and it’s possible the only thing that keeps Anderson Silva’s record 16 straight wins intact is a decision to retire first.
Gaethje, meanwhile, is a rare breed: a fighter who earns a fan following as an all-action competitor, win or lose, who manages to make the adjustment necessary to jump from post-fight bonus king to world championship caliber, without sacrificing the excitement to get there. He dropped two of his first three UFC fights, all thrilling. Then he went out and won four in a row, culminating the run with a statement one-sided win over Tony Ferguson at UFC 249 and forcing himself into the spot long assumed to be Ferguson’s.
Sometimes these things simply sell themselves. Something has to give. We’re going to tune in and find out. Is it Saturday yet?