U.F.C. heavyweight veteran Stefan Struve, who faces Tai Tuivasa on Saturday’s undercard, is a strolling, punching, kicking file.
At 7 ft, Struve is the tallest competitor in U.F.C. historical past, and the tallest fight sport athlete competing this 12 months. Julius Long, an American heavyweight boxer primarily based in New Zealand whose nickname is the Towering Inferno, stands 7-foot-1 and is listed as lively on the boxing stats database Boxrec, however has not fought since August of 2019.
And, sure, Struve performed one other sport earlier than specializing in blended martial arts.
It was soccer.
Shavkkat Rakhmonov, a 26-year-old from Kazakhstan making his U.F.C. debut, launched himself to Alex Oliveira with a knee strike early within the first spherical. The blow linked to Oliveira’s chest, knocking the fighter nicknamed Cowboy again towards the fence. If it had landed a number of inches increased, it may need hit Oliveira’s chin and ended the struggle immediately.
Later within the spherical Rakhmonov wrapped his legs round Oliveira’s waist, his arm across the Brazilian’s neck and locked in what blended martial artists name a guillotine choke, squeezing till Oliveira tapped to concede the bout.
Rakhmonov entered the struggle as a U.F.C. rookie — the emphatic win over the rugged Oliveira ought to make him a contender.
Da-Un Jung, a hard-punching prospect from South Korea, entered his mild heavyweight bout in opposition to Sam Alvey on a 12-win streak whereas Alvey, a veteran American, had misplaced 4 straight. On paper, a struggle like it is a check for a fighter like Jung — the type that future champions typically go.
But from the opening bell Alvey, a southpaw from Temecula, Calif., beat the closely favored Jung to the punch, peppering him with looping left fingers and proper uppercuts that sneaked between Jung’s gloves and rattled his chin. The second spherical resembled the primary, and Jung entered spherical three showing to want a knockout.
He didn’t get it, however he discovered his vary and rhythm, knocking Alvey woozy with a number of elbow strikes to the draw.
The judges noticed the bout as a split-decision draw — one every favored Jung and Alvey, and the third scored it evenly.
Jung didn’t win, however he’s nonetheless unbeaten in 13 straight.
Alvey didn’t lose, however he’s nonetheless winless in his final 5 fights.
Saturday’s card was scheduled to incorporate a light-weight bout between prospect Islam Makhachev and Rafael dos Anjos, a Brazilian veteran. But dos Anjos examined constructive for the coronavirus earlier than touring to Abu Dhabi from California, the place he lives and trains.
Unable to convey a alternative on brief discover, the U.F.C. pulled the bout from the cardboard.
Makhachev and dos Anjos at the moment are scheduled to fulfill Nov. 14 in Las Vegas.
Nurmagomedov informed reporters this week that he’s targeted solely on his title protection in opposition to Gaethje, however different fights — and different fighters — nonetheless loom closely over Saturday’s foremost occasion.
Tony Ferguson, whom Gaethje defeated to earn a title shot, informed reporters this week that he’d like his long-awaited shot at Nurmagomedov. The two males have been matched up 4 occasions, with every bout canceled for causes starting from a knee damage to the coronavirus pandemic.
On ESPN’s “First Take,” Nurmagomedov grimly rejected a suggestion he struggle Conor McGregor once more.
“Right now, even, I don’t want to talk about this,” he mentioned.
But Nurmagomedov did concede that he’d prefer to face former welterweight champ Georges St.-Pierre, whose 2019 retirement might or will not be everlasting.
Nurmagomedov, 32, is a suffocating strain fighter who dietary supplements his relentless wrestling with well-placed punches and kicks. His 28-Zero file is uncommon in a sport during which the elites are sometimes pushed to struggle prime competitors.
“I know he knows how to wrestle,” Nurmagomedov mentioned of Gaethje. “But what about wrestling for 25 minutes?”
Gaethje, 31, was an All-American wrestler his junior 12 months on the University of Northern Colorado. But as a blended martial artist, he prefers crowd-pleasing, high-impact strikes. Against Nurmagomedov, Gaethje intends to wrestle simply sufficient to maintain the struggle on his phrases, and he has mentioned he didn’t even examine video of Nurmagomedov throughout coaching camp.
“I’m always focused on being my best self,” Gaethje mentioned. “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 circumstances overwhelmed New York City, the U.F.C. started an intensive seek for a brand new web site, with a neighborhood fee snug permitting fights throughout a pandemic. White talked about the opportunity of a non-public island for fighters primarily based exterior the United States, and the U.F.C. additionally hatched a plan to maneuver the Nurmagomedov-Ferguson struggle to an area on Native American tribal land in California.
The card ultimately landed in Jacksonville, Fla., with Gaethje changing Ferguson. And by June the U.F.C. and Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism introduced they might collaborate on a restricted atmosphere on Yas Island, the place the U.F.C. would host 4 occasions over a two-week span in mid-July.
After internet hosting 15 occasions on the Apex, a U.F.C.-owned coaching heart and venue in Las Vegas, in August and September, the corporate returned to Abu Dhabi for 5 extra playing cards, together with Saturday’s fights at U.F.C. 254.
The state of affairs is serviceable — permitting the U.F.C. to stay to its schedule and ship fights for its tv companion, ESPN. And White proudly factors out that the corporate has not needed to lay off workers through the pandemic.
But it isn’t very best for one of many largest fights of the 12 months, particularly when the unique plan concerned filling an N.F.L. stadium.
“If the world comes back to normal, these fights can happen anywhere,” White mentioned. “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 solely twice within the final 24 months, partly due to the pandemic. His most up-to-date win got here by way of a third-round submission by Dustin Poirier in September 2019.
The earlier October, he collared McGregor within the fourth spherical of their grudge match, squeezing McGregor’s neck and jaw till he submitted. After the ultimate bell, Nurmagomedov dived into the viewers to struggle hecklers from McGregor’s entourage, igniting a brawl that obtained each fighters suspended in Nevada.
During Nurmagomedov’s absence, Gaethje’s profile has grown. He stepped in for Nurmagomedov and knocked out Ferguson, incomes the U.F.C.’s interim light-weight title. That assured Gaethje a shot at Nurmagomedov for the undisputed belt.
From a enterprise standpoint, White insists that Nurmagomedov comes with a built-in viewers of paying clients, even when coronavirus restrictions will maintain them from watching in individual.
Nurmagomedov has 22 million followers on Instagram, and White mentioned a current Nurmagomedov video on the U.F.C.’s Facebook web page had amassed greater than 100 million views. He additionally mentioned that Nurmagomedov’s character was probably the most often chosen by on-line gamers of the U.F.C.’s online game.
Though most U.F.C. pay-per-view occasions, no matter the place they happen, happen throughout prime time hours for U.S. viewers, Saturday’s foremost card begins at 2 p.m. Eastern time. That begin time is healthier suited to Nurmagomedov followers in Russia and the Republic of Dagestan, the place he grew up. The pay-per-view may also start at 10 p.m. native time in Abu Dhabi, the place Nurmagomedov defeated Poirier and the place he skilled for this struggle.
“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 mentioned on the information convention this week. “I could just rattle off numbers all day.”