Dana White: Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Justin Gaethje likely to headline Abu Dhabi card after ‘Fight Island’

After an initial run of “Fight Island” events in Abu Dhabi, UFC President Dana White expects a title unifier between champ Khabib Nurmagomedov and interim champ Justin Gaethje to headline the promotion’s return to the United Arab Emirates later this year.

White didn’t put a timeline on the fight, though a report from Brazilian MMA website Combate identified Sept. 19 as the date to host the title fight for the pay-per-view UFC 253. The report states the fight is in the works and is not yet confirmed.

The UFC struck a five-year deal with the UAE to promote events before the coronavirus pandemic put a serious crimp in the sports schedule. “Fight Island” was conceived as a workaround to travel bans that prevent international fighters from entering the U.S., and the promotion on July 11 heads to Yas Island, site of three previous events, to begin a two-week residency.

“We owe them [fights],” White told reporters after the official UFC on ESPN 10 weigh-ins. Asked if Nurmagomedov vs. Gaethje is the “frontrunner” for the UFC’s return, he responded “yes.”

White said the promotion with a variety of hosts for “Fight Island,” but ultimately chose Yas Island for its infrastructure and smiled at the idea of promoting events on an actual beach.

“You couldn’t put the lighting grid on a beach,” he said. “You could try it – I don’t think it’s going to turn out very well. I’m afraid of the elements – wind, rain, all the things that could happen. I’m into the comfort and safety of an arena and pulling off a perfect show.

“Pulling off the fantasy of ‘Fight Island’ is pretty tough, and I think it would look like sh*t on TV, too.”

Nurmagomedov’s most recent fight took place in the UAE for UFC 242, and it was also a title unifier. The undefeated Dagestani submitted then-interim champ Dustin Poirier to unify the belt. He was scheduled to take on longtime rival Tony Ferguson at UFC 249 before the global pandemic reportedly stranded him in his native country, and Gaejthe went on to defeat Ferguson to cut the lightweight title line.

White previously has said Nurmagomedov is committed to returning in September, further aligning with a potential Sept. 19 timeline.