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Inside UFC's mad scramble to salvage UFC 279 after Khamzat Chimaev's bad weight miss

LAS VEGAS — UFC president Dana White said he never thought he’d be challenged professionally the way he was as he tried to navigate the company through the COVD-19 crisis in 2020. The UFC was the first major sports franchise to return to competition after the pandemic began.

Then, Thursday and Friday happened and, well, White had another story to add to his book.

“This was kind of like COVID all over again all in one day,” White said, laughing, just moments before jumping on stage for the ceremonial weigh-ins for UFC 279 at T-Mobile Arena.

When White awakened on Friday, the main event was a welterweight bout between Nate Diaz and Khamzat Chimaev. Tony Ferguson was scheduled to meet Li Jingliang in the co-main event and Daniel Rodriguez was to meet Kevin Holland in a catchweight bout with a limit of 180 pounds.

On the undercard, Chris Barnett missed the heavyweight limit of 266 and came in at 267.5 for his fight with Jake Collier. Then, Hakeem Dawodu was 149.5 pounds, 3.5 pounds over the 146-pound limit for his featherweight bout with Julian Erosa. None of that, though, impacted White too much. But when Chimaev hit the scales at 178.5, White was in for one of his most difficult days. His target was 171, and he missed by 7.5 pounds.

After much angst, the card was changed and Diaz and Ferguson will meet in the main event. Holland and Chimaev will face off in the co-main event, which will also be five rounds, and Jingliang and Rodriguez will meet in the third fight down.

Complicating matters for White on Friday was the incident that occurred at the MGM Grand Thursday at the final pre-fight news conference. A brawl broke out backstage that began between Chimaev and Holland. Eventually, White said all six fighters began brawling and there were fights throughout the backstage area. A lack of security made it difficult to get things under control and led to the cancellation of the news conference.

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But when Chimaev was over by so much on Friday, it was up to Diaz whether he wanted to face him. Diaz, who has said this will likely be his final UFC bout, had all the cards since he made weight. He elected not to fight Chimaev, who has competed at 185, with such a weight disadvantage.

“We had everybody at [Apex, where the weigh-ins were held] and when that happened, ideally, we could have gone backstage and gotten this worked out right away,” White told Yahoo Sports. “But we didn’t get this done until 3 o’clock [Pacific time]. Guys had beefs with each other and there was a lot of things going on, so it took time to work things out.”

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - SEPTEMBER 09: (L-R) Opponents Nate Diaz and Tony Ferguson face off during the UFC 279 ceremonial weigh-in at MGM Grand Garden Arena on September 09, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Nate Diaz will instead face Tony Ferguson in the main event of UFC 279 after Khamzat Chimaev missed weight for their welterweight bout. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

But the six main fighters all agreed to compete. Jingliang has an 8.5-pound weight-disadvantage yet he still opted to take the fight with Rodriguez. Ferguson had long wanted to fight Diaz, and Chimaev and Holland had weighed in within a pound of each other.

“The thing at the press conference started between those two,” White said of Chimaev and Holland. “And so it made sense to see if we could work that out.”

Holland, who had made weight for his originally scheduled fight with Rodriguez, posted a video on social media saying he wouldn’t fight Chimaev unless it was five rounds and in the main event. He got the five-rounder, but not the main event, and that was good enough for him to sign.

Asked at the ceremonial weigh-in if the match against Chimaev was better for him, Holland had a great response.

“F*** no, but it’s going to be a fun one,” he said.

Chimaev was roundly booed and gave the crowd at the weigh-in a double bird when he was interviewed.

Ferguson, though, seemed to summarize the feelings of most fans when he said, “Grab your popcorn and blue slushies, motherf***ers, because we’re going to have some fun.”

For White, it wasn’t so much fun on Friday. He raved about the work that Hunter Campbell, the UFC’s chief business officer did, working on the contracts and the details done.

“Hunter was a stud, man, believe me,” White said.

But so, too, were the fighters, who all agreed to take on new opponents with no training for them.

White said because each of them had specific demands, it took a while to negotiate things but that it was obvious from the early moments what should have been done.

“When you look at where we were, and with what Khamzat weighed, the fights almost made themselves,” White said. “It was just going through it with each of them and getting everything taken care of. But Tony and Nate have been around for a long time and people have wanted to see that fight forever. As I said, Kevin and Khamzat had beef and they got the thing at the press conference going, and they weighed about the same, so that made sense. And 'The Leech' [Jingliang], what a f***ing stud that kid is. Man, he didn’t care. He just wanted to fight.”