A lot has changed in nine years. The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) makes a long-awaited return to the UAE this year with the world’s premier mixed martial arts (MMA) promotion once again showcasing its finest talents in Abu Dhabi on September 7.
The event – widely anticipated to be headlined by a lightweight unification clash between champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and interim-champ Dustin Poirier – marks the beginning of a new era for MMA in the UAE as UFC 242 kicks off a five-year deal with the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi (DCT Abu Dhabi).
Much has changed for both country and company. Granted, a smaller-scale Fight Night card was hosted in 2014, but it has been nearly a decade since a championship fight was held in the region following the middleweight and lightweight title contest double header of UFC 112.
And since the last and only pay-per view card to be hosted here back in April 2010, the promotion was sold for $4 billion, has witnessed the emergence and subsequent retirements of iconic superstars plus has created new divisions, championship belts and fighter kits.
TV rights were recently sold to the prestigious ESPN and thanks to the exponential growth of the UFC, MMA is now one of the biggest players in world sport.
It has entered new markets across the globe and is re-entering others, which is where Abu Dhabi comes in.
Similar to the UFC, the UAE capital has also developed, matured and expanded its portfolio of events.
The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is an enormous success story and has become the jewel of the Formula One calendar. The FIFA Club World Cup and Red Bull Air Race are two other diamonds which have sparkled on these shores and there are a myriad more.
Indeed, Abu Dhabi is now firmly established as a unique tourist destination which offers a diverse mix of activities and initiatives that cater to all audiences and visitors.
In a bid to further enhance Abu Dhabi’s reputation as a hub for sport, the Advantage Abu Dhabi Events Fund was created last year to boost the events sector.
Soon after its creation, the Abu Dhabi Events Bureau negotiated and then sealed a five-year deal with the UFC in Q1 for 2019.
And so the capital gets ready to once again host a world class event. The venue is still to be decided but it will most likely require a bespoke built indoor arena with a capacity of up to 16,000.
“Although we don’t yet have an arena that accommodates the capacity of such a mega event and its huge number of spectators, DCT Abu Dhabi is committed to building an arena for this event which can give the international event experience to UAE’s spectators,” said Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, chairman, DCT Abu Dhabi.
“We are regularly contacting and meeting the UFC team from Las Vegas to review the technical requirements and to integrate them into our plans.
“Our flagship arena development is on-track and we are set to hand it over to the UFC’s team in August, ahead of the event.”
Currently there is just one active Emirati professional MMA fighter, Mohammad Yahya. But there is huge hope and expectation that the UFC’s fresh footprint can create a path for more to follow.
Add in the natural transition from one of the country’s most loved and treasured sports – jiu-jitsu – and it makes sense to imagine a pool of talent soon emerging from the UAE.
“In the past few years, martial arts, and jiu-jitsu in particular, have become an official government project in Abu Dhabi, advocated by members of the Ruling Family, and led passionately by Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who is an advocate of the sport and a professional jiu-jitsu athlete,” added Al Mubarak.
“Sheikh Tahnoun fell in love with jiu-jitsu during the first Ultimate Fighting Championship, held in the US city of Denver in 1993. By 1998, he had established the Abu Dhabi Combat Club (ADCC), a competitive circuit that has highlighted the art of submission combat.
“Bringing such global events to the UAE and incorporating community-based activities will definitely increase the profile of MMA, and UFC in particular, which in turn will inspire the younger generation and amateur fighters to take up the sport, meaning some will turn professional in the near future.”
To swell interest, there will be more than just a showstopping MMA card on offer with a week-long series of specialised events lined up in September.
Al Mubarak explained: “We will be bringing an international convention to Abu Dhabi to highlight the latest trends in martial arts, allowing local and international exhibitors to showcase their products and services to businesses and consumers.
“On top of this, we plan to host one or two concerts with world-class performers to celebrate UFC and its new home in Abu Dhabi.”
It’s clear Abu Dhabi is invested in the UFC and the reasoning is clear.
“Our industry research shows that 12 percent of the UAE population are UFC fans. Regionally, there are 1.5 million UFC fans in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and 2.2 million in Egypt,” said Al Mubarak.
“As a sport, UFC is growing in the region, reflected in the increase in fan numbers and interest in the sport. On April 30, when we announced our event, this news quickly became the most trending topic on Instagram in the UAE.”
One of the reasons is the expected appearance of Nurmagomedov. The 30-year-old is arguably the most popular Muslim fighter in the world after his stunning victory over Conor McGregor last October launched him into the mainstream consciousness.
The Dagestan native was a big attraction when he made an appearance at Al Wahda’s Al Nahyan Stadium shortly after that title win.
And ‘The Eagle’ all-but confirmed his attendance for September after suspensions handed to his team-mates following the infamous UFC 229 post-fight brawl were reduced last week, meaning they will be eligible to compete in Abu Dhabi.
Through an Instagram post (translated) he wrote: “The Nevada State Athletic Commission has rendered their judgement on Zubaira Tukhugov and Abubakar Nurmagomedov.
“The Commission has reduced the suspension of both fighters by 35 days, so Zubaira and Abubakar can fight on UFC 242 in Abu Dhabi.
“We are ready and we coming Inshallah.”
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