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.”
Jessica Andrade knocked out Rose Namajunas in shocking fashion to claim the strawweight crown at UFC 237.
Fighting in front of a partisan home crowd in Rio, the Brazilian weathered an early storm to end the night with a devastating slam that took Namajunas’ consciousness, and crown.
The American had dominated to that point, using her height advantage to pick off the smaller Andrade at will.
Thug Rose was slick in both movement and striking, opening up her opponent within the first two minutes with sharp, crisp strikes to the left eye area.
For seven minutes, it was a masterclass.
Then Andrade struck. Working in the clinch, close to the fence, she lifted her foe to shoulder level before unleashing a blood-curdling slam that bounced the champion’s head off the canvas. The follow-up shots were immaterial.
Andrade moves to 20-6, while Namajunas slips to 8-4.
Elsewhere on the card, it was not a night for legends, as Anderson Silva, BJ Penn, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and Jose Aldo all fell to defeats.
“I ain’t got a clue why, but I think I’d kill the man. His time will come,” Leon Edwards says as the coffee on the table cools, and his mind heats up.
The Briton, on home soil, was fresh from defeating heralded grappler Gunnar Nelson on points using his own game in the co-main event slot at UFC London.
Masvidal, an underdog with bite, had just flatlined Darren Till in the second round of the following fight.
As is natural in the hyper-speed world of combat sports, the conversation immediately turned to what was next for the two fighters targeting 170lbs champion Kamaru Usman.
No one expected a new storyline to emerge so soon, though.
“We were both doing media backstage after the fight. As I was walking past, he kept staring at me so I said ‘let’s fight in July’,” Edwards tells Sport360° as he enjoys a well-earned break with his family in Dubai ahead of holding his seminar at TK MMA & Fitness.
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“He said ‘what did you say?’ and I said ‘we’ll fight in July’. As I was walking past he walked over with his hands behind his back.
“As soon as he got close, he threw shots, security grabbed me, grabbed him and that was it really. They moved his hotel and nothing else happened.
“But then he did interviews afterwards and just completely lied about it. He said I came up like this [hands in guard position] but who does that?! He said that’s why he threw the shots and blah, blah, blah, but like I said his time will come.”
Not as soon as you may think. Despite the obvious narrative, the media and fan furore over the incident plus the legitimacy of a contest without the backstage chaos –
Edwards is riding the second-best win streak in the division and has not lost since dropping a decision to Usman in late 2015 – the promotion opted for a different, slightly perplexing route.
Masvidal is slated to fight Ben Askren at UFC 239 in July, a decision the promotion’s president declared made sense from a rankings perspective. But that in itself is odd, because, well, the rankings are odd.
Despite seven consecutive victories, including back-to-back wins over household names Donald Cerrone and Nelson, Edwards sits at No11 – he dropped two places after his last victory.
“I don’t know who does these rankings, but they’re more about popularity,” the fighting pride of Birmingham explains.
“Look at Masvidal. He was on a two-fight losing streak, he beat Darren Till and now he’s number four or something.
“Ben Askren, he came in and had one fight, he’s now number five.
“To me, the rankings make no sense.
“I thought they would phone me Monday morning and organise the fight. All the fans wanted it, all the media wanted it and I wanted it.
“I think they offered it to Masvidal and he said he didn’t fight me.
“That’s what he said. My management team reached out to try and organise it. They gave him a choice between me or Ben. He chose Ben.”
Was it a decision based on fighting the lesser of two evils?
“He knows in a fight with me, I am better than him wherever the fight goes, striking, grappling, on the ground, wherever the fight goes, I’ll be the better and bigger man.
“He knew it wouldn’t go his way so that’s why he chose Ben.”
For now, Edwards must turn his attention to another opponent with the 27-year-old earmarking a July return to the Octagon against someone “highly-ranked or a big name like Anthony Pettis” before earning a shot at the belt late in the year.
But while the rankings are not a fair reflection of Edwards’ compelling reality within the UFC’s most talent-rich division, there is one title he believes is firmly in his grasp – the UK’s No1 MMA fighter.
“I’ve been saying this for a while now and they were trying to push Till to say he’s the number one,” Edwards says.
“That was actually the plan for UFC London, to settle it and see who is number one, me or him.
“For some reason, they went Masvidal and Till, but after his back-to-back losses, I feel I’m number one. I’m the one fighting these guys and winning.”
He adds: “I think he should move up to middleweight but it would be a huge fight. I would love to have that fight in my hometown, Birmingham.
“To come back to the UK and headline in Birmingham with Till, that would be good.
“But now my focus is on the title shot. I’m not really focusing on Till at the moment, especially after straight losses.”
Born in Jamaica before moving to the UK as a child, Edwards’ story is one to be celebrated, both at home and abroad.
A troublesome teenager, his mum sought to channel the energy of both he and his brother, Fabian, into something positive.
That path took the brothers into MMA and younger sibling Fabian is amassing an impressive career of his own under the Bellator banner where he is 6-0.
One dream, which sits alongside UFC gold, is for the brothers to fight on the same night.
“How good would that be? To be fair, for him to be a world champion in Bellator and me a UFC champ, that would be good as well,” a beaming Edwards explains.
“But I feel his dream is to be in the UFC and I think after this contract with Bellator, he should try to make the move.
“To have two brothers from Birmingham in the UFC, I don’t think it’s ever been done from the UK. It would be madness.”
Edwards’ ambition mirrors that of another English star with Jamaican heritage, Raheem Sterling.
The Manchester City and England winger has emerged as a leader in the fight against racism as division and hate spreads throughout the UK and beyond.
“He is 100 percent an inspirational figure,” Edwards says. “I follow him and we’ve got some mutual friends, but fair play to him for what he’s doing for football.
“That’s one of my things as well, to motivate the youth. There’s a lot of knife crime in the UK, it’s becoming a huge problem, and the area I grew up in, there’s a big gang culture. That’s my aim, like his, to bring young people in off the streets and into MMA and show them a positive way to do things.”