Abu Dhabi is ready for another month of UFC action – and will do all they can to try and get fans in to some of Fight Island 2’s later events.
The world’s biggest MMA promotion is back on Yas Island, with fights getting underway in the early hours of Sunday morning with UFC 253. Three Fight Nights will then follow before rounding things off with the return of Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 254.
It is another blockbuster lineup that will cast the eyes of the sporting world on Abu Dhabi as the Emirate once again helps the UFC host international fight cards amid the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
On the back of a hugely successful first iteration of Fight Island in July, a bio-secure bubble has once again been set up in the UAE capital as the world’s best mixed martial artists get set to battle it out.
“We were very pleased to have this orgainsed on the back of the successful Fight Island 1.0,” said Saeed Al Saeed, Destination Marketing Director, from the Department of Culture and Tourism Abu Dhabi.
“I don’t think any of us would have expected that only a couple of months later we would be back here again, quarantining for another fourteen days and going through the mammoth logistical undertaking of what we did – but here we are.”
When UFC president Dana White said he was looking for an island to host fights amid the pandemic, many scoffed. But the resulting partnership with the authorities in Abu Dhabi created a worldwide buzz – both bringing live sport back to starved fans, and also shining a light on the capabilities of Abu Dhabi.
“Obviously the first event was a huge success when it comes to the exposure Abu Dhabi got including people outside the UFC ecosystem,” said Mr Al Saeed. “It is something that put the word out there and sent a clear message to say Abu Dhabi is ready and able to host world-class events with the highest of standards, not only from a hospitality perspective but also regarding health and safety.
“No-one does it as stringently as we do with all the protocols and procedures in place and that is testament to the team working on this – all the partners who have come together to achieve what we have.”
Last time out there were four events, with five this time round including two prestigious pay per views.
This weekend at UFC 253 will see the middleweight and light heavyweight titles on the line. The following week sees the first women’s headliner in the UAE as former bantamweight champion Holly Holm faces Irene Aldana. Men’s bantamweight contenders Marlon Moraes and Cory Sandhagen will headline the third card, with the highly-anticipated clash between Brian Ortega and Chan Sung Jung on the penultimate weekend. Things come to a crescendo on October 24 when Khabib Nurmagomedov defends his lightweight crown against Justin Gaethje at UFC 254.
It is a lineup of truly epic proportion, which Mr Al Saeed says reflects the ambitious plans of Abu Dhabi.
“The first time around, fans will have seen we had stacked cards,” he said. “The Fight Nights could have been numbered events, outside of the actual UFC 251 pay per view.
“But this is Abu Dhabi and if we are going to do something it has got to be bigger and better and we have tried to deliver as much as we could. If you look at the list of fights coming up in the next five weeks, it is incredible. I hope Abu Dhabi can once again deliver and exceed the expectations of everyone involved.”
Knowing the quality of the cards, there is an obvious discussion around being able to host fans – who would be scrambling to watch live, in person.
Mr Al Saeed says that while they would love to re-introduce supporters to the venue, this can only be done when there is absolute certainty around safety of all involved. The process is a complex one, and while the chances of this happening over the immediate weeks seems slim, every effort will still be made to try to make it happen.
“At the end of the day it is all about the fans,” said Mr Al Saeed. “Everything we are doing is about the fans, it does sadden me that we won’t have fans in the arena. The vibe last year was crazy, everyone had such fun and it delivered so much. Hearing the crowd in the arena was on another level. It is sad we are not going to have the same, but we do not compromise health and safety.
“Sixteen different parties, if not more would need to okay it. This includes teams on the ground, operational teams, logistical team, medical teams, the UFC, us as DTCM, and higher authorities within the Abu Dhabi framework. So many people need to agree to this work by their standards, and we have the strictest standards in the world when it comes to Covid-19. When everyone around the table are okay with this and say that it reduces risk to zero, then we will go ahead with it.”
With other countries around the world still coming to terms with the control of Covid-19 and how to successfully put on events, it is not beyond the realm of possibility this is not the final Fight Island in Abu Dhabi.
It’s a prospect the authorities are ready for, but not necessarily one they want.
“The optimist in me is saying I don’t want it to happen,” said Mr Al Saeed. “Not because I don’t enjoy the events, but I would prefer to have the normal events and have some kind of normality back in our lives. Obviously, we will continue to host the UFC and be ready to deliver massive events with them. We would be more than happy to host the UFC for Fight Island 3, 4, 5 – however long it takes.”