MMA's 'Fight Island' concept debuts in Abu Dhabi
When mixed martial arts supremo Dana White first floated his "Fight Island" concept, with its echoes of the Bruce Lee blockbuster "Enter the Dragon" where fighters were drawn into combat at a private getaway, eyebrows were raised.
"'Fight Island' is real. It's a real thing," said the Ultimate Fighting Championship boss when he announced the plan in April. "The infrastructure’s being built right now, and that’s really going to happen."
White’s vision will be unveiled on Sunday with the staging of the 13-fight UFC 251 event on Abu Dhabi’s Yas Island. The event will be headlined by a welterweight world title encounter between the Nigerian-American champion Kamaru Usman and Cuban-American challenger Jorge Masvidal.
It’s one of four "Fight Island" cards to be staged without an audience inside an arena on the resort and entertainment island throughout July, kicking off with three world title bouts and a title challenge eliminator.
Usman said during a virtual media event that he had been impressed by what he’d seen since arriving in the United Arab Emirates on Thursday. "I'm grateful for everything that's been done," said Usman, gunning for the second defence of his title. "All the precautions have been taken. After I go out there on Saturday and get my hand raised I'll be glad to be heading home COVID-free."
The UFC has made the move to Abu Dhabi from its Las Vegas base in an effort to isolate its fighters during the coronavirus pandemic. Safety has been a major motivator, as has the promoter’s need to keep staging events -- and collecting revenue -- during a crisis that has shut down or forced massive overhauls to the staging of the world’s major sporting events.
Strict lockdown measures have been imposed on athletes, their entourages, officials, staff and media for the duration of their stay on Yas Island, on a site that has been completely sealed off until the event concludes on July 26.
Tests were taken before people arrived -- initial headliner Gilbert Burns of Brazil failed, and stayed home, Masvidal's coach Mike Brown suffered the same fate -- and after landing there has been more testing, and 48 hours in-room quarantine. "We were able to lock away with some mats and pads in our room and keep training as much as we could," said Russian welterweight Muslim Salikhov, who fights Brazil's Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos in Sunday's preliminaries.
"The main thing everyone is saying is that we are here, and we are ready to fight because that's what we do for a living."
So far the United Arab Emirates has recorded more than 53,500 coronavirus cases with 328 deaths. Abu Dhabi's executive director of tourism and marketing Ali al-Shaiba said protocols were stringent in the expansive "safe zone", patrolled by police and expected to house around 2,000 people for the duration of the month-long event. Staff will be tested every 72 hours.
"It's not easy to host a global international mega event such as a UFC fight during these circumstances where everybody is under lockdown and travel restrictions are in place. But we make things happen," he told AFP.
Abu Dhabi, which signed a five-year contract with the UFC, has a rich history when it comes to martial arts, hosting lucrative jiu-jitsu events, a sport that is a major component of MMA which has exploded in popularity over the past decade. For now, Fight Island is a "one-off" said Shaiba, but he added that the emirate has been approached by other sports entities who want to hold events in the "bubble" format.
The other world title fights Sunday see Australia’s Alexander Volkanovski put his featherweight title on the line in a rematch against the former champ in Hawaii’s Max Holloway, while Russian tearaway Petr Yan faces veteran Brazilian Jose Aldo for the vacant bantamweight belt.
In women's action, two former strawweight champs in Brazil’s Jessica Andrade and American Rose Namajunas will face off, with the winner expected to go on to face China’s reigning champion, Zhang Weili.
Masvidal 35, has been at loggerheads with the organisation over pay rates and revenue sharing, and took up the offer of the title fight on just six days notice. "I try not to get too involved in the moment because I might get overwhelmed," he said of the buzz around the event. "I just keep reminding myself no matter how cool this is, it is just a fight. If it was here, England, Mars, Saturn. I’m just here to fight."