When UFC president Dana White uttered the words “I’ve got an island” in an April interview with ESPN, fight fans around the world all of a sudden saw images of Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon or had the Mortal Kombat theme music ringing between their ears.
The UFC has always been an ambitious organization but holding events on a private island during a global pandemic sounded a bit farfetched – even for White, who has never been averse to taking risks and being an outlier in the sports world.
After a few months of rigorous planning, the UFC announced it would host four Fight Island events: a UFC 251 pay-per-view card on July 11 then three televised Fight Night events on July 15, July 18 and July 25.
White and the UFC brass held their cards close to the vest as details were being worked out but now we’re mere days away from seeing how it all plays out.
With that in mind, here’s what you need to know about UFC Fight Island.
Why an island?
With various travel restrictions implemented by the United States and other countries around the globe due to COVID-19 concerns, much of the UFC’s roster – which currently consists of more than 600 athletes – was more or less out of commission and unable to easily travel to the U.S. to compete.
Securing a place to hold events overseas was a way to accommodate international fighters who haven’t been able to enter the U.S., so Fight Island was a pragmatic solution to a unique problem that has subsequently become quite the marketing tool.
The UFC hasn’t held an event outside of the United States since March 14 when they went through with a Fight Night event in Brazil in an empty arena just as the sports world and many businesses were shutting down.
After a six-week hiatus following the Brazil show, the UFC resumed holding empty-venue events with new health and safety measures in place.
The organization held three events in Jacksonville, Fla., in mid-May before heading back to its home state of Nevada where it hosted five events at the UFC APEX in Las Vegas.
Just like the UFC APEX, Fight Island is a controlled environment in which the UFC can safely manage all its athletes, production staff and anyone else essential to the planned events.
“It’s an incredible thing that we’ve pulled off,” White said of Fight Island during a media scrum prior to a June 13 event. “They have this thing called the ‘Safety Zone.’ It’s 10 square miles where only we exist on the island at the hotel, restaurants. Every fighter has their own private training facility. It’s gonna be a unique experience. Very cool.”
Welcome to #UFCFightIsland!
— UFC (@ufc) July 6, 2020
Where exactly is Fight Island and how was it approved?
Fight Island is Abu Dhabi’s Yas Island in the United Arab Emirates. It’s a 25-square-kilometre island and a popular tourist destination located approximately 15 minutes from Abu Dhabi International Airport.
There are multiple hotels, amusement parks, concert venues, a golf course, a mall and a private beach among the various attractions. The island has hosted Formula One’s Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix annually for the past 11 years.
The UFC has held three previous events in Abu Dhabi, all of which were on Yas Island – UFC 112 in 2010, UFC Fight Night: Nogueira vs. Nelson in 2014 and UFC 242 this past September.
Prior to UFC 242, the MMA powerhouse and Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism (DCT) agreed to a partnership that would ensure the UFC would continue hosting events in the UAE for the next five years.
The UFC once again worked with the DCT to secure a separate agreement for these four July events.
The Fight Island shows will take place in a slightly different location on the island than the three previous events. All the facilities are in a cordoned-off area known as the “Safe Zone” that will be exclusively for those involved with the UFC events.
More than 1,500 Yas Island event personnel have spent 14 days in hotel isolation in preparation for the two-week stretch of fights. Only the UFC staff, the athletes and their coaches, plus the event personnel will be granted access to the “Safe Zone” and they will not be allowed to interact with other Abu Dhabi residents at any point during their stay.
What health and safety measures are being taken?
In order to be as safe and responsible as possible, the UFC is being extra cautious when it comes to coronavirus testing. An expected 3,300 COVID tests will be administered during the UFC’s time on Yas Island.
Fighters and corners/coaches will arrive via charter flights four days prior to their scheduled fight and all will be tested four times during their stay. Fighters and their corners are tested prior to their flight and upon arrival at Abu Dhabi International Airport. Then they will remain quarantined in their hotel rooms until results from the second test come back, at which point they will be tested a third time. The fourth test will be administered on weigh-in day, more than 24 hours before their scheduled fight.
The UFC is providing the athletes with personal protective equipment (PPE) such as facemasks and gloves. All fighters and their corners will be provided a private workout area and there is a hotel gym as well. They are required to wear PPE when they leave their rooms and/or workout rooms and fighters have been encouraged to social distance whenever possible.
UFC COO Lawrence Epstein told ESPN they administered more than 2,500 tests between May 30 and June 27 for the five events in Las Vegas with only 0.4 per cent coming back positive. He added there will be a 32 per cent increase in the number of tests they administer while in Abu Dhabi.
Richard Deitsch and Donnovan Bennett host a podcast about how COVID-19 is impacting sports around the world. They talk to experts, athletes and personalities, offering a window into the lives of people we normally root for in entirely different ways.
Will the fights literally be on the beach?
The short answer is not really. Yes, technically they will be on a beach but fans won’t see sand, sun, palm trees and water while the fighters exchange blows in the cage. Instead, the Octagon will be situated inside a temporary structure called the Flash Forum.
From a production standpoint, the UFC holding a truly outdoor event isn’t feasible.
“First of all, the lighting grid. You couldn’t put the lighting grid on a beach,” White told reporters at the UFC APEX in June. “You could try it. I don’t think it’s gonna turn out very well. I’m always afraid of the elements. Wind, rain, all the things that can happen. I like the comfort and safety of an arena. That’s what I’m into every single time we go out and do it. Pulling off what the fantasy of Fight Island was is pretty tough. And I think it would look like (expletive) on TV, too.”
Has any MMA event been like this in the past?
Interestingly enough, while the events on Fight Island will be a unique setup by UFC standards, this isn’t the first “Fight Island” event from a notable promotion.
Longtime mixed martial arts fans will harken back to the days of the Bodog Fight, a defunct MMA organization that held 12 events from August 2006 to November 2007. Four of those events were held in front of no fans on the beaches of Costa Rica in an open-air setup.
In fact, UFC 251 headliner Jorge Masvidal went 3-0 in the promotion and was actually a participant in the first fight at the inaugural Bodog beach event. Fellow future UFC stars such as Chael Sonnen, former lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez, Roy Nelson, Jake Shields, Jake Ellenberger and Brad Pickett were among the fighters to compete on those cards.
At those events you could see the shoreline in the background depending on how much daylight there was.
What are the biggest differences from the UFC APEX events?
All fights held at the UFC APEX in Las Vegas were contested in the organization’s smaller, 25-foot Octagon. The fights in Abu Dhabi will be in the UFC’s more frequently used 30-foot cage.
Many fans and pundits feel fights held in the smaller cage are more exciting. White has said he doesn’t think it makes a difference.
Whether or not a fight is more entertaining in a smaller cage is subjective, however it has been proven historically that events that use the smaller cage produce a higher percentage of finishes and fights in the bigger cage are statistically more likely to go the distance.
Another thing to consider is the temperature during the events.
The fights are taking place in the middle of the night with the UFC 251 preliminary card expected to start around 2 a.m local time and the main card at 6 a.m. local (which is 10 p.m. ET). Despite those hours, it’s going to be hot with a nighttime low of 33 degrees Celsius and a daytime high of 45 degrees. It’ll be hazy and the air quality is going to be poor and “unhealthy for sensitive groups.”