Now that the historic events in Abu Dhabi have come and gone, we look back on the Fight Island experience that set a benchmark for mixed martial arts forever.
The planes are in the air. The cage on the beach is being brought down. The trip to Fight Island is officially over. By this time next week, Abu Dhabi will be in the rear-view mirror and business will be back to the new normal at the UFC Apex with another string of consecutive events in Las Vegas. But has the game of MMA been changed forever? With such an undertaking now complete, the entire sporting world has gleaned knowledge of what operations are possible in this new world.
First, the logistical undertaking has set a new bar for what is possible with the right funding. The sporting world may currently be focused with the accommodations in Orlando for the NBA bubble, but does it measure up to blocking off an entire ten mile area of a foreign land? As has been well-documented, the UFC spared no expense in the number of tests, private charters, and overall cleaning of every facility. Much of it came with the cooperation of Abu Dhabi, with those on-site having gone through a mandatory quarantine of several weeks to remain in the quadrant that became known as Fight Island. Though the arduous hours of testing, hotel room quarantine, and adjusting to the time difference were all real factors, the end result has been a rousing success with fighters and media alike in terms of the execution.
For a moment, it seemed as if the whole operation was on the verge of suffering an epic collapse at the last minute. The days leading up to the departure had Fight Island looking like it could become Fyre Festival: UFC with several fighters being removed from the events due to positive tests for COVID-19. Not the least of which were two fighters involved in headliners with both Gilbert Burns and Deiveson Figueiredo testing positive. When several fighters began testing positive within the span of a few days, there was speculation that the best-laid plans of the UFC would be thwarted by the invisible threat that has changed life around the globe.
In a testament to the process and the athletes, the UFC overcame the obstacles. After losing Burns, the UFC booked one of their biggest stars in Jorge Masvidal on a week’s notice to give them one of their highest rated events ever at UFC 251. Deiveson Figueiredo’s test ended up being a false positive and the Brazilian went on to score one of the most dominant performances in a title fight to claim flyweight gold. In short, the UFC ended up with an even better showing than what was previously anticipated under the circumstances.
That’s not to say the events looked like the fantasies that had been circulated on social media. Respectfully, how could they? The dream of fights in an Octagon on the beach, with palm trees and the ocean clearly visible in the background, was nowhere to be found. In the end, the closest anyone got to fights on the sand (besides the outdoor cage for photo-ops) was the string of highly popular merchandise that added fuel to the fantasy in the first place. When fight night rolled around, things looked virtually identical to what we’ve come to expect from a typical fight night.
What we did get was a showcase for several exciting international fighters for whom travel to Vegas is currently impossible. None was more impressive than Amanda Ribas, the Brazilian upstart with the infectious personality that was front and center doing media appearances on Yas Island throughout her time there. Other breakout stars included Khamzat Chimaev (fighting twice in ten days), Mounir Lazzez, and Ariane Lipski. All of them without the spotlight of Fight Island would not have had the stage to showcase their talents at the level they did.
It is expected that the UFC will be back in Abu Dhabi very soon. Barring a drastic turn of events, the promotion is expected to return on September 19 with a titanic clash between middleweight champion Israel Adesanya and Paulo Costa. The exact frequency and consistency of events after that appears to be unknown even to the UFC amidst the global situation. But after seeing the level of success that can be had, it is hard to imagine that it will not be a frequent destination.