Dana White: new Abu Dhabi deal would represent 'total game-changer for all combat sports'

UFC president aiming to announce part of plans for capital following UFC 267 on Saturday night

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UFC president Dana White says he is “beyond excited” by the new deal he is close to completing with Abu Dhabi, describing it as a “total game-changer for all of combat sports, not just the UFC”.

White, in the capital this week for UFC 267, told The National on Friday night that he would be holding meetings before the promotion's latest event on Saturday to finalise the plans, and look to announce the news directly after the fight night concludes at Etihad Arena. White has been teasing “massive, major” plans for Abu Dhabi for the past few months, without giving away any details.

“I’m beyond excited,” he said. “We get this deal done, it’s a total game-changer for all of combat sports, not just the UFC.”

The UFC’s relationship with Abu Dhabi has strengthened considerably since the two parties signed a five-year partnership in April 2019 – the agreement was to stage one major event in the emirate each year through to 2023 – and with the Fight Island series introduced last year in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Our relationship couldn’t be better.” White said on Friday. “I have a big meeting tomorrow and hopefully it’s going to get a lot better. I’m excited to share with everybody what we’re working on here. I’ve just got to get the deal done.

Asked how near to completion the negotiations were, White said: “We’re right there. I’m hoping that I can get it done tomorrow, and not announce everything, but announce a lot of it to you guys on Saturday after the fight.

“The deals that we’re working on, it’s massive. I’ve been calling Abu Dhabi the fight capital of the world because Las Vegas [wimped] out during the pandemic, I’ll say. The moves that we’re making over here and the things that we’re going to do are just going to solidify the fact that that’s this place.

“We’re going to continue to grow this market, look for talent out of this region, grow the fan base over here, and grow the events. Now we have our own arena here, all the pieces are falling into place now for us to start putting on not only massive fights, but international fight week here and lots of other things that we’re working on.”

During the inaugural Fight Island in July last year – the concept was created by White to allow the UFC’s international athletes to compete during the pandemic – White said he had been viewing houses to buy in Abu Dhabi.

On whether he had finally agreed on a purchase, he said: “No, I haven’t bought a house here yet. When I was getting ready to do that it was during the pandemic. I haven’t been here in nine or 10 months.

"But that all plays into what’s coming up on Saturday. There’s so much more. Once I can tell you guys everything, you’ll get it.”

Dana White presented with UAE golden visa ahead of UFC 267

On Friday night, White was presented with a UAE golden visa by the Department of Culture and Tourism.

UFC 267 marks the promotion’s return to Abu Dhabi for the first time since January. It features two title bouts: Jan Blachowicz’s light-heavyweight title defence against No 1-ranked contender Glover Teixeira, and the interim bantamweight championship clash between former champion Petr Yan and No 3-ranked challenger Cory Sandhagen.

Other notable bouts on a stacked card include Islam Makhachev against Dan Hooker, and Khamzat Chimaev’s long-awaited return against Li Jingliang.

“Every time I put on an event, I’m trying to put on a big event, so it’s no different,” said White, who described Etihad Arena as a “world-class venue” on a par with the others used to stage the UFC. “But obviously when I come here, we come here and we want to deliver. Not just a massive card, but a card that really excites the market here.”

White said he is particularly looking forward to Chimaev’s comeback. The Chechen-born Swede was the breakout star of the first Fight Island, when he debuted in the UFC with a victory and then made history for the quickest turnaround between wins, at 10 days. Both bouts, hugely dominant successes, took place during the run in Abu Dhabi. Chimaev then made his Las Vegas bow in September, knocking out veteran Gerald Meerschaert in 17 seconds.

However, he has not fought since following a protracted battle with Covid-19. His professional record sits at 9-0 (3-0 UFC) with all wins coming via finishes.

“I would have to say I’m most excited for the Khamzat fight,” White said. “Because of what happened last time we were here with him. And then he got crushed with Covid. I’m excited to see how he bounces back from that.

Fighters weigh in for UFC 267

“He’s a guy that I think has the potential to be a world champion. So I’m curious to see how he looks tomorrow.”

Meanwhile, Makhachev comes into his lightweight encounter against Hooker with high expectations upon him. The Dagestan native, who rides an eight-fight win streak, is being tipped by many as a future champion of the division. The No-5 ranked contender, 20-1 in pro MMA, was originally slated to fight Rafael Dos Anjos, but the former title-holder withdrew last month through injury. Hooker, sitting one spot below Makhachev in the rankings, stepped in as a replacement one month out from the bout.

Makhachev, 30, is coached by retired teammate and former champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, and is hugely popular in Abu Dhabi – he won there in 2019 – and throughout the region. Therefore, the pressure is on to make a statement on Saturday night.

“When you start to climb that ladder you’re going to be a hometown hero somewhere,” White said. “And you’re always going to have to go face the big crowds, the unbelievable pressure. You heard him saying, ‘I need to put a stamp on this one; I need to show everybody that I’m the man and I need to do that with Dan Hooker. He’s the guy that I've got to show the world who I am’.

“And there’s always going to be that pressure. After Hooker, there’s going to be somebody else, whether or not you can become a world champion or one of the all-time greats, each and every time you go out and fight.”

As for New Zealand’s Hooker, White added: “For a guy like Hooker, nobody wants to fight Islam. Nobody wants to fight this guy. He just fought [Nasrat Haqparast in Las Vegas on September 25] and he could have easily said, ‘Listen, I want some time and go spend with my family, get a proper camp in, train for Islam, do this and that’.

Fighters square off ahead of UFC 267

“He jumps on the opportunity to fight Islam. Doesn’t hide from it, jumps on it. Those are the kind of guys we love around here.

“And that’s the other side of it, too. For every hometown guy there’s a guy who’s going into enemy territory or whatever you want to call it. And that’s another thing Dan Hooker walked into and is willing to do. The guy’s an absolutes stud.”

Given the obvious regional appeal Chimaev and Makhachev hold – both are Muslim – White said the preference will remain for both to compete in Abu Dhabi whenever possible.

“Those type of guys we’ll always have on a card when we’re here, but they’re also guys that I want to move around,” he said. “I want those guys to fight in Vegas, I want those to fight all over the world.

“Obviously they’re massive in this region. But these are guys who have become stars worldwide. That makes them double important. They’re big over here, big in Russia and big all around the rest of the world.”

Updated: October 30, 2021, 10:09 AM