After UFC Fight Night 39 success, more plans afoot for Abu Dhabi

After a sellout crowd saw an entertaining slate of fights on Friday night, UFC officials were already acknowledging plans to expand the organisation's footprint in the UAE and Middle East at large.

The crowd watching UFC Fight Night 39 on Friday night at Du Arena. Pawan Singh / The National / April 11, 2014

ABU DHABI // Plans for a greater Ultimate Fighting Championship presence in Abu Dhabi and the region are about to get serious.

The UFC held its first Fight Night in Abu Dhabi for four years on Friday at Yas Island, attended by 7,963 fans. The event was a success.

That is, according to officials, only the beginning of plans for a region that has always had a considerable appetite for a range of combat sports.

As well as more fight nights, UFC are talking about the prospects of staging an Ultimate Fighter series, the UFC’s reality show that works as a development pathway for MMA fighters to work their way into the UFC.

“Absolutely there will be [more UFC events],” UFC’s vice president for Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA), Garry Cook told The National. “We want to come back here every year. We see this as just the beginning. We’d like to see more events in Abu Dhabi, we’d like to see other countries step up in the region.

“But I also think it’s time for us to develop and deliver an Ultimate Fighter series here.

“There is a lot of demand for the sport here. We have the very, very best production quality, our relationship with Abu Dhabi Media [parent company of The National] is relatively new but they want to create more product and content for the audience and to grow the audience so they can be the home of the UFC.

“We have a lot of exciting things coming to this region over next 12-18 months.”

Though the eight-fight card went down well, there were not the kind of star names appearing that the first fight night in 2010 had. There were two titles on the line that evening, including the headline bout between legends Anderson Silva and Demian Maia.

On Friday, the legendary Antonio “Minotauro” Nogueira and Roy “Big Country” Nelson – who won by first-round knock-out – headlined a main event of compelling fights and exciting fighters, but perhaps not the kind of easy, big-selling names the previous event had.

The UFC see that as part of a deliberate organisational strategy designed to develop and give further exposure to younger, lesser-known fighters and to further educate what is already a fairly informed audience.

“We need to start to educate the audience, get the product out on TV, deliver and develop Ultimate Fighter and start to build a 365-day presence,” Cook said.

“What we’ve done in the past with Anderson Silva, it was the big event, the full circus and actually what happened, we delivered it and then we disappeared for four years. That’s not the way to run the business so I’m trying to work with strategic partners to develop the business in a more compelling way.”

Cook cited the example of the Irishman Connor McGregor as a fighter few had initially heard of but who has, in the past year, exploded onto the scene.

The message from Friday was that the names on the card may not be well known but, a year from now, they might be the next big thing in the UFC.

“One of the things we get criticised for is the quality of the card,” Cook said. “The UFC is bigger than any single fighter and at the end of the day this is a UFC event.

“When you look at the way we run our business, we have six events in EMEA this year. We want to come back every year. But there’s an education process to go through because it’s easy to look at rankings and say why haven’t we got the No 1?

“The guys we have at the top of the bill are in the top 15 in a very hotly contested weight division – and the great thing about this sport is that at any point in time, on any card, somebody can make a name for themselves.”

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