Outside of the Abu Dhabi organisers, Dana White and the upper echelons of the UFC, few people have as significant an influence on Fight Island as Ali Abdelaziz.
The Egyptian is arguably the most prominent manager in professional mixed martial arts at present. He is chief executive of Dominance MMA Management that counts among its clients lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, lightweight interim belt-holder Justin Gaethje and welterweight champion Kamaru Usman.
Usman headlines Sunday's UFC 251, also the main event of the four-show Fight Island that will play out at Flash Forum on Yas Island until July 26. Usman will take on Jorge Masvidal after originally due to face Gilbert Burns, another on Abdelaziz's roster. The Brazilian's failed Covid-19 test late last week prompted the change.
Nevertheless, Usman leads a hefty presence from Dominance MMA competing in the capital this month. By his own estimate, Abdelaziz had signed more than 20 fighters to Fight Island, including Frankie Edgar, Kelvin Gastelum, Dan Ige and Abdul Razak Alhassan.
For Abdelaziz, Abu Dhabi always represented the obvious choice for this one-off concept, announced last month and deemed an “extension” of the five-year partnership agreed between the emirate and the UFC in April last year.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in Abu Dhabi,” he said. “Eight of my guys have fought there, including Khabib. For me, Abu Dhabi’s like a second home. Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed and Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed have a great influence on MMA and it’s amazing they’re allowing the UFC to take over an entire island. Dana White is a very persistent man, but without Sheikh Mohamed and Sheikh Tahnoun, this would not be possible.”
Staged amid the coronavirus pandemic, Fight Island has been created to allow the international athletes an opportunity to compete.
That multinational presence is reflected in the four cards – after Sunday, events run July 16, 19 and 26 – with fighters from Brazil, Russia, Australia, Africa, the UK and other parts of Europe involved. The Middle East is represented, too, with Dubai-based Tunisian Mounir Lazzez appearing on the July 16 card, against Alhassan.
Abdelaziz is certain this month’s festival has helped save some who otherwise would have struggled for income during the pandemic.
“Abu Dhabi bailed out the UFC and gave many opportunities to put on great fights,” he said. “There’s going to be over 100 fighters there, hundreds of corner men, so the UFC’s going to be able to provide financial opportunity for these guys.
“Without Abu Dhabi opening, a lot of the European, Middle Eastern, Russian fighters, and others wouldn’t have any sort of income.
“So I just want to applaud the UFC, White and his staff, Abu Dhabi, every worker who’s on the ground in quarantine for a long time. Everybody is doing an amazing job – from the guy who picks up steel, the guy cleaning, the reporter, the commentator, the fighters, the promoters, the government officials.
“It’s something beautiful to see everyone united together, especially in this hard time . It shows we all can unite in one beautiful city in Abu Dhabi, on Yas Island. It’s amazing.”
Such is his relationship with the UFC, Abdelaziz had an inside track before Abu Dhabi was announced as host early last month. He has been kept abreast of the protocols put in place to ensure the safe and smooth running of the event in the 11-kilometre “safe zone” that houses the entire operation.
“You cannot have a better place than Abu Dhabi to put on the event,” Abdelaziz said. “It’s a controlled environment, a safe environment. And it’s a great region. They know fighting there; a couple of Middle Eastern guys also got the opportunity to fight on there. I always support Middle Eastern fighters. They keep growing and growing and maybe one day we’ll have a UFC champion from the Middle East. This is kind of my dream.
“I know I haven’t put enough work into the region, but I’m proud of everybody who’s doing that. A lot of great managers, great promoters, great fighters are putting in the groundwork to make the dreams of these young men and women become true.
“And being an Egyptian, being Middle Eastern, I’m proud the UFC is in Abu Dhabi right now when almost everywhere in the world is shut down.”
This interview took place late last week, a day before the tragic news emerged that Nurmagomedov’s father Abdulmanap, 57, had died from complications relating to contracting Covid-19. A mentor not only to his son, the revered coach had a profound impact on MMA in Russia and beyond.
Fight Island taking shape
Abdelaziz referred to Abdulmanap as his “big brother”, “an awesome man loved by many and hated by no one”. Nurmagomedov was at his son’s side in Abu Dhabi in September, when he defended his lightweight belt against Dustin Poirier at UFC 242.
Khabib has not fought since, but had been expected to return to the capital later this year in a unification bout with Gaethje. The future of that fight is uncertain.
Speaking last week, Abdelaziz described Abu Dhabi as Nurmagomedov’s “second home”, saying: “Khabib loves Abu Dhabi and Dubai. We have a great relationship with everybody there. And I think when Khabib fights in Abu Dhabi it’s almost like he’s fighting at home.”
Looking at his own influence on elite-level MMA, Abdelaziz played down his personal contribution.
“I’m just grateful I’m in this position,” he said. “It’s humbling to work with some of the best fighters in the world. I’m a guy who works in a Ferrari garage. I have Ferraris coming in, Lamborghinis, Bugattis, a high-end garage, and all I just do is just wash the cars.
“The cars are already the best cars in the world. I’m the guy there to maintain them; I make sure they’re clean and running well. That’s it.
“With all that talent, my job is a very smooth job.”