Dana White says Abu Dhabi will host all of the UFC’s major upcoming title bouts featuring international fighters, with Khabib Nurmagomedov set to headline the promotion’s return to the capital later this year.
In an exclusive interview with The National, the UFC president confirmed Abu Dhabi would in the near future stage some of the most prominent fights in the sport, most probably beginning with Nurmagomedov's lightweight unification clash with Justin Gaethje.
The undefeated champion, Nurmagomedov has not fought since defending his belt against Dustin Poirier in September, which took place also in Abu Dhabi. The Dagestan native, 31, is expected to next face interim title-holder Gaethje, however the bout was thrown into doubt following the death of Nurmagomedov's father earlier this month.
White has confirmed plans are already in place for another Fight Island in Abu Dhabi, after the success of the inaugural four-event series currently being held in the emirate. Designed initially to allow the UFC's international athletes to compete during the coronavirus pandemic, Fight Island opened on July 12 with UFC 251, and concludes on July 26. The UFC's return to Abu Dhabi is anticipated for October, although White has suggested September could also be an option.
"The shows that we bring here, this is the only international destination for fights," White told The National. "So all the biggest and the baddest fights coming up that we have are going to be here.
“If you look at our roster of champions, they're from all over the world. So the biggest, baddest fights over the next God knows how long are going to be here in Abu Dhabi. That's why I'm saying Abu Dhabi is going to be looked at as the new fight capital of the world. It used to be Las Vegas. It definitely isn't Las Vegas right now.”
Asked who would headline in October, White said: “Khabib will be the next. We're talking about [middleweight champion] Israel Adesanya versus Paulo Costa, that fight happening. [Women’s strawweight champion] Weili Zhang versus Rose Namajunas is a possibility. All the massive, big fights with literally the champion versus the No 1 contender are all looking like Fight Island Abu Dhabi.”
Recent speculation suggested Nurmagomedov was considering retiring from the sport after his father Abdulmanap's death. Unbeaten in 28 professional mixed martial arts (MMA) fights, Nurmagomedov is one of the most popular fighters in UFC, with more than 22 million followers on social media.
White, though, said he is not concerned about reports Nurmagomedov will call it a day. In May, Ireland's Conor McGregor, another of the UFC's transcendent stars, announced his retirement for the third time in four years.
UFC takes over Yas Island
On Nurmagomedov, White said: “He’s undefeated; he's achieved everything; he has tons of money. But that's always a factor in this business. Conor McGregor, look at what he's accomplished. Look at what a huge superstar he is. These guys retire, it happens and it's never something that I worry about. It's just part of the business.
“There will never be another Khabib like Khabib, there will never be another Conor like Conor. But there will be other stars and it's kind of the fun part of this journey. What's next? Who's next? Where are we going next?
“Who would have thought that this massive superstar would come out of Ireland? Who would have thought that we would have had this Muslim champion who's undefeated, that would become so beloved by Muslims all over the world?
“And the list goes on and on of these type of people that we've had. [George St-Pierre] up in Canada. When he ruled the world and we'd go up to Canada, it would be so much fun. It's part of the journey of this business and it's what makes it so fun.”
Speaking about the possibility of McGregor making a comeback in Abu Dhabi, White said: “Everybody keeps asking me about Conor. He's retired right now. He and I have not talked. I don't know. Obviously, if Conor comes back and wanted to fight, Fight Island is where he would be. So, yeah, he would be here in Abu Dhabi.”
White, who leaves Sunday for Las Vegas, has been hugely complimentary of Fight Island and the level of organisation from the UFC's Abu Dhabi partners. The world's lead MMA organisation signed a five-year agreement with the emirate in April last year, with Fight Island later added as an "extension" of that arrangement.
Yet, with the pandemic ongoing, White says the UFC will continue to host events in the capital. UFC 251 is on course to become the sixth highest-grossing show in terms of pay-per-views in the promotion's history, with a reported 1.3 million buys.
“I've always been waiting in my career for that destination fight,” White said. “And when I say that, like when we opened up Toronto for the first time, it was such a big deal. And it was a massive event.
"Our first event at Madison Square Garden; my first fight in London was at Royal Albert Hall. So I did all the venue type fights, the big venues, our first time in there breaking records.
“[Fight Island] was our Thrilla in Manila, Rumble in the Jungle. Where the place that the fight was was as big or bigger of a star as everybody that was fighting on the card. So we made history here.
“That octagon on the beach should sit there for ever; that should be something that fight fans come and see for ever. We're talking about doing International Fight Week here now on Fight Island and having all these different events here the week of the fight. And we're thinking about all these different things now that we can do, that would be a yearly event.
“I know for a fact that I've never done anything harder than this. I don't know if there'll ever be anything that we've accomplished in almost 20 years of doing this that was bigger than what we've done here.”