Dana White exclusive: UFC president expects to see fans in Abu Dhabi when he returns for Fight Island 3 - but not Conor McGregor
White all but rules out Irishman's comeback against Poirier taking place in UAE
UFC president Dana White says the promotion would most probably not return to Abu Dhabi until next February for a third Fight Island series, all but ruling out Conor McGregor’s much-awaited comeback taking place in the emirate.
The world’s lead mixed martial arts promotion is currently in the capital for a second residency, with two of the five events on "Return to Fight Island" remaining.
On Sunday, Brian Ortega and “The Korean Zombie” Jung Chan-sung headline the latest UFC Fight Night, while the hugely anticipated UFC 254 concludes the promotion’s present run on October 24.
There, undefeated lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov steps back into the octagon after 13 months away in his title unification clash with interim belt-holder Justin Gaethje.
Speaking to The National on Tuesday, White said that, although nothing is confirmed as of yet, he envisaged having a plan in place for Fight Island 3 before leaving Abu Dhabi immediately after UFC 254.
“If you think about it, we’re going back home in two weeks, so we have November, December and January where we’ll be in the States, we’ll be in Vegas,” White said.
“Then we’ll be ready for some more international fights. Unless the world changes in the next three months, which who knows?
“Let’s see what happens after [the US] election [on November 3]. I hope a lot of things are going to get cleared up and changed after the election, either way, whoever wins. And if not we’ll have to come back here by February.”
Discussions between the UFC and the Department of Culture and Tourism Abu Dhabi have taken place regarding a limited number of spectators attending UFC 254.
The UFC last staged a show with fans in March, at UFC 248 in Las Vegas, and has carried on throughout the pandemic with its live shows behind closed doors. Fight Island is housed inside a six square-kilometre "safe zone" on Yas Island, with everyone within tested regularly for Covid-19.
Asked when he expected to welcome back paying customers into arenas, White said: “I think our next stint on Fight Island will probably be with fans.
"I believe that Abu Dhabi will be the first place that opens up to fans again, because they have this thing so dialled in over here. This is one of those destinations, and especially with Fight Island, that people will want to come and see. When we do our first fight here [with fans] it’s going to be massive.”
White said hosting events with spectators represented the next step for Fight Island, and confirmed the UFC would continue to host the series post-pandemic. White designed Fight Island initially to allow the promotion's international athletes to compete during the crisis.
The American said also that the UFC has discussed establishing a performance institute in Abu Dhabi, which would serve also as their regional base.
“I’m telling you again, this is going to be the fight capital of the world,” White said. “This is going to be the destination for people, if you’re in Europe, Russia, Australia, all these other places, when we put on big fights over here in Fight Island, people are going to travel from all over the world to come watch.
"We’re planning on doing big things over here, not just the night of the fight, but the week of the fight. We’re working now towards making this incredible experience for people, not just the fights, but the surroundings here on Fight Island, all the things that are available and the things to do.
UFC Fight Night: Brian Ortega and Jung Chan-sung arrive in Abu Dhabi
"Abu Dhabi is that place. If you look at the fights we’re doing in Las Vegas at the Apex, it’s not what we’re doing here. We’re on to our 32nd event [despite] this pandemic.
"It would never have happened and these big fights wouldn’t have happened if they weren’t in Abu Dhabi. And this being the destination that it is, as soon as we open up this place to fans, people are going to flock here.”
White reiterated that he preferred staging events with capacity crowds whenever venues reopen to spectators, but added: “I’ll work with Abu Dhabi on what they want to do and how they want to do it. I believe that they’re going to be first. But in the States, I’m not going anywhere unless it’s 100 per cent full capacity.”
On the Etihad Arena, which was mooted as a possible late venue switch for UFC 254 – all Fight Island events thus far have taken place at Flash Forum – White said: “I’ve walked through it a couple of times. I’m excited about it. One of the things that’s so awesome – one of the million things that’s so awesome about this place – is they’ve kind of designed this thing around our needs for the UFC.
“So it’s almost like we’re getting this Etihad Arena out here built like the Apex in Vegas. Because the Apex was built straight up for fighting – we do other things in there, like music and comedy – but that thing was built for fighting. And these guys have done the same thing for us here in Abu Dhabi.”
The first two Fight Island runs have showcased some of the UFC’s most prominent stars, including Israel Adesanya, Kamaru Usman, Jorge Masvidal and Rose Namajunas, with the likes of Nurmagomedov and Gaethje to come.
White wouldn’t commit yet to which fighters the UFC are seeking to bring to Abu Dhabi next time around, saying: “I don’t know yet off the top of my head, because right now we’re working on what’s going to happen in Vegas over the next three months.
“Before I leave here I want to start working on Fight Island 3. Then when I get home, we’ll start working on who’s going to come here next.”
Khabib at UFC 242 in Abu Dhabi
That would therefore appear to rule out McGregor. The sport's most high-profile athlete, who announced his retirement from fighting in June, has been offered a second match-up with Dustin Poirier, in January.
However, the former two-division champion took to social media last week to say he wanted the bout only either next month or December.
“We offered them both a fight, Dustin accepted the fight; we’re waiting on Conor,” White said. “We actually made a date for him, a date that we didn’t have. We created another date in January for Dustin versus Conor. So we’re just waiting to hear back from Conor and get this done.”
White said a deadline exists for McGregor to accept, but added: “I don’t know what that is. My poor lawyer’s dealing with all that. Not me. I’m over here enjoying myself.”
On whether Abu Dhabi could end up hosting McGregor-Poirier, White said: “Listen, I don’t know about January. Probably in Vegas, but anything is possible. Who knows? Let’s see what the world looks like in January. Maybe fans are back in January, and Conor and Dustin is in a sold-out arena somewhere.”
As for the two remaining events on this Fight Island, White said: “I’m so excited, man. This whole stint on Fight Island 1 and 2 has been amazing; the fights have been incredible. Even the cards that the critics wanted to tear apart have been blowing people’s minds.
“The fights that are lined up these next two cards, if you are not even remotely a fight fan you cannot miss these next two. We’re ending this thing with a serious bang.”
Updated: October 17, 2020 09:38 PM