Inside UFC Fight Island: Covid tests, lockdown life, and the chance to be part of history

'The National's' John McAuley is one of the few members of the media inside Yas Island's 'safe zone'. Here he reveals what the experience has been like so far

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The first rule about Fight Island is you do not walk about Fight Island.

The second rule about Fight Island is: you DO NOT walk about Fight Island.

Well, for the first two weeks, at least. Not until you’ve quarantined for 14 days, taken three Covid-19 tests (they don’t get any more bearable, each one an excavation of the brain), been scanned daily for a high temperature, and hand-washed every piece of your clothing – some more than once. Look, mum!

And so it was from that momentous phone call on Friday, June 19. It came at 2.28pm, a sort of call to arms if you will. Basically, if you really wanted to cover Fight Island, to be part of this historic event that marks in part Abu Dhabi's emergence from the coronavirus crisis, you had to be on Fight Island by midnight. That night.

The action was more than three weeks away, with UFC 251 kicking off a four-event series, on July 12. Yet, y’know, 2020: These Are Unprecedented Times.

Rumours swirled from the very moment Abu Dhabi was announced on June 9 as host of the inaugural UFC fight bonanza. Some suggested a 45-day adventure for those media wishing to provide onsite coverage. That would take in quarantine and the four UFC shows, which run to July 26.

Thirty days was soon mooted and immediately felt infinitely more reasonable, however extreme this whole commitment probably should have felt. Then it was maybe 14, then perhaps a simple test administrated on the ground, a couple of days beforehand. Easy.

But the June 19 call came, and the frantic scramble to Abu Dhabi ensued. In short: lobbing stuff indiscriminately from wardrobe to suitcase; transferring contents of entire fridge to an entirely-too-small freezer; co-ordinating with editors and photographers and other event personnel; sorting permits to travel from Dubai to Abu Dhabi (turned down and then granted, at 10pm); the revised 9pm deadline to arrive at the Crowne Plaza Abu Dhabi (but permit!); and the uncertainty as to what lay next.

From there, via the sprayed-down luggage (unloaded ourselves) and the sanitised pens and the man at hotel reception behind the microbial shield and the staff in full PPE and goggles, lockdown began. No one in, no one out. Maybe for a few days, maybe more. Much like that Friday, it was a rapidly developing situation. In the end, it was 14.

Fourteen days confined to your room; 14 days of meals dropped off at your door with a knock (three times daily); 14 days of CNN reminding that you’re quarantining for a very valid reason. Fourteen days of the promise it’ll all be worth it.

Those lucky enough to exist in a room with balcony – and sturdy enough to brave the heat – would escape there for some release whenever possible, stiffly nodding towards or saluting the other fortunates, like fighter pilots going into enemy territory. Visor down, control stick gripped tight, engines launched. This was a collective cause despite the isolation, everyone in it together, the “sacrifices made” to “bring international sport back to Abu Dhabi”. We were “part of reopening our capital to the world”, as the circular delivered to the room reminded.

John McAuley's work station for the past two weeks inside the UFC Fight Island 'safe zone'. Courtesy John McAuley

That said, you did at times yearn for face-to-face conversation (at, admittedly, a socially accepted distance), for a change of scenery (Zoom backgrounds don’t count. Ever.), for coffee that didn’t spill out from a sachet and taste not very much like coffee. Like an absolute trooper, you persevered, one cup at a time.

And it must be said, all this barely constituted real hardship. It was, much like Fight Island the concept, a once-in-a-lifetime experience, a little bit of history that you were contributing your little bit to.

And much like the entire event, dreamt up by the UFC in response to the coronavirus, a vaccine for the cessation of live sport, there were a number of personal watershed moments. Real ground was broken.

1) The week's worth of clothes was (wrung out and) stretched to twice the original time intended. Soap and warm water – who would've thought?

2) By some still-astounding feat of engineering, the laptop was hooked up to the hotel TV without serious injury sustained. From there, it beamed out whatever sport or movie or docu-series desired.

3) Three times one's body weight in croissants was consumed, or to use more appropriate verbiage, hoovered. No butter or jam, obviously. I'm no novice: told there's an official weigh-in on Friday.

To be fair, thanks to the genius of modern technology, boredom was largely kept at bay. Plus, there was still the odd sharp thrill to puncture any monotony. For example, the letter, slipped surreptitiously under your door at 10pm on Day 8 – that's how us quarantiners refer to blocks of 24 hours – that promised two more Covid tests, bringing with it that fleeting jolt of excitement that you'd escape your room for 15 minutes. On separate days.

The jolt was all-too fleeting, granted, quickly superseded by the realisation you had two more brain excavations to survive. Heavyweight UFC person Francis Ngannou, a man so mountainous he is considered the Eighth Summit, said in May that he would rather take a punch in the face. Quite.

Then there was that mid-afternoon call, enquiring what you’d like to eat for lunch and dinner the following day. The extremely pleasant room service employee would reel off a multitude of options for both, when you both knew the answer was, and forever would be, “THE BUTTER CHICKEN PLEASE”. It really was magnificent.

For the post-dinner detox, and for those with the luxury of a veranda that looked out to the back of the property, you could smell the grass on Yas Links, or the sea air blowing off the Arabian Gulf. All so near, yet so very far away.

As said, hardships they weren’t. But hey.

Also, it must be noted: the hotel staff was lovely, at times more a helpline than a service. The local organisers were superb, too, constantly checking in, offering support wherever needed (laptop already connected to TV, thanks!).

The closer it edged to 14 days, the more rumour swelled. Friday had been designated "Fight Island Freedom Day", then it was Thursday. Whisper it (or type discreetly on WhatsApp), it was Friday again. When the news finally came, the confirmation that this in-truth-not-greatly-taxing-at-all ordeal was over, the Crowne Plaza seemed to tremble in united exultation.

Ultimately, it did feel all worth it. For we are in this watertight bubble, safe and secure and provided lovely accommodation and ringside seats as almost 100 fighters give everything they’ve got across almost 50 bouts, featuring four world title fights, all unspooling over 14 fascinating days.

Let’s be honest, when all's said and done, those 14 days for the UFC athletes are the real test of character.

Wonder if they’ll forgo the croissants.