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Khabib Nurmagomedov submitted Dustin Poirier and the UFC’s return to Abu Dhabi had its crowning moment.
It had been too long since its last visit, but a five-year agreement signed between the capital and the world’s leading mixed martial arts (MMA) promotion was announced in April 2019. With it, the promise of world title fights annually. Central to the UFC’s mission to expand globally, it marked a seismic step for the sport in the region.
The company had come to Abu Dhabi before, in 2010 and 2014, but not like this. UFC 242 signalled the beginning of a new chapter for MMA in the Middle East, headlined by the title unification bout between undefeated lightweight champion Nurmagomedov and interim belt-holder Poirier.
It provided a fitting conclusion to a weeklong stop in the emirate. For the first time, a series of events and fan activations, neatly packaged as Abu Dhabi Showdown Week, built steadily the anticipation.
Dana White added to the excitement just as the initial blows were struck at UFC 242 on September 7. Speaking to a small gathering of local reporters, the promotion's president trumpeted how that five-year vision for Abu Dhabi was "so next level, it's mind-boggling".
At fight night, The Arena, a packed, especially constructed venue – general-sale tickets sold out within 96 hours in June – whooped and hollered through 12 bouts before Nurmagomedov and Poirier took centre stage.
The champion, a native of Dagestan, Russia, was the undoubted favourite, with thousands of his compatriots present to cheer him on. Nurmagomedov had set pulses racing in the days previous, when he missed the traditional pre-fight media day. Rumours were rife he was struggling badly to make weight.
But Nurmagomedov entered the octagon on fight night to rapturous applause, making his comeback following a nine-month suspension meted out for a post-bout brawl with Conor McGregor in October 2018. Poirier, meanwhile, was a deadly striker who vowed in the buildup to "shock the world".
In the end, Nurmagomedov had Abu Dhabi rocking to his beat. He submitted Poirier in the third round having initially absorbed some punishment from his opponent. The roar of the 13,000-plus crowd told its own story, Nurmagomedov with belt wrapped around his waist, his professional record climbing to 28-0. Poirier departed in tears, but he was a valiant loser.
Speaking to the media afterwards, Nurmagomedov laid out his credentials as the UFC’s premier fighter, across all divisions.
“Give me just respect: put me at No 1 pound-for-pound fighter next week, because I think I deserve this,” he said. “I am undefeated. I deserve some respect.”
Conceding he felt intensely the pressure to perform during his walkout to battle, nevertheless Nurmagomedov confirmed his desire to do it all again in Abu Dhabi.
“Of course, I want to fight here,” he said. “I have very good energy here. I love these people; these people love me. I want to come back here, maybe next year. Why not?”