All eyes will be on Yas Island on September 7 when UFC 242 arrives in Abu Dhabi with one of the sport’s most famous faces, Khabib Nurmagomedov, front and centre when he makes his return.
But far from just one night of high-profile MMA, it marks the first step in a five-year plan to develop new UFC fans and fighters across the Middle East with the UAE as its staging post.
“Why now? I mean, now is as any good a time as any. We probably should’ve done this a while ago,” said David Shaw, UFC’s senior vice president of international and content.
It’s part of a “truly genuine aspiration” to expand globally and Abu Dhabi, having hosted two successful events in 2010 and 2014 seemed a perfect place to invest in.
Shaw says the move is a “commitment over the long-term” to “help drive people to Abu Dhabi, showcase the city to the rest of the world”.
He compares UFC 242 to the build-up to the NFL’s Super Bowl. As the build-up to September 7 begins, people can get involved, with muscle and fitness workshops, concerts and autograph signings expected.
But at UFC 242's figurehead is its headline capture of undefeated lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, back after a high-profile eight-month ban. Last seen fly kicking supporters of rival Conor McGregor, prompting a brawl in New York, the devoted Muslim is a regular visitor to the UAE.
Speaking at a press conference in London last week, Nurmagomedov said he was not surprised UFC was heading to Abu Dhabi because conversations he had with high-level UAE figures showed there was an interest.
He has compared the "crazy" attention he receives in the UAE to being at home in Dagestan, Russia and told reporters he was excited for what he was sure would be a good fight.
To get Nurmagomedov on his return is a significant coup and fulfils a reported ambition to fight in Abu Dhabi.
“Khabib is as good as it gets, he’s as global a star and an important individual for our sport. So to have him be the kind of entry point, the foray into this five-year strategy is incredibly important for us,” Shaw said.
“He’s got ties, he’s got friendships and relationship ties, he’s got language ties, he’s got religious ties, he’s got geographic ties. It all makes sense.”
And Shaw said it was possible Nurmagomedov could return one day.
“We haven’t really planned that far out, but it was important for us to have him involved in this.”
September 7 comes at a time when UFC is trying to expand its worldwide reach even further, he said.
“We do have a truly genuine aspiration to be a global sport and by a lot of counts right now we’re getting there.”
A few years back a handful of key regions were identified which needed investment: South America, Russia, China and the Middle East. UFC recently opened a performance institute in Shanghai, set up an office in Russia 15 months ago and is holding two events a year in South America.
The Middle East needs its own strategy – as do all regions, says Shaw – but working with the UAE’s culture ministry to put on a comprehensive week of activities has helped propel UFF 242 forward. Together they have also signed the deal that will see an annual fight for the next five years as the sport seeks new growth but also to inspire a new wave of fighters.
“Ultimately if we have 5 years of events, more robust content offering, you’re going to get fans involved in the sport,” Shaw said.
“You are going to get up and coming MMA athletes that want to become professional and you’re going to get corporate partners that want to rally around the sport and make it bigger than it is today.”
He insists there must be a focus on supporting amateur and early professional fighters when the UFC travels. The aim is to find the hidden talents and get them into the pipeline, gaining experience and growing.
Using Nurmagomedov and Russia as an example, Shaw says local stars can invigorate whole regions and attract newcomers, whether fans or athletes, to the sport.
By committing to Abu Dhabi over the next five years and kicking off the series with one of themost famous fighters, UFC hopes it can help propel regional interest towards the sport and shine a light on the UAE.