Local organisers of last weekend’s UFC 242 say the event exceeded expectations and that they are looking forward to an even more successful fight night next year.
The UFC returned to the capital last week for the first time in five years, with Saturday’s event at The Arena on Yas Island concluding the inaugural Abu Dhabi Showdown Week. The third UFC event to be held here, it marked the first in a five-year partnership announced with the Department of Culture and Tourism - Abu Dhabi in April, which guarantees major fights through to 2023 at least.
Attended by close to 14,000 fans, a sold-out UFC 242 was headlined by Khabib Nurmagomedov’s submission victory against Dustin Poirier in their lightweight unification bout. The Dagestan native, comfortably the night’s main draw, extended his unblemished professional mixed martial arts (MMA) record to 28-0.
"It definitely exceeded expectations," Fatima Saeed Al Baloushi, the DCT's Acting Events Calendar Planning and Development manager, Abu Dhabi Events Bureau, told The National. "If we look at the last two years, 2010 and 2014, when UFC came in it created a good experience. But the 2019 edition was exceptional. We had an amazing crowd - 55 per cent international visitors coming in - enjoying the fan zone and attending the 13 fights on the fight card.
“We had a wonderful main card, amazing names and, of course, the highlight was Khabib and Dustin. The evening ended in the champ being undefeated and continued to hold his titles, while the crowd showed Dustin so much respect in the octagon afterwards.
“Abu Dhabi has been a great platform to show the values of MMA. We have enjoyed hosting UFC 242 and we look forward to 2020.”
Next year, the event is set to move to Yas Bay Arena, still in development, with the capacity expected to increase to upwards of 18,000. Al Baloushi said DCT-Abu Dhabi were confident some of the issues experienced by fans at The Arena on Saturday – for example, problems arose in transport from the venue after the event – would be negated by switching to Yas Bay, and that UFC 242 had provided organisers with a number of “learning opportunities”.
Al Baloushi also said the UFC had been hugely positive in their feedback throughout the event and afterwards, corroborating the promotion's president Dana White's comments late on Saturday in which he heralded it a huge success.
“What will be great is that we will have the new venue, in Yas Bay Arena,” Al Baloushi said. “Having a permanent structure comes in with the facilities that help the live experience and the journey for the consumers versus a temporary structure. So that will be key. It will definitely uplift the consumer journey for 2020.
“Also, one of the greatest things we did through Abu Dhabi Showdown Week is we created a full fight week, with a lot of auxiliary city-wide activations across the city where the different multiple touch points in the city – the malls, the retail sector, the F&B sector, and hotels - were also a part of this celebration.
“It was a beautiful addition to UFC 242, as were the pre-fight and after-fight concerts. It wasn’t just one-day event. It was multiple events that went above and beyond the UFC programme. And that’s something we’d like to continue.
"This model has allowed people to come and stay longer in the destination. So it helped boost the economy, helped boost our numbers in the tourism sector. And we look forward to maintain that and grow that in the next year."
Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed receives UFC champion Khabib Nurmagomedov
Speaking Saturday, White said the UFC planned to do "some cool stuff" next year, and that talks had taken place to shoot his Looking for a Fight documentary in Abu Dhabi. He said it could culminate in a bout taking place at the top of Louvre Abu Dhabi, with the idea being to unearth an athlete from the region to compete on fight night.
“That’s something exciting,” Al Baloushi said. “It shows you how we’re taking this live experience and getting into the community and engaging the community in multiple ways. And we’re excited that we’re able to create a talent, a fighter who can participate in the name of Abu Dhabi or the region. Hopefully Abu Dhabi will be the home of such opportunities with UFC.”
Asked if, given his resounding popularity, there would be attempts made to convince Nurmagomedov to return next year, Al Baloushi said: "Abu Dhabi would definitely welcome any athlete that is top of his rank, any champion or anyone who wants to create history and change history.
"So, if Khabib decides to come back to Abu Dhabi and defend his title again, we are more than happy to welcome him back. Khabib was greeted very well by the whole community, from the leadership of the country all the way to the fans, and there's a huge community here from his hometown who are also excited to see him again.
"I don’t know if he’s going to come back to Abu Dhabi, but he’s certainly always welcome in Abu Dhabi.”