UFC 251: A collaboration in overcoming insurmountable obstacles

UFC 251 to be held on Abu Dhabi's Yas Island 'Fight Island' this Sunday is testament to dedication and vision

UFC promises a knockout event

UFC promises a knockout event
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Gilbert Burns’ misfortune proved Jorge Masvidal’s gain.

Perhaps the UFC’s too. Maybe even Abu Dhabi’s.

Burns withdrew at the weekend from UFC 251, this Sunday’s must-see opener to the cannot-miss Fight Island, which unwinds through four events and 14 dizzying days on an 11-kilometre, cordoned-off patch inside Yas Island.

Burns never made it to the capital's specifically created "safe zone", a hugely disappointing development for one of the UFC's emergent stars at a time the promotion pushed on through the coronavirus pandemic.

The Brazilian contracted Covid-19, the news confirmed not long before his flight from Las Vegas to the UAE. From an organisational perspective, it was evidence the Abu Dhabi side of the operation was right to insist upon rigorous safety protocols; still, it was heartbreaking for the welterweight division's No 1-ranked challenger. Burns' championship bout against Kamaru Usman, the title-holder and a teammate, constituted the greatest opportunity of his career to date.

But, much like it has done through the trunk of the pandemic, when live sport ground understandably to a halt, the UFC ploughs on. Masvidal was a swift and somewhat sensational stand-in, the headline-grabbing American a more than enthusiastic public rival to Usman for much of the year. Even Masvidal's high-prolife pay dispute with the UFC proved not too baulky a barrier to overcome.

With his confirmation on Monday came further endorsement of the flourishing relationship between the world’s lead mixed martial arts promotion and Abu Dhabi. A five-year agreement was penned in April last year, long before the coronavirus began to take hold, but for Dana White to move so decisively to book Masvidal conveys his regard for the emirate.

Of course, the UAE capital has gone to great expense, both financially and in resources, to first land Fight Island and then to stage it. However, this month's fight festival provides dual appeal: it strengthens Abu Dhabi's burgeoning reputation as a hub for elite MMA, while also showcasing its emergence from the coronavirus crisis. If an enterprise this substantial can be carried off, then other global events - not solely sporting - can look towards its shores as a host destination, as well.

Final preparations for UFC Fight Island

Final preparations for UFC Fight Island

Focusing purely on the sporting aspect, Usman versus Masvidal is a sizeable cherry on an already impressive combat cake. Yes, Burns’ predicament is regrettable and the priority remains for him and his team who too tested positive to emerge unscathed on the other side. There is hope that, when he does, Burns will soon be given another shot at the big time.

Masvidal, though, is box office. He brings a certain swagger, the man ignored for too lengthy a period, who possesses dynamite in his fists and a Tony Montana shtick that broadens his attraction beyond the octagon. As his moniker suggests, Masvidal is bred for the game. And he plays it so well.

Usman, a champion of serious substance, now stands across from someone with whom he shares a genuine enmity; this is not Burns, a sparring partner and stable mate who promised to share a post-fight drink on Sunday, irrespective of the outcome.

How that plays into Usman’s psyche simply adds another delicious layer to UFC 251 and to Fight Island overall. It is a box-office bout that heads two other title clashes and a couple of rematches that whet the appetite.

In Alexander Volkanovski against Max Holloway, one of 2019's most memorable tussles gets another airing, the former looking to shield his featherweight belt from the man he claimed it from in December. Beforehand, Jose Aldo, a veritable UFC great, meets Petr Yan, the explosive, 6-and-0 Russian who hasn't hung around since his UFC debut two years ago. The pair battle for the vacant bantamweight crown.

Then there's the rematch between Rose Namajunas and Jessica Andrade, who clashed in May last year but were then kept apart by circumstances out of their control back in April. It is highly anticipated. It promises to live up to its billing.

Much, you’d expect, like UFC 251 in all; Fight Island, more generally. Masvidal’s 11th-hour reprieve was a masterstroke, magnifying the inaugural series' magnetism. If Khabib Nurmgomedov stood tall last September as the fighting face of UFC 242, an affirmation of this landmark new deal with Abu Dhabi, then its follow-up event, however unexpected, gleams with one of the marquee match-ups the sport has to offer.

There have been months of planning and extensive precautions taken, with an estimated 10,000 Covid-19 tests to this point administered among the 2,000-plus people inside the safe zone. The effort has been considered, considerable. The opening buzzer goes early on Sunday. From there, the four events and the 14 days of high-calibre competition are sure to be worth the endeavour.