Not content with overseeing the historic Fight Island this month, UFC president Dana White confirmed he’s hunting for a house in Abu Dhabi too.
Such is the emirate’s influence on the world’s lead mixed martial arts promotion, and given the current global pandemic, White expects his organisation to spend quite a lot of time in the capital for the foreseeable future.
Abu Dhabi has already a five-year deal with the UFC, signed last year, with the inaugural Fight Island billed an “extension” of that partnership.
Speaking on Friday ahead of UFC 251, the opening event in this four-show series, White conceded Fight Island could in fact make a return to the UAE later this year, with September or October mooted. The concept was originally created to allow the UFC's international athletes to compete during the coronavirus crisis.
“These guys have been our partners for over 10 years,” White said. “We’ve been doing business with these guys for over a decade. The reason we did the deal with Abu Dhabi is because Abu Dhabi adds value. These guys actually add a lot of value.
“Look at the way they do things: who does [stuff] like this? I seriously think when you talk about hospitality, nobody’s better than Abu Dhabi. These guys are incredible.
“We’re going to be doing a lot of things over here. I’m looking at houses here. I’m buying a house or a condo or something. I’m looking this weekend while we’re here. We’re going to be doing a lot of things with Abu Dhabi; we’re probably going to be doing things with these guys for the rest of my career. This place is amazing.”
Pushed on the chances of even a Fight Island 2 taking place in Abu Dhabi after the summer – the UFC has shows booked in Las Vegas through August – White said: “Yeah, September-October. Listen, they just shut down Las Vegas again today. We’re, like, back on Phase One. California shut some stuff. I don’t see any time soon where we’re going to be flying people in from all over the world to the United States. We’re going to be here easily into next year.
“We’re going to be here for a while. That’s why I’m buying a house. I think we’re going to be spending a lot of time here [UAE].”
Focusing on Sunday, UFC 251 is headlined by Kamaru Usman’s welterweight title defence against Jorge Masvidal, one of the three championship bouts on the card.
Masvidal was a late replacement for Gilbert Burns, who tested positive for Covid-19 last week. After a remarkably swift negotiation, the hugely popular American was confirmed on Monday, thus taking the fight at six days' notice.
And the UFC is seeing the benefit, given the numbers White says it’s doing online.
“Masvidal was brilliant to take this fight. Brilliant,” he said. “Gilbert Burns, the number one contender, stylistically against Usman is an incredible fight. When the fight fell out, Masvidal slid into that spot.
“I just left a fighter meeting: this thing is trending off the charts. This thing is trending higher than a Conor McGregor fight. The only thing this is comparable to is Conor-Khabib [Nurmagomedov]. It's trending as big a fight as I’ve ever seen in my entire career.”
On Abu Dhabi as host of Fight Island, and the extensive Covid-19 protocols put in place by local organisers, White said: “It’s everything that I knew it would be. Nobody does things like Abu Dhabi does. Leading up to this event, there’s been 8,000 tests. Nobody’s doing anything like that. We had planes fly in from four different hubs: two out of Vegas, one out of Brazil, London, Moscow, to get all these fighters here.
“The whole experience has been amazing. Quarantine isn’t too fun, but we knew that before we got here. We’ve been doing that for a few months – it’s never going to be fun. This isn’t a bad place to do it either.”
Abu Dhabi gears up for UFC 251
Asked where Fight Island ranks among his achievements as UFC president, White added: “It hasn’t happened yet, but going into today, this is one of the most successful events we’ve ever done, if you look at the numbers and what’s going on. It’s got to deliver [on Sunday] now."
White spoke publicly for the first time about last week's tragic news that Nurmagomedov's father, Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, had died from complications resulting from contracting Covid-19.
Lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, unbeaten in 28 MMA bouts, has not fought since UFC 242 in Abu Dhabi last September, but was expected to defend his crown in October against interim champion Justin Gaethje. Abu Dhabi was said to be "frontrunner" to host.
Of Abdulmanap's death, White said: “It’s terrible. We feel horrible for Khabib. We know how much he loves his father and how close they were. Just giving him time to mourn and heal and do whatever he needs to do. We’re not bothering him at all right now; we’re leaving him alone.
“Khabib needs time; he’s going to need time to get his head straight and figure out what’s next for him. We’ll leave him alone for a little while. We’ll get it figured out.”