Conor McGregor’s involvement in the upcoming UFC Fight Island has caused interest to “skyrocket” according to local organisers, as tickets for all three events have almost sold out in less than a week.
McGregor returns to the octagon for the first time in a year when he takes on Dustin Poirier in the headline bout at UFC 257 on January 24, which brings to a close the Abu Dhabi series. The UFC's third residency in the capital begins on Saturday with the first of two Fight Nights, with the other following four days later.
Unlike the previous two residences, Fight Island “Triple Header Week” will be held at the newly built Etihad Arena on Yas Bay, with a limited number of fans in attendance. It marks the first time the UFC has hosted events with spectators since March.
Tickets went on sale last Friday, with organisers saying only packages remain available. At the moment, each event will be capped at 2,000 fans.
While a number of the UFC’s prize athletes have competed before in Abu Dhabi, including Poirier and lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, McGregor will be making his UAE debut. The former two-division champion represents one of the most prominent names in sport, adding significantly Fight Island’s appeal.
"[The interest] has skyrocketed, to say the least," Nour Al Harmoudi, UFC Associate Project Manager, Department of Culture and Tourism Abu Dhabi, told The National. "Khabib is a fans' favourite, is the region's favourite. But Conor McGregor coming in, bringing what he brings to the table - his strength, his reputation, his energy - is really something else.
“It’s off the charts and people are hungry to watch him in person. We’ve never had him in the UAE before so it just doubles the excitement.
“We’ve had Dustin Poirier versus Khabib in 2019 during the Abu Dhabi Showdown Week series, and we’re so excited and happy to find Dustin coming back to Abu Dhabi. But I think what people are particularly looking forward to is McGregor and the excitement that he brings, the aggression he brings.
“Dustin Poirier is this loveable guy and McGregor is this guy that you can’t take your eyes off. So putting both of them in the same cage is going to cause such an uproar – and we’re excited to see that.”
Al Harmoudi said DCT-Abu Dhabi have taken every precaution to ensure the safe running of Fight Island, with fans having to present a negative Covid-19 test taken at least 48 hours prior to the event.
“After every single Fight Island that we’ve created we’ve already started working on the next Fight Island,” she said. “So the preparations started months prior to this weekend. And that’s just put everything in place correctly in the highest health and safety measures, abiding by all Covid restrictions.
“Since we’re opening for the fans we’re going to have to ask for the PCR results, thermal scanning, social distancing within the Etihad Arena itself, minimising congregation as much as possible. And, of course, receiving our delegates from the UFC, receiving the fighters and putting them in a place when they can train safely in the best and healthiest way possible."
Asked if the presence of fans provided a significant obstacle to negotiate, Al Harmoudi said: “I don’t think it was challenge. We were already very excited to have fans coming in. We’d already put in place everything that needed to be done. The Etihad Arena is the largest multipurpose indoor arena in the region right now, and it’s an 18,000 seater.
“But for our fans and to upkeep the Covid restrictions and abide by the health measures we’ve allowed for only 2,000 seats to be open for the UFC. That alone will show the world how we’re ready to host and we’re also being very safe.
“We’re so proud to have the UFC Triple Header Week to be the inaugural event at Etihad Arena. It really puts Abu Dhabi on the map and showcases the measures we’ve taken to open the world to live events again.”
Abu Dhabi signed a five-year deal with the UFC in April 2019 to stage one event per year, with UFC 242 kicking off the partnership that following September. However, Fight Island was created initially to allow the promotion’s international athletes to compete during the pandemic. The inaugural residency was held in July, with the second running across September and October.
On whether discussions have already taken place regarding a fourth series, Al Harmoudi said: “Fight Island was born out of Covid, and if need be we will try to keep that relationship with the UFC through Fight Island. However, we don’t have any information to confirm another Fight Island, only for people to look forward to the Abu Dhabi Showdown Week in October.
“When we first kicked off Abu Dhabi Showdown Week the deal was a five-year agreement. So that means we’re definitely going to see the UFC again in October, and that will be the next event.
“That’ll be two events in a year - just like last year we had two Fight Islands in a year. And I think people are going to look forward even more to Abu Dhabi Showdown Week seeing as we’re all very hopeful that Covid will slowly dissolve - fingers crossed. And if so hopefully we’ll be able to host even more fans at that time.”