Local organisers have deemed the recently concluded “Return to Fight Island” a huge success, with UFC president Dana White predicting the new Etihad Arena will one day rival the likes of Madison Square Garden.
"Return to Fight Island", a five-event series bookmarked by two pay-per-view shows, represented the UFC's second residency in Abu Dhabi in the space of three months. It finished last week with lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov's memorable victory against Justin Gaethje at UFC 254.
Beginning with UFC 253 on September 27, the five-week run featured 116 fighters from 32 countries across 58 bouts, including three title clashes. Similar to the inaugural Fight Island in July, the entire operation was staged inside a “safe zone bubble” housing more than 2,500 people. Organisers said more than 20,000 Covid-19 tests were conducted onsite.
The UFC, who last year signed a five-year agreement with Abu Dhabi, are expected to return to the capital early next year, with February mooted. Plans are that the third Fight Island series will take place in its new home, the 18,000-capacity, multipurpose Etihad Arena, instead of at Flash Forum.
“UFC Fight Island and 'Return to Fight Island' truly exceeded even our high expectations,” said Ali Hassan Al Shaiba, executive director of tourism and marketing at the Department of Culture and Tourism - Abu Dhabi.
“To safely and successfully host two mega event series in the space of three months, when much of the world is standing still, is testament to our special relationship with UFC, which continues to grow stronger, break records, raise the bar and deliver bigger and better events every time.
“Our aim for 'Return to Fight Island' was to make it even better than July’s inaugural UFC Fight Island while demonstrating Abu Dhabi’s role in reviving global sports events and our readiness to welcome visitors with the highest health and safety protocols in place. I cannot thank everybody enough for making this happen.
“We have cemented Abu Dhabi’s position as a driving force for the return of live events in a safe environment and underlined why Abu Dhabi is the international home of UFC. How do we build on that now? By giving UFC a brand, new international home in the Etihad Arena.”
UFC 253 in pictures
Other than Nurmagomedov's title unification bout at UFC 254, the undefeated Israel Adesanya defended his middleweight crown against Paulo Costa, while Jan Blachowicz dispatched Dominick Reyes to capture the vacant light heavyweight belt. Both those championship fights were staged at UFC 253.
"Return to Fight Island" also featured the first women's main event in the region, with Holly Holm dominating Irene Aldana in the second of the five shows, on October 4.
White said: “It has been incredible experience for everyone involved, from UFC staff, the fighters, my executive team. It is very had to put in words. The level of service here, the attention to detail, the infrastructure, the beach, the hotels, the restaurants. To be in a bubble - there is no better bubble on earth than the one here in Abu Dhabi.
“The sacrifice that the people here have made… to leave their families for so long to make it happen, to the people from Abu Dhabi who worked on this whole thing, I cannot say thank you enough and how much we appreciate it.
“When the pandemic started in the US, we needed a place where we can get the fighters from all over the world to compete… and Abu Dhabi was the place. We have people from every inch of the world fighting in the two stints here on Fight Island."
On the UFC's return, White added: “To come to Abu Dhabi next time, the only way to pull that off is the Etihad Arena - it is the next step. When I toured it, I was telling them that after five to 10 years of events in the place, it will be like Madison Square Garden or the O2. That’s the next step.”