Local organisers say Khabib Nurmagomedov’s return in Abu Dhabi next month will provide an “extraordinary finale” to the upcoming Fight Island, with the second UFC residency beginning this Sunday.
The world’s lead mixed martial arts promotion has relocated to the capital once more for an extended five-event series, which gets under way with UFC 253 on Sunday and concludes with UFC 254 on October 24. Three other shows, including the first in Abu Dhabi to feature a female main event, take place on Yas Island, on October 4, 11 and 18.
Following on from July's hugely successful inaugural run, the "Return to UFC Fight Island" marks the first time in the organisation's history that successive numbered events will be held in the same city outside of Las Vegas.
Israel Adesanya's middleweight title defence against Paulo Costa headlines UFC 253, while the card includes another championship bout in Dominick Reyes encounter with Jan Blachowicz for the vacant light heavyweight crown.
Meanwhile, at UFC 254, undefeated lightweight champion Nurmagomedov will compete for the first time in more than a year in his clash with interim title-holder Justin Gaethje. Abu Dhabi hosted Nurmagomedov's last fight, too, at UFC 242 in September 2019.
"Khabib has been always an incredibly popular figure in this region," Ali Al Shaiba, the executive director at the Department of Culture and Tourism (DCT), told The National. "We saw that when he last appeared in the octagon during the sold-out UFC 242 right here in The Arena last September.
“The reaction of the fans everywhere he went and after his victory on the night underlined how much he is admired here. So his match-up against Justin will be an extraordinary finale to an enthralling ‘Return to UFC Fight Island’.
“It will be an amazing show for sure. Both fighters are ready and we are happy this fight takes place here in Abu Dhabi, and that Khabib is back.”
UFC 242 in Abu Dhabi
As in July – that run comprised four events - Fight Island will be staged inside a designated “safe zone” on Yas Island, open to only to the UFC delegation and those deemed necessary to the operation. As it stands, and similar to the summer series, fans will not be permitted to attend any of the events.
“For us, always health and safety is the priority and everything else comes second," Al Shaiba said. "So today we're not expecting to have any spectators in the arena. We’re aware how eager fans are to attend fights.
“However, to ensure the health and safety of the UFC fans, athletes, personnel, stakeholders and also the residents of Abu Dhabi, ‘Return to UFC Fight Island’ will be held behind closed doors, unfortunately.
“And, if there is any opportunity, definitely we’re going to announce this and make it in the right way. But for now people can enjoy watching it through the screens.”
Yas Island's transformation for Fight Island 1
A return residency in Abu Dhabi has been mooted for some time, with confirmation arriving last Thursday. Asked why the official announcement came so close to the beginning of Fight Island, Al Shaiba said: “I don’t think there was a delay. There was just a preparation from both sides. We wanted to make sure we built on the success of the first edition, and also that everybody is aligned here in the destination.
"As you know, it doesn’t happen only through DCT; it will be a collective effort by everybody here in Abu Dhabi, all the other entities. So we wanted to make sure everybody’s aligned, everybody’s ready 100 per cent to kick this off.
"It was a matter of time for everyone to get ready on board and we had the right guidelines in place to ensure we have another successful event here in Abu Dhabi.”
On the strengthening of the relationship between Abu Dhabi and the UFC, who last year signed a five-year partnership, Al Shaiba added: “It’s kind of a win-win situation. We have a good relation with the guys there.
"We have now a track record of success of events here in Abu Dhabi. Last year, UFC 242 was sold-out and this year the first edition of Fight Island was a great success for everyone - for us in Abu Dhabi and also for the UFC team.
“Based on this, they decided to do it again. And I’m sure if there’s an opportunity to do it even more in Abu Dhabi they will never hesitate to choose Abu Dhabi as the destination.”
Al Shaiba said the UFC's return underlines the emirate's "readiness to revive tourism" and, alongside the ongoing Indian Premier League and December's Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, provides a positive indication of how the capital is containing Covid-19.
“Today, in Abu Dhabi, we made it happen," he said. "We resumed the activity of events, brought all the big events here during such a situation. That’s a bonus, that’s a credit, that’s a hope.
“Everything is positive here and that’s the message we want to send to everybody: that, although we have such circumstances, Abu Dhabi proves that it can host these events during this situation - with the highest health and safety standards, of course.”