UFC Fight Island: UFC 251 fight card even 'stronger' with Jorge Masvidal, say organisers

American called up at the 11th hour to replace Gilbert Burns in Yas Island's main event against Kamaru Usman

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Local organisers have thanked the UFC for their work in booking Jorge Masvidal as a late replacement to face Kamaru Usman at UFC 251 in Abu Dhabi on Sunday, saying the opening Fight Island card is now even stronger for it.

Masvidal was on Monday confirmed as stand-in for Gilbert Burns, who withdrew from the welterweight title clash having tested positive for Covid-19 at the weekend. The Brazilian, the division's No 1-ranked challenger, had not yet departed the United States for the UAE.

However, the UFC turned around a remarkably quick deal to get Masvidal, whose record stands at 35-13, despite the American being involved in a public pay dispute with the promotion.

One of the sport's most popular fighters, Masvidal travelled to Abu Dhabi on Monday along with Usman (16-1), albeit on separate flights. The pair will undergo further testing once they arrive and a short period of quarantine, as organisers ensure their strict Covid-19 protocols are adhered to.

"First, when we received the news of Burns, that was disappointing for us," said Ali Al Shaiba, executive director of tourism and marketing at the Department of Culture and Tourism. “But at the same time it showed the success of the protocols and the decision we took first when we said there should be a pre-departure test for everyone. And we were right. The most important thing is how successful the protocol is.

“Unfortunately we couldn’t have Burns here as part of Fight Island, but as you know, good things come to those who wait. So we waited a while, a couple of days to see who would be the replacement. And I think now we have a much stronger fight card with Masvidal versus Usman.

“Everyone is excited. Things have been done in a few hours and I’d like to thank the UFC team for their quick response in that. That shows how strong the partnership is with these guys and how we are both looking at a win-win situation.

“From our side, the media exposure for both [the Burns and Masvidal] news was great, even if it was negative or positive. Both were picked up globally and that shows how important this event is for us in Abu Dhabi as a destination.

“And also for the UFC, you see people are engaged day and night with this news: who’s coming? What’s happening? That was really a hit topic today in the news.”

Final preparations for UFC Fight Island

Final preparations for UFC Fight Island

The inaugural Fight Island is considered an extension of the five-year deal signed between Abu Dhabi and the UFC in April last year. There are four championship bouts on Fight Island, with three on UFC 251 - the opening show of the four-event series. After Sunday, Flash Forum will stage Fight Nights on July 16, 19 and 26.

Al Shaiba said Masvidal's late inclusion was further proof of that relationship with the UFC, and that DCT were always confident the promotion would come up with an adequate replacement, even given the short notice.

“As I said, we have a great partnership and relationship with those guys,” Al Shaiba said. “We were very calm. It was kind of a conversation, as we do every day with the guys in the US, and we discussed many things, one of the topics being who’s going to be replacing Burns. They said give us a couple of hours to arrange it.

“They know how important that fight was for Fight Island. For them, from a broadcast point of view, it is also important for the replacement to be as strong as Burns. We had no doubt it would be someone, if not at a similar level, then better than Burns for this fight card. And the guys committed to what they promised. So that shows the partnership is even more of a success than what we planned in the beginning. Today we’re in good shape with the guys.”

Al Shaiba said DCT had received a significant amount of positive feedback from the UFC and fighters, as the first Fight Island event edges closer. He added that DCT had been in touch with Burns since his positive test, and also Khabib Nurmagomedov, whose father Abdulmanap died last week from complications resulting from contracting Covid-19.

Khabib Nurmagomedov is a regular visitor to the Emirates, and headlined UFC 242 last September in Abu Dhabi, where he successfully defended his lightweight title.

“We are engaged with all the fighters,” Al Shaiba said. “Gilbert, we have communicated with him and his team about this unfortunate circumstance. Also, we have sent another letter to Khabib and his family about the death of his father.

“They are part of the Abu Dhabi family and we treat them in that way. As one team here, we wish all the best for all the fighters who are playing in this sport. Abu Dhabi is always their home.”