UFC president Dana White says plans for Abu Dhabi during the next five years are “mind-boggling” as the promotion promises to transform mixed martial arts and UFC in the UAE.
The UFC signed an agreement with the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi (DCT-Abu Dhabi) in April, guaranteeing major events will be staged in the capital through to 2024 at least.
The much-anticipated UFC 242, which takes place at the newly constructed The Arena on Saturday night, marks the first event of the partnership.
Headlined by Khabib Nurmagomedov’s lightweight unification bout against Dustin Poirier, it represents the third time Abu Dhabi has hosted the UFC following fight nights in 2010 and 2014.
Speaking to select local media before UFC 242 kicked off, White said he was “blown away” by the organisation of the event, before declaring that it was only the beginning of a long and lucrative link-up with the emirate.
“We kick-started this market 10 years ago. We came in, people loved it and it really started everything,” White said. “Now this new deal we’ve done here over the next five years – I’m telling you right now, remember this: wait until you see where we are in this country in five years from now. We’re going to be massive.
“The stuff I’m talking about with these guys? Crazy. I don’t want to say any of it publicly because we’ve talked to the royal family and their people behind closed doors, so I don’t want to start saying anything until it’s concrete and it’s done. But, when I tell you guys it’s so next-level, it’s mind-boggling.
“The Middle East as a whole has the power to do whatever they want to do. Look at the big Anthony Joshua fight going to Saudi. We’ll see. All I can tell you is that mixed martial arts and the UFC will be massive in this country in the next five years.”
While he would not be drawn on specifics, White said he wanted to make international fight week – the week-long build-up to fight night – “10 times what we’re doing in [Las] Vegas”, including parties with UFC talent and sizeable expos for fitness and mixed martial arts.
He said the September date would remain, and confirmed the present partnership with DCT-Abu Dhabi was exclusive to the region and would not involve UFC extending to Saudi Arabia - despite the Kingdom having approached the promotion.
White also revealed a new 19,000-seat arena will be built in Abu Dhabi for the next event to be held there. The Arena holds 13,000.
“We’re talking about doing some really cool stuff here and making this – Abu Dhabi is such a destination – a big event every year where people fly in from all over the world,” White said. “We have big plans here over the next five years.”
White reiterated his commitment to bringing elite-level, championship fights to Abu Dhabi, although he denied the success of this weekend's UFC 242 was dependent on having Nurmagomedov headline.
The undefeated Russian, whose record stands at 27-0, represents one of the sport’s most popular athletes, with Abu Dhabi his return to the Octogaon since last October’s high-profile fight with Conor McGregor – billed then the biggest bout in UFC history.
“Everybody keeps thinking this whole thing was based on Khabib, which isn’t true,” White said. “We have a five-year deal to bring five big fights over here. If we couldn’t get the Khabib fight done I was going to bring [middleweight champion Robert] Whittaker and Israel Adesanya here. That fight [at UFC 243 in Melbourne next month] has sold over 40,000 tickets already in Australia.
“We’re bringing big fights here, whether it’s Arab guys, whatever. We’re bringing the best fights here, period.”
White said Abu Dhabi would continue to help push the UFC into new territories, with India very much on his radar. Last week’s UFC Fight Night, which took place for the first time in Shenzhen, was deemed a huge success and a seminal moment for the sport in China.
Asked how UFC 242 had been perceived outside the UAE, White said: “Massive everywhere. This thing is trending and tracking right now and breaking all kinds of records. It’s massive."