ABU DHABI // It drew a sold-out crowd to du Arena, featured the visual appeal of a modern big-top circus and the ear-bending crunch of a rock concert, and was widely deemed a theatrical and economic success.
Yet it has taken four years for UFC, the increasingly popular mixed-martial arts organisation, to make a repeat visit to Abu Dhabi.
Get ready for an adrenaline rush.
UFC organisers yesterday launched the first in a series of five events to be staged in the Arab region over the next two years, with two set for Abu Dhabi.
The first UFC Fight Night will take place April 11 at the du Arena, one day removed from the four-year anniversary of the last bouts staged in the capital.
With an audience reach of 500 million around the world, it remains the most successful event in history staged by promoters Flash Entertainment, officials with the company said.
Given that UFC is billed as the “fastest-growing sport in the world,” the numbers this time around should only get bigger. Sort of like the competitors themselves.
The heavyweight-class main event will feature Brazilian war horse Rodrigo "Minotaura" Noguiera and Las Vegas native Roy "Big Country" Nelson, who flew into town this week to promote the fight.
“I have always wanted to come here, and now I get to fight a legend in our sport,” said Nelson, who is ranked ninth in the heavyweight division.
“He’s not going to try to [win on points]. He’s going to try to rip my head off.”
In the mayhem called MMA [Mixed Martial Arts], there is not much room for finesse, which is one of the biggest popularity points for the sport in the UAE. A number of local MMA outfits have sprung up in the four years since UFC was last in the country.
It is a sport that translates easily to every language: Two men walk into a confined space, and quite often, only one walks out. Ring the bell.
“It is like the days of Roman gladiators,” said Rafael Haubert, who runs Nogueira’s massive new training facility in Dubai.
While UAE cricket draws a certain fan base and golf events lure plenty of Westerners, the MMA demographic defies description.
UFC recently staged a fight night in Manchester and 48 per cent of the people on hand had never before seen a UFC bout.
“We find fans from all walks of life – multi-gender, multi-cultural – you can’t define a UFC fan,” said UFC vice-president Garry Cook, a former official with Manchester City Football Club. “There is an element of truth and authenticity to this sport. We’ve brought that primal combat theory and formalised it. It’s a modern-day fan experience.”
The card will feature nine other fights, which includes three fighters with Middle East roots – Alptekin Ozkilic (Turkey), Beneil Dariush (Iran) and Alan Omer (Iraq). Ramsey Nijem, an Arab-American from Utah, will fight Dariush in a lightweight bout.
Nogueira, nicknamed Big Nog, has a few local ties himself. He and his twin brother Rogerio, aka Little Nog, opened a sprawling, 10,000 square-foot martial arts and fitness facility in Dubai last September, called Team Nogueira Dubai, the largest of his 22 branded facilities worldwide.
If there is anybody qualified to gauge the marketplace, it is Nogueira, who has been competing in the UAE since 2001, primarily in jiu-jitsu events. The sport has gained a fast foothold in the country.
“Since then, I have seen how much the sport has grown in this country,” he said.
In fact, Nogueira described the UAE “the motherland of grappling tournaments.”
The card is set to begin at 6pm, which is significant in one odd regard. The bouts will represent the second time that UFC has staged fights outdoors. The first instance was four years ago, at the same venue. Heat and humidity will be monitored and blowers will be used to keep the air circulating.
“Anytime you fight outdoors, you have to worry about climate,” said Nelson, noting that his pre-fight routine will need a major adjustment. “It can be mentally and physically draining.”
With two of the five Fight Nights set for the UAE over the next two years, Flash Entertainment’s John Lickrish said that arenas in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Saudi Arabia “are all on the agenda” as possible venues for the other three shows.
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