UFC eager to seize on UAE’s enthusiasm after Abu Dhabi Fight Night

Discussions underway over Middle Eastern version of popular 'Ultimate Fighter' television series

Fans watch the featherweight bout between Jim Alers and Alan Omer at du Arena in Abu Dhabi on April 11, 2014. Pawan Singh / The National
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The main event had been over for a couple of hours and the fans had long since wandered back to their cars, but Garry Cook had more news to impart.

The regional director of the Ultimate Fighting Championship trotted out some impressive attendance and broadcast viewing figures from Friday's rollicking UFC Fight Night 39 in Abu Dhabi, including a head count of 7,963 at the du Arena, an outdoor venue.

Just as fans had waited four years between UFC visits, being patient had its virtues. Shortly after 1am Saturday morning, Cook then noted that discussions with local officials this week had been fruitful and he all but guaranteed that the next visit from the travelling UFC troupe will be sooner, not later.

“It’s highly likely that this time next year, we’ll be having this conversation again,” Cook said.

Standing at the podium in the post-fight news conference, surrounded by fighters and other UFC officials, the statement drew applause from several listeners, trainers and their charges.

Better still, Cook said discussions have taken place about launching a Middle Eastern version of the UFC’s developmental television series The Ultimate Fighter, which he described as a crucial “catalyst” to the grassroots growth of the emerging sport in new areas.

“As far as I’m concerned, the UAE had one heck of a show,” Cook said.

There had been doubts in the early moments. Pre-sale ticket sales were tepid, but strong walk-up demand effectively filled the arena in the final hours.

The first match ended in a double-disqualification in the first round, when the two fighters butted heads, ending in a no-contest being declared.

“It got off to kind of a weird start,” Cook said. “This whole thing is kind of unpredictable.”

Equal parts colour and combat, it fast became obvious why fans have gravitated towards the hybrid sport, which mixes martial arts and mayhem in equal doses. It also helps to have glib sports figures who can stir the pot.

American Clay Guida, after winning his featherweight bout with Tatsuya Kawajiri, called out Irish featherweight Conor McGregor, whom he called a “leprechaun”.

There was no pot of gold awaiting McGregor at the end of the rainbow if he fights Guida, just a “chest hair sandwich and a mullet”, the American fighter promised. The crowd erupted in laughter.

As for California-born Ramsey Nijem, he had the fans eating out of his hand, too. A fighter with Palestinian roots, he said over the stadium public-address system that he wanted to bring a title to the fans of the Middle East after he knocked out previously undefeated Beneil Dariush, who has roots in Iran.

Predictably, it generated one of the biggest cheers of the night. As for whether it was a spontaneous outburst or a savvy public-relations strike, the University of Utah graduate all but winked afterwards and said: “Well, my college degree is in marketing.”

It is likely that Nijem will be part of any future UAE card, because he can engender crucial local support, if not serve as an ambassador for the Arab region. Bring it on, he said.

“I really approached this fight like a title fight, being a Palestinian-American coming into the UAE, fighting,” he said. “It’s a lot of pressure that can weigh on you as an athlete, but I really want to represent Palestinian people, the Arab people, the whole Middle East, in a good light.

“There’s always, in the news, the negative this and that, the fighting, the warring. I want to show that we’re more than that and that we’re a strong people.”

Strength was a recurring theme on the UFC card. In the main event, heavyweight Roy Nelson hammered UFC warhorse Antonio Nogueira with a trio of crushing right hands, knocking him out with 1:18 left in the first round. It was not the fight that some expected.

“[The fight] was a little shorter than I expected,” Nelson deadpanned, drawing laughs from the audience.

Given the fan feedback and signals from organisation officials, the wait for the next UFC iteration should not be long either.


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