Dana White 'excited' to continue Abu Dhabi love affair as future UFC plans take shape

UFC president tells 'The National' the next step in the 'game-changing' partnership and offers his thoughts on Saturday's stacked UFC 280 event

Dana White arrives at the ceremonial weigh in before UFC 280 in Abu Dhabi. Chris Whiteoak / The National
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Dana White says the UFC will put on fights in Abu Dhabi for “the rest of my life”, with multiple events per year “absolutely, positively going to happen” in future.

The world’s lead mixed martial arts promotion returns to the capital on Saturday night with UFC 280 at Etihad Arena, when Charles Oliveira and Islam Makhachev headline one of the most-talent rich cards in recent memory.

Oliveira and Makhachev face off for the vacant lightweight title, with the bill also featuring a championship bout between bantamweight belt-holder Aljamain Sterling and former two-time champion TJ Dillashaw.

Meanwhile, the hugely popular Sean O’Malley takes on former title-holder Petr Yan, while the likes of Belal Muhammad, Sean Brady, Beneil Dariush, Mateusz Gamrot and top prospect Muhammad Mokaev also compete.

“You know how I feel about Abu Dhabi, I love this place,” White told The National. "Every time we come here, we like to deliver. The powers that be in this country have always been very good to us.

“This is like our marquee event of the year. We always want to bring the biggest and the brightest here to Abu Dhabi.”

The relationship between the UFC and the capital dates back to before the promotion held its first event in the emirate, in 2010. It has since strengthened with a five-year partnership signed in 2019 with the Department of Culture and Tourism – the agreement guaranteed one title fight, at least, each year – and the introduction of the Fight Island series in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. UFC 280 will be the promotion’s 15th event in Abu Dhabi since 2019.

Last year, during UFC 267, White told The National he was close to finalising a deal with Abu Dhabi that would be a “total game-changer for all of combat sports, not just the UFC”. On Friday, he said those plans were very much on track.

“Literally had the meeting this afternoon again,” White said. “This thing’s taken a little bit longer than expected unfortunately, but everything’s going in the right direction.

“Our relationship here couldn’t be better. I’ve got a 15- or 16-year incredible relationship with this country. You know how much I love it here. So I’m excited about the things that we’re going to do together in the future.”

White, who has previously spoken about opening a UFC Performance Institute in Abu Dhabi, described the meeting as “incredible”, but said he could not provide any details as to what the promotion is working on because “it wouldn’t be fair to everybody who’s working on these deals”.

On the 2019 agreement soon entering its final year, White said: “We’re in a great place. We’re going to be in Abu Dhabi for the rest of my life. One hundred per cent.”

Asked about the possibility of staging multiple events annually in Abu Dhabi, White said: “Yes. Absolutely, positively going to happen.”

As to whether that could be in place as early as next year, the American added: “You know our deal’s coming up – we just talked about it. So we’ll get all this stuff tied up and get it done. Wrapped up, I should say. It’s been tied up, now we get it wrapped up.”

Looking ahead to UFC 280, White said anticipation for the promotion’s latest pay-per-view event had been rapidly increasing all week.

“As far as excitement and energy and everything else, the entire world is buzzing about this fight,” he said. “The pay-per-views have been trending off the charts since Sunday.

Embedded [the behind-the-scenes, fight-week series] is doing over a million views in 24 hours as soon as it goes up. Every way you can gauge a fight this thing’s killing it.

“The card is awesome. The card is stacked. Just the main event alone: you have two of the absolute best in the world in their prime facing off for the title. It doesn’t get any better than that.”

Oliveira goes into the bout seeking to reclaim the lightweight title he relinquished for missing weight in May. The Brazilian, who has won his past 11 UFC fights and holds the promotion records for most finishes and most submissions, was stripped of the belt when he weighed in at half a pound over the 155lb limit ahead of his defence against Justin Gaethje at UFC 274. Oliveira went on to triumph by first-round submission.

“The guy is literally on the top of his game,” White said. “He flies under the radar, but he’s on an 11-fight win streak, finished 10 of his last 11 opponents, broken all these records in the division, and his confidence has never been higher.

“The guy absolutely, positively came into his own, and it’s his time. And he knows it and he feels it.”

In Makhachev, Oliveira faces the division’s No 4-ranked contender, currently on a 10-fight win streak. The Dagestani, long-time friend and teammate of retired former champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, competes for a UFC title for the first time.

“It’s huge [for Makhachev],” White said. “It’s been his dream, Khabib’s dad’s dream, and Khabib’s dream for a very long time. So Saturday night it’s going down and he’s going to get an opportunity.

“This was something they all dreamed of; Khabib’s father wanted Khabib to dominate the division and then, when he went away, he wanted Islam to come in and dominate. It’s this close to playing out the way they planned it.”

White did, though, concede that Makhachev will have to handle considerable pressure to perform on Saturday in front of what is expected to be a partisan crowd in his favour.

“Oliveira’s been in all the big fights,” White said. “He’s fought the who’s who; if you lay them side by side and look at it and start trying to make odds for the fight, the one thing you cannot gauge is the fact [Islam’s] never dealt with this kind of pressure before.

“Oliveira has. He hasn’t. I think that’s going a big deciding factor in the fight.”

In one of the night’s most intriguing bouts, O’Malley encounters the toughest challenge of his career to date. The American, the No 11th-ranked challenger at bantamweight, is already regarded as one of the most talented fighters in the sport. Yan, however, is the division’s No 1-ranked contender. The Russian held the belt last year before losing it to Sterling in March last year.

“[For O’Malley] this is the equivalent of Conor McGregor when he fought Jose Aldo,” White said. “Conor always had that thing about him that people loved, but whenever the big fights presented themselves, Conor went out and won. So that’s what O’Malley has to do tomorrow: he has to go out and beat Petr Yan.

“Me, probably you and everybody else in this world knows what an absolute savage Petr Yan is. So it’ll say a lot about O’Malley if he can beat him on Saturday.”

During an increasingly hostile build-up in Abu Dhabi this week, Yan labelled O’Malley a McGregor “wannabe”.

But White said: “I don’t think in any way, shape or form is O’Malley a Conor wannabe. They’re two very different and very unique guys. But if you want to compare him to Conor, you would compare the fact that he has the potential to be a global superstar like Conor.”

Updated: October 22, 2022, 2:29 PM