Millions tune in to UFC Abu Dhabi fight night

The title clash between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Dustin Poirier made for compelling viewing

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The eyes of millions of mixed martial arts fans from around the world were fixed on the UAE this evening, as the UFC staged a “record breaking” show in Abu Dhabi.

The hugely-anticipated lightweight title fight between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Dustin Poirier - one of the largest sporting events ever staged in the Middle East - attracted thousands of people to Yas Island. The new 13,000-capacity arena, which opened last week, proved to be a complete sell-out and in a tense contest, Nurmagomedov stopped Poirier in the third round.

The sport has attracted a growing international following, with the titanic clash expected to attract well over one million pay-per-view subscriptions in the United States alone, once receipts have been counted.

On Saturday afternoon, Dana White, the UFC President, hailed the event as an overwhelming success even before the title fight began.

Asked how the tournament - known as UFC 242 - had been perceived outside the UAE, he claimed it had been “massive" everywhere.

“This thing is trending and breaking all kinds of records,” he said.

Mr White also told The National he had "mind-boggling" expansion plans for the UFC in Abu Dhabi over the term of a new five-year deal signed earlier this year.

Under the agreement, the UFC will stage annual fights in the capital until 2023 as it attempts to expand the rapidly-growing sport into new markets.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - September 07, 2019: Middleweight bout between Omari Akhmedov (red shorts, Winner) and Zak Cummings in the Early Prelims at UFC 242. Saturday the 7th of September 2019. Yas Island, Abu Dhabi. Chris Whiteoak / The National
A middleweight bout between Omari Akhmedov (red shorts) and Zak Cummings during the early matches of UFC 242. Chris Whiteoak / The National

The sport of mixed martial arts sees fighters combine disciplines such as wrestling, boxing, jiu jitsu and taekwondo, and fight inside an eight-sided cage known as ‘the octagon.’

There are either three or five rounds, lasting five minutes each, and fights usually end by knock out, submission, or by judges’ decision if all rounds are completed.

On Saturday, the vast majority of fans who packed into the Abu Dhabi arena were fans of Nurmagomedov, from Dagestan, Russia, who put his unbeaten 27-0 record on the line.

The 30-year-old became the UFC’s first Muslim champion last year and has become an icon to millions of fans who share his faith.

“For us, as Muslims, he is the perfect role model,” said Kasy Hussain, who was part of a group of eight fans who travelled from Leeds in the UK to attend.

“We’ve been following him for years and didn’t want to miss the chance to see him in a Muslim country. For us, this is the ultimate experience.”

Sanzhar Turarbek Uula, a 23-year-old from Kyrgyzstan, travelled from his home in Dubai for the contest. He said Nurmagomedov was hugely popular in his home country.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - September 07, 2019: Welterweight bout between Belal Muhammad (green shorts, winner) and Takashi Satō in the Early Prelims at UFC 242. Saturday the 7th of September 2019. Yas Island, Abu Dhabi. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Welterweight bout between Belal Muhammad (green shorts) and Takashi Satō in the early matches at UFC 242. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Saturday’s contest was Nurmagomedov’s first since a controversial fight with Conor McGregor, another global UFC superstar, in October last year.

The Russian, nicknamed the Eagle, scaled the UFC fighting arena and attacked members of McGregor’s coaching team after he defeated the Irishman. The incident attracted international attention.

“After that, Khabib became more famous, but we’ve been following him for years,” Mr Uula said.

“We like him because he is more respectful and it should be a great fight. This is one of the biggest fights in the UFC, and in a lot of Muslim countries, everyone will be behind Khabib. We feel like he is one of us.”

The UFC was founded in 1993 but the sport has grown massively since 2005. The company was bought for $4 billion in 2016 but is now worth around $7 billion, Mr White has claimed.

In its early days, its style of fighting attracted a reputation for ultra-violence and a lack of rules. Since then, however, mixed martial arts has grown into a respected discipline with numerous high-profile figures calling for it to become an Olympic sport.

As the crowds continued to gather on Saturday, fans had a total of 11 fights to look forward to before the main event.

Sarah Moras from Canada, won the first ever women’s MMA fight in the UAE, beating Liana Jojua from Georgia by TKO in the third round.

Supporters of title fighter Poirier, 30, appeared to be far fewer than his Russian opponent.

Among those backing the American, however, was Stuart Daly, who lives in Abu Dhabi but is from the US. “He has an amazing back story and gives back so much to Louisiana and communities in Africa,” he said.