UAE can produce 'Emirati Conor McGregor', UFC boss predicts

Growing popularity of MMA will be fuelled by Abu Dhabi championship bout, organisation believes

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The UAE will soon produce an mixed martial artist with the potential to become an ‘Emirati Conor McGregor,’ a senior UFC official has predicted.

Lawrence Epstein, chief operating officer of the UFC, said the huge growth in popularity of the sport would be accelerated by Saturday’s huge title fight in Abu Dhabi, which is set to be watched by millions of fans across the globe.

And it is only a matter of time before a champion competitor emerges from the region, he believes, telling The National that it would be "incredible" to see a champion emerge from the Emirates.

“There can, and I think there will be a champion from the Emirates, and that champion will have this entire country behind him,” he said. “That will lead to that athlete becoming a star throughout the world.”

He also revealed that the UFC, which has signed a deal with the Abu Dhabi Government that will see it stage annual events in the Emirate up to 2023, may consider opening a training centre in the UAE in future.

He said the company could even stage a version of its hit reality show, The Ultimate Fighter, in which up and coming fighters compete to win a UFC contract, in the Middle East.

“I think it would be incredible,” Mr Epstein said, about about the prospect of an Emirati UFC fighter.

“We’ve seen this phenomenon of a country getting behind a particular athlete and how that turns into a global phenomenon. Conor McGregor is a great example, he comes from, population wise, a relatively small country.

"But he got the country of Ireland behind him and that was a big part of him becoming a global superstar. I think the same thing can happen here.

“When it comes to the development of talent, we’re constantly trying to stimulate that. We’ve made significant investments in the United States by building the UFC performance institute, we’ve opened a second one in China and we’re looking to build more around the world.

“We certainly envisage athletes from this region coming to Las Vegas or coming to China, or other facilities we build, to hone their skills, get better, and ultimately reach what we’re talking about, which is championship level.”

His comments follow Dana White, the UFC president, saying he believes the Middle East will produce a UFC champion within the next seven years.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, September 5, 2019.   STORY BRIEF: UFC Ultimate Media Day at the Yas Hotel.  --   Interview with Lawrence Epstein, UFC's Senior Exec VP & COO.
Victor Besa / The National
Section:  SP
Reporter:  Dan Sanderson
Lawrence Epstein would like to bring the Ultimate Fighter reality show to the Middle East. Victor Besa / The National

Saturday’s event will be the third event the UFC has staged in Abu Dhabi, although the fight, a  highly-anticipated lightweight title unification bout between Khabib Nurmagomedov, from Russia, and Dustin Poirier, an American, will be by far the biggest ever held in the UAE.

Nurmagomedov is the favourite for the contest, and the 30-year-old, who is the UFC’s first ever Muslim champion, will also to be the heavily backed by some 13,000 fans with a ticket for the fight.

There can, and I think there will be a champion from the Emirates, and that champion will have this entire country behind him

Mr Epstein said that fans could expect bouts of a similar calibre over the course of the five-year deal, with a purpose-built area on Yas Island set to host the events. Two fights between women competitors will be included on the card, a first for the UAE.

“We’re going to be doing major events in Abu Dhabi for the next five years," Mr Epstein said. "We’re kicking it off with a title fight, a unification title fight, so it doesn’t get much bigger than this. You’re going to see this level of quality for the next five years in this particular market.

“When it comes to individual fighters, you never know, there are so many variables, who’s available, who’s not hurt, who’s contending for a title. But you are going to see major title events in Abu Dhabi over the next five years, that’s what we’re committed to do.

"I don’t think we could have kicked it off with a bigger, more relevant one for this particular market, than having Khabib here, who has such a tremendous following throughout the region.”