Abu Dhabi entered the world of mixed martial arts yesterday when Flash Entertainment confirmed it had bought a 10 per cent stake in the Las Vegas firm that owns the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).
The UAE's first event, UFC 112, will be staged on April 10. It is expected the contest will be held outdoors and at night. Early contenders as venue to host the event, according to a source close to the negotiations, are the Emirates Palace hotel and Yas Marina Circuit. The deal, financial details of which remain confidential, marks the latest chapter in a remarkable turnaround in the fighting league's fortunes.
After beginning as a bloody, no-holds-barred competition in 1993, the UFC endured a troubled adolescence before evolving into the increasingly mainstream sport it is today. Ringside seats at the once-a-month UFC events have become more coveted than their boxing equivalents. UFC's principal owners are the Fertitta brothers, Lorenzo and Frank III, casino moguls who bought the franchise in 2001. Global expansion has long been their primary objective, and the UFC president, Dana White, first revealed the series was coming to Abu Dhabi when he visited the emirate last summer.
But industry insiders aside, few observers anticipated the investment by Flash, an Abu Dhabi Government subsidiary. One person in the know was Flash chairman, Ossama Khoreibi. "Flash is committed to building Abu Dhabi's profile as an international entertainment destination, and this partnership provides further proof of our company's bold ambitions," he said. Despite confidentiality clauses, it is understood the Fertitta brothers have sold 4.5 per cent of their individual holdings, leaving each brother with 40.5 per cent. White, the man who introduced the duo to the sport a decade ago, has relinquished one per cent and now holds a nine per cent stake.
The Fertitta brothers' company that owns UFC, Zuffa LLC, was estimated to be worth US$1 billion (Dh3.7bn) by Forbes in May 2008. Money, according to Lorenzo Fertitta, was not the driving factor in partnering with Flash. "We don't need to raise any money; that wasn't the purpose," he said. "If we were going to bring somebody in, it was going to be with someone that could really be a true strategic partner and could help create an increased value for the company long-term."
That long-term interest is believed to centre on Flash's capacity to accelerate the UFC's growth regionally. Flash's investment in the UFC appears timely, but the source revealed yesterday that Lorenzo Fertitta had been in Abu Dhabi last week to conclude a deal that had originally been "shook on" with Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed in Morocco in December. Sheikh Tahnoon, a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, is widely known as an avid mixed martial arts fan. He started the Abu Dhabi Combat Club more than 15 years ago and is the club's vice president. Sheikh Tahnoon is also the dominant force at the capital's wrestling, judo and jiu-Jitsu federations. Having had one-to-one training sessions with Sheikh Tahnoon during a trip to the emirate last month, Georges St Pierre, the UFC's welterweight champion, said the Abu Dhabi royal had hinted that an Abu Dhabi-UFC deal was in the works.
"Sheikh Tahnoon is driving mixed martial arts in the UAE," St Pierre said. "He is extremely passionate about the sport and all its forms. He wants it to grow." While Sheikh Tahnoon's interest definitely preceded Flash's investment, a spokesman for the entertainment firm yesterday refused to say if he had any direct involvement in the UFC investment. "This acquisition has been made by Flash on the basis that it is consistent with our business objectives and goals for future development," he said.
Carlos Santos, the Brazilian jiu-jitsu trainer at Abu Dhabi Combat Club, had a different opinion. Asked whether Flash's purchase of 10 per cent of the UFC was the brainchild of the sheikh, Santos said: "The royal family takes care of Flash, so of course it is him, 100 per cent. Sheikh Tahnoon is always trying to do what is best for jiu-jitsu and other mixed martial arts in the Emirates, and this move is very, very good."