The UFC has described Abu Dhabi as its “most significant relationship” as the promotion promises to deliver “a major title fight that has worldwide significance” when it makes its return to the capital in October.
The world’s lead mixed martial arts promotion, which has a long-term agreement with the emirate’s Department of Culture and Tourism, announced on Thursday that it will stage UFC 294 at Etihad Arena on October 21. The 18th UFC event to take place in Abu Dhabi, it highlights a fourth Abu Dhabi Showdown Week (October 16-22).
The UFC’s most recent stop in Abu Dhabi took place last October, with the sold-out UFC 280. That event was headlined by Islam Makhachev’s lightweight championship victory against Charles Oliveira, while it also featured a bantamweight title bout between Aljamain Sterling and TJ Dillashaw, and a number of the promotion's lead athletes.
The UFC envisage their return this year will offer a similarly standout night of action.
“We’re always excited to come to Abu Dhabi,” UFC chief operating officer (COO) Lawrence Epstein told The National. “It’s become part of the annual schedule for major events of the UFC – every October we’re doing a major numbered event in Abu Dhabi.
“We couldn’t be more excited than to be back there in just a few months from now.”
On Thursday, UFC president Dana White said the promotion had “big plans” for UFC 294, continuing the company’s commitment to showcasing its best talent in Abu Dhabi.
“First of all, I think you can expect more of the same,” Epstein said. “You know the incredible events that have taken place over the years in Abu Dhabi, from [Kamaru] Usman-[Jorge] Masvidal, to [Israel] Adesanya-[Paulo] Costa, to Khabib [Nurmagomedov] and [Justin] Gaethje – incredible. [Dustin] Poirier-[Conor] McGregor was huge. And of course, most recently Oliveira and Makhachev.
“So you can expect something much like you’ve seen in the past – a major title fight in Abu Dhabi that has worldwide significance.
“We’re so focused on it. Listen, we want to put on great events every single week we put on events, but there’s no doubt we have a very special relationship with Abu Dhabi that goes back well over a decade now.”
The UFC, whose first event in the emirate was UFC 112 in 2010 – it was also its inaugural show in the Middle East – has yet to confirm the card for October, although Epstein said he expects details to begin to emerge within the next few months.
“Dana is always looking to curate very special things for our partners in Abu Dhabi,” Epstein said. “So, when the announcement is made, I’m sure everyone will be very, very happy.”
The UFC signed a five-year agreement with DCT-Abu Dhabi in April 2019, which pledged to hosting an event each year headlined by a world title fight.
The partnership strengthened during the Covid-19 pandemic, when the capital played home to Fight Island – a bio-secure zone on Yas Island that allowed international athletes to compete. In total, Fight Island comprised 12 events across three series, from July 2020-January 2021.
Asked how the relationship between the UFC and Abu Dhabi has become stronger, particularly within the past few years, Epstein said: “You said the two words, ‘Fight Island’. Of course, we’ve had this decade-plus relationship where we’ve been doing events and having this great partnership. But Fight Island really took this to the next level.
“When the rest of the world was pretty much shut down, Abu Dhabi opened up its gates and allowed us to put on that series of events, which was so important for the UFC.
“We have this very, very unique opportunity when the rest of the sporting world was shut down to put on those Fight Island events. And the dividend that has paid to us at the UFC has been huge.
“Because, obviously we activated our existing fan base, but we added a bunch of new fans that have stuck with us since Fight Island. When you look at the most important moments in the history of the UFC, that period of time when we did the events on Fight Island is absolutely one of them.”
Epstein said also that staging events in Abu Dhabi on a consistent basis has helped the UFC grow dramatically their fan base throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
“So the relationship has both regional and global implications for our brand,” he said. “We just couldn’t have accomplished all the success without this partnership in Abu Dhabi.”
When asked about plans for Abu Dhabi outside of hosting events – last year, White said the UFC was close to finalising a deal with the emirate that would be a “total game-changer for all of combat sports, not just the UFC” – Epstein did not go into specifics.
However, he said the UFC was “always looking for opportunities to expand our relationship with our partners in Abu Dhabi”.
Epstein added: “And that could mean a variety of things, including additional events in the region, certainly extending our existing relationship.
“Nothing to announce right now, but we view this as a permanent partnership. We, at the UFC, just can’t envision not at any time in future having this real close relationship with our friends in Abu Dhabi.”
The UFC’s current deal with the emirate will next month move into its final year. While not confirming if talks have taken place regarding an extension to the agreement, and despite more major international sporting events being staged throughout the Gulf, Epstein said Abu Dhabi would “continue be the centre of our strategy for the entire region”.
“Nothing to announce today,” he said. “As I mentioned, I don’t think there’s a relationship we have anywhere in the world that’s more significant than this partnership we have with Abu Dhabi. I can tell you, the way we think about it, it goes on for ever.”