DUBAI: Dana White’s tweet had summed it up.
“They’re light years ahead of everybody else in what’s going on with COVID, so it really was the perfect partnership,” the president of UFC said of Abu Dhabi’s hosting of the just concluded Fight Island.
The event, which took place on Yas Island between July 12 and 26 and included UFC 251 and three Fight Nights, was the first international sporting event to take place following the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.
“This event specifically was one of the most important signals for the world about Abu Dhabi’s readiness,” said Saeed Al Saeed, Destination Marketing Director at the Department of Culture and Tourism (DCT), Abu Dhabi. “Not just to hold world class sports at the highest possible level, but also to highlight a destination that has the highest possible hospitality and standards, while taking into consideration that our priority is always the health and safety of everyone involved. So, you get five-star services, five-star food and complimentary offerings and we also make sure that you can go out in peace knowing that we have done, following our government’s lead, the most that we could to ensure that your health and safety remains at heart.
The event, thanks to a safety zone and a meticulous program of testing, had passed with no incidents, prompting White’s gushing words.
“If you look at Abu Dhabi specifically, and the UAE in general, we have done more testing than anyone else in the world per capita,” Al Saeed added. “We conducted 18,000 Covid tests in a matter of a month, for two thousand people. Our readiness, our ability to host, our ability to welcome guests, that meant a lot to us to get through as a message from Fight Island 1.0.”
Now UFC Fight Island 2.0 will once again see some of the biggest names in the world’s premier mixed martial arts organization involved in the UAE capital, with the five-event series - including UFC 253, three Fight Nights, and UFC 254 - set to take place on Yas Island from Sept. 27 to Oct. 25.
Among the highlights will be the match-up between Brazilian fighter Paulo Costa and opponent Israel Adesanya. The two surprisingly traded in some good natured back and forth at the W Hotel, inside the UFC Fight Island safe zone on Yas Island, ahead of their UFC 253 middleweight clash on Saturday.
Sporting black face masks on their arrival, the pair were joined by Jan Blachowicz and Dominick Reyes, who go head-to-head in the co-main event light heavyweight bout on the same event card.
The second edition of Fight Island, coming so soon after the first, has taken organizational and logistical efforts to new levels according to Al Saeed.
Video courtesy of UFC
“That’s what Abu Dhabi does, we did something and we’re going to do it again and it has to be bigger and better,” he said. “With the current circumstances, that was always going to be a difficult thing, when you’ve had an event that was the third highest paid in UFC history, followed by three really stacked Fight Nights, how can you top that? This time around we had to make sure we go big. You have UFC 253 with Adesanya and Costa, two undefeated fighters. We’re going to see a first loss for one of them at least, followed by three Fight Nights again with really packed cards, like Chan v Ortega.”
But one event, above all others has captured the attention of fight fans across the world.
“So how can we even top that (UFC 253)?” Al Saeed said. “UFC 254, Khabib (Nurmagomedov) comes back. Khabib v Justin Gaethje is going to headline week after week of non-stop action for all fight fans and all sports fans in general.”
Other athletes touching down on Yas Island include Ketlen Vieira, Kai-Kara France, Juan Espino, and Hakeem Dawodu. As part of the strict public health and safety protocols, the fighters were given a safety briefing before undertaking a 48-hour self-quarantine in their hotel rooms.
The UFC events have come at a time when another major sporting event, cricket’s Indian Premier League (IPL) has kicked off in Abu Dhabi, and is also taking place in Dubai and Sharjah. Hosting some of the world’s best cricketers, and the sheer size of the teams, has brought a whole new challenge for Al Saeed and his colleagues.
“It’s definitely different, but this ties shack to our relationships with all of these organizers, and them trusting Abu Dhabi as a destination that will deliver,” he said. “It’s definitely more complicated when it comes to cricket. For us in Fight Island, yes we have a huge number of fights and there are a lot of moving parts, but at the end of the day you have an athlete and maybe three or four core members of his team. But when you talk about cricket you can have a whole hotel for just one team. So the logistics involved are on another level. We did a complete bubble, so there was no one coming in or out of the safe zone, and that was first of kind for us. And now we have Formula 1 coming too in December.”
The truncated 2020 Formula 1 season will once again finish at Yas Marina Circuit, and that, once again, brings a whole new set of parameters for the organizers as the drivers and army of mechanics and managers of Mercedes, Red Bull, Ferrari and the rest return to Abu Dhabi.
Each one of these sports has its own complexities,” Al Saeed said. “And you know what, good luck to all the teams involved. We have my team, the teams we work with, the department of health, the police, the authorities, the airports, Etihad Airways, all of these different moving parts are across all of these projects.
“So you know that logistically speaking, Abu Dhabi can handle it, but it does get complicated with so many people and so many things that need to happen,” he added. “We have to entertain those guys, last time we had a golf course dedicated to them, they could drive karts around the formula one course. This time we have a beach for them, and we have to feed them the best food, so imagine that for a bunch of cricket teams.”
One thing Al Saeed can promise IPL’s cricketers, UFC’s fighters and Formula 1’s drivers is that their stay in the UAE will be memorable.
“They can’t come to Abu Dhabi and be bored,” he said. “They’ve got to enjoy being here so they can tell their friends about it, they can come back again. All of those people from Fight Island are really excited to be back, they’ve been arriving and have been welcomed to their hotel rooms. And you can see it all on social media, they are all excited.”