DUBAI: Fight Island 2 promised to go bigger, and the promises are already being kept.
Now, only a week after UFC 253 kicked off the five-event series on Abu Dhabi’s Yas Island, Laurence Epstein, COO of UFC, is already looking ahead for one stacked fight card after another over the next four weekends.
Starting with the first Fight Night on Sunday.
“I was really excited about UFC 253 and it delivered,” Epstein told Arab News from his base in Abu Dhabi. “It was an incredible card, but we’ve got a great card this weekend, headlined by Holly Holm and that’s going to be a super exciting fight. And obviously how could you not be excited about Khabib (Nurmagomedov) and Justin Gaethje at UFC 254. Brian Ortega and Korean Zombie (Chan Sung Jung), that’s a fight you got to be excited about. Two totally different styles, who’s going to win that one?”
“Dana (White, President of UFC) and the matchmakers have done an incredible job of putting on these incredible fights and that’s why our brand has continued to grow during these challenging COVID-19 times. We continue to put on high-quality events that are exciting, and that fans want to see. That’s absolutely the case for every single card here in Abu Dhabi.”
The latest series comes after July’s Fight Island 1 and last year’s UFC 242 took place in Abu Dhabi and captured the imagination of fight fans in the Middle East and around the world. Fight Island 2 kicked off with UFC 253 on Sept. 27, and after three Fight Nights on Oct. 4, 11 and 18 will conclude with UFC 254 on Oct. 24.
But Epstein is keen to point out that UFC’s relationship with the UAE capital goes back a lot longer than 2019.
“The relationship between UFC and Abu Dhabi goes back over a decade now,” he said. “The fact that we did Fight Island 1 and 2 is a result of this long-standing and really positive relationship that we have here in Abu Dhabi. We are in the middle of year two of a five-year event relationship and of course we have a content distribution deal with UFC Arabia.”
Fight Island 1 was the first international event to host athletes from around the world in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, but extensive testing procedures and logistical measures on Yas Island have, according to Epstein, raised the bar in terms of organization of sporting events during this uncertain period.
“It was incredible,” he said. “We’re still living in a delicate time, and though we’ve gotten better with every single event we’ve done, we still have a lot of logistics and things to deal with. The great thing about Yas Island and what we’ve done with Fight Island is that the facilities, and the testing capabilities, and the coordination with the authorities here have really been second to none.”
“We’re staying in a first-class hotel, get tremendous restaurants, and lots of great things to do for everybody while we’re here. And we’ve obviously got incredible facilities to put on our events. With the partnership we’ve got with G42, we’ve got a testing regiment that really is second to none anywhere in the world.”
“Whether it’s fight Island 1 or Fight Island 2, we’re living in tough and challenging times, but the good news is Abu Dhabi has got not just the infrastructure, but the services to make these events incredible, and of course safe,” he added.
Fight Island 1, which took place from July 12 to 26, and included UFC 251 and three Fight Nights, was a huge success, and played a major part in encouraging the organizers to go even bigger this time around. The fighters, and their teams, have been on board from day one.
“There were still lots of logistical challenges, like moving people from around the world to Abu Dhabi,” said Epstein. “But I can tell you this, the word got out quickly how great Abu Dhabi is as a host, and how incredible the facilities were, and of course the safety protocols and the incredible hospitality that we get here. Nobody is saying they don’t want to come here. Everybody is excited to come to Abu Dhabi and fight and enjoy everything it has to offer.”
Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, UFC has held events in Jacksonville, Florida, its home in Las Vegas and on Yas Island, and Epstein believes Abu Dhabi has edged ahead of the rest of the world in terms of facilities and organization.
“The infrastructure that we have here in Abu Dhabi is really unmatched in the world of sport,” he said. “You have an island which you can control ingress and egress very easily, you have staff that have been quarantining for two weeks before everyone gets here. They are tested on a regular basis. The testing facilities that you have here with G42 are also amazing. You have massive capacity when it comes to testing, results turn around very, very quickly which is really important and we have a team of people administering these tests who are obviously very experienced and doing a great job.”
UFC, and MMA in general, have long been popular in this part of the world, and the recent rise in events taking place here have only raised the profile of the sport further.
“We got some great fans in the Middle East, and that fanbase continues to grow,” Epstein said. Here in Abu Dhabi, Jiu-Jitsu has a long history and everybody seems to be interested in it at school level and beyond. Viewing for content continues to grow around the world but also in the Middle East and we’re really proud and excited about the new relationship that we have with Abu Dhabi Media, which is distributing our content throughout the region, generating lots of new interesting content that is specifically created for this market. We’re really confident that the sport will continue to grow, the fanbase is going to continue to grow, and we’re looking forward to more athletes coming from this region.”
Tunisian fighter Mounir “The Sniper” Lazzez, was one of Fight Island 1’s standout performers, and will be back to fight David Zawada on Fight Night 3 on Oct. 18. Epstein believes more fighters from the Middle East and Arab nations will emerge in the coming years.
“We’re already seeing it with so many other athletes from around the world that are connected to the Middle East in some way,” he said. “That is just going to continue to grow. There will be more and more athletes that are from the region that are going to climb the ranks of UFC. There is no doubt we will continue to have great fighters and ultimate champions from the region.”