- Insider has spent the last two weeks on “Fight Island,” the UFC’s purpose-built venue on Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, covering a series of events hosted by the mixed martial arts firm.
- Three of the four events from the UFC’s residency in the emirate are in the bank, and the first – UFC 251 – is the best-selling combat sports show of the year so far.
- The UFC president Dana White said that “Fight Island” is now a star, just like big-name athletes Jorge Masvidal, Khabib Nurmagomedov, and Conor McGregor.
- But “Fight Island” has not just been about the fights. Cutsmen sunbathe by the pool, UFC execs compete on the golf course, and fighters get driven at break-neck speed on the race track.
- As “Fight Island” looks set to become a regular part of the combat calendar in the coronavirus era, Insider lays out what the festival of fighting has looked like from within.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
FIGHT ISLAND – When you’re quarantined in one area for three weeks, thousands of miles from home, you’ve got to find things to keep yourself entertained.
That’s a dilemma which has faced UFC executives and fighters during their spell on Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, where the world’s leading mixed martial arts firm has set up camp since early July for its “Fight Island” series of events – one of the company’s most ambitious projects ever.
UFC executives have been playing socially-distant golf at the crack of dawn at the Yas Links in Abu Dhabi.
When word got around that Insider wanted to know who shot the course record amongst full-time staff, a number of the decision-makers at the world’s leading mixed martial arts firm wanted their name mentioned in this story.
As of right now, the UFC’s top golfer is Lawrence Epstein, the COO, not unless David Shaw, the SVP, wants to email me his best score.
Even playing golf at 6.40 a.m, like this reporter did earlier this week, the 115 degrees Fahrenheit heat hits you.
It’s oppressive, sweaty business … but somebody’s got to do it.
Hours later, tightly-knit and heavily-tattooed cutsmen listen to Motown music, sunbathe while clicking their fingers to the beat, then dive-bomb into an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
Fighters themselves come in different categories.
Some like to lock themselves away, happy to extend their coronavirus-enforced quarantine on “Fight Island,” which is cut-off from the rest of Yas Island and built in conjunction with the UAE government to provide the UFC with an environment to hold international events during the ongoing pandemic.
Inside their rooms, those fighters eat well, meditate, and visualise the outcome of an upcoming fight.
Others like to socialise. They play-fight and grapple each other on Yas Beach, pose in the training Octagon for their in-house content crew, and splash-about in the warm waters of the Al-Raha Creek, an off-shoot of the Arabian Gulf.
Things don’t stop when the sun goes down.
At night, the roars from the nearby Yas Marina Circuit become more noticeable. The track, which cost $US1.3 billion to build, is a near-permanent fixture on the Formula One calendar.
When fighters first arrived on UFC’s “Fight Island” earlier this month, a race instructor called Abbas Al Alawi took a pimped-out Chevrolet Camaro and span doughnuts beneath the balconies of the adjoining five star W Hotel.
Al Alawi told Insider that athletes flocked to the hotel’s concierge to find out what the hell was going on outside.
The next morning Al Alawi had 26 new sign-ups.
Fighters went on white-knuckle joyrides every night.
The Radical SST coasts around corners at break-neck speed and can top 160 miles per hour.
The Chevrolet Drift Taxi is what I imagine what would happen if a roller-coaster was driven off the rails by a mad professor who digs his elbow into the passenger’s ribs, tells you it was his first day and said he was tired, but to not worry – he was sure everything will be fine. It was.
He then laughed maniacally at the wheel and, in the words of Doc Hudson from the 2006 Pixar film “Cars,” he turned right to go left, burning rubber at every corner.
My taxi driver is a maniac. pic.twitter.com/7YT5eAJfCv
— Al Dawson (@AlanDawsonSport) July 20, 2020
Believe it or not, this is Fight Island
It is unclear whether this was always what the UFC president Dana White had in mind when his Las Vegas-based company began working from home, as mandated by Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak in April because of coronavirus concerns.
COO Epstein told me that the lightbulb moment for Fight Island, an opportunity to circumvent travel restrictions, was a “Dana White special,” but even White may not have envisioned this all those months ago.
This is unlike any other live event reporting for a combat sports event, regardless of whether that’s a stadium fight in London, or a celebrity-filled extravaganza in Las Vegas.
For those shows, reporters and fighters, trainers, and company staff are separate, sometimes in different hotels, yet come together for media events, weigh-in ceremonies, and one-to-one interview opportunities before the fights.
Here, we’re living on top of each other, bump into one another at breakfast, and top up our sun tans on nearby recliners at the pool or at the beach.
White told John McAuley, my golfing partner from The National, that “Fight Island” has become the UFC’s ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ or the ‘Thrilla in Manila’.
Not because of a similar pop culture impact that Muhammad Ali had on those main events, but rather because the venue became a character in the story.
“Fight Island,” you see, is now a UFC superstar just like Jorge Masvidal, Khabib Nurmagomedov, or Conor McGregor.
UFC 251 sold to 1.3 million households in the US, reports say
According to reports in The Athletic, Sports Business Daily, and Arabian Business, UFC 251 – which was the first of the UFC’s four events during its “Fight Island” residency – sold to 1.3 million households in the US.
This makes it the most popular combat sports pay-per-view of the year, comfortably surpassing the 800,000 to 850,000 figure generated by Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder’s boxing rematch in February, and the million buys Conor McGregor helped sell when he returned to the UFC against Donald Cerrone the month before.
“It was a very successful event,” White told reporters after Usman out-pointed Masvidal. “This thing killed it across the board. It was awesome.
“Fight Island was a massive star in this thing. Masvidal was a massive star. Usman, the champion, a guy we’re all starting to realise is tough to beat, and a great card underneath it. It came together perfectly and it was a major success.”
Epstein told Insider that momentum has built from event to event, and the word we now keep hearing is that Fight Island is here to stay, even after the final event of this month’s residency – a show headlined by Robert Whittaker and Darren Till’s middleweight fight in the early hours of Sunday morning local time.
White wants the training Octagon on the beach to stay there forever, and as he went house-hunting while he was here, it’s quite clear the company will return for at least one more residency this year, possibly two.
Whether Epstein is still the UFC’s best Fight Island golfer remains to be seen.