When Dana White first brought up the concept of “Fight Island,” it sounded so exotic. The intrigue intensified as the UFC president refused for weeks to share the site’s location or any other details. It was easy to conjure up images of fight teams relaxing on a beach among palm trees in some uncharted locale.
Instead, Fight Island turns out to be good old Yas Island, a leisure spot in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. The UFC has visited Yas three times, most recently in September.
The UFC announced on Tuesday that it has scheduled four events on Yas Island. The big one is the UFC 251 pay-per-view on July 11, featuring three title fights. There are UFC Fight Night events on July 15, 18 and 25.
UFC 251 will be headlined by Kamaru Usman defending his welterweight championship against Gilbert Burns. The other title bouts pit featherweight champ Alexander Volkanovski against the man he dethroned in December, Max Holloway, and Petr Yan taking on former featherweight champ Jose Aldo for a bantamweight title left vacant by the retirement of Henry Cejudo.
“I’ve seen some photos and it looks pretty amazing, so it will be some pretty good sights over there,” Volkanovski said. “But again, it’s just the timing of everything; it’s going to be the first fight on Fight Island, three title fights on this card; this is going to be absolutely huge.
“We still don’t have many sports happening right now, so I’m glad even though it’s a short-notice fight that I’m over there and going to be doing my thing.”
No bouts have been announced for the Fight Night events. All of the cards are on Saturdays other than the July 15 show, which will be on a Wednesday.
There will be no fans at any of the events.
Although Yas Island won’t be a new destination for the Octagon, questions abound about the site and the setup. Here is what we know and don’t know.
What was the need for Fight Island in the first place?
When White first mentioned “Fight Island” on April 6, he said the concept was to secure a place international fighters could reach without complications because of restrictions from the coronavirus pandemic.
Abu Dhabi’s travel restrictions reportedly will be eased later this month.
What is Yas Island?
It is a human-constructed island — reachable by car from the mainland — spread across about 10 square miles in Abu Dhabi. Yas Island is a tourist destination with a massive water park, a Warner Brothers amusement park, golf courses, resort hotels and beaches.
Aside from UFC events, Yas also is known for hosting Formula One auto racing at Yas Marina Circuit.
What venue will host the UFC?
There is some mystery to this Fight Island card because the name of the arena has not been revealed. It will not be The Arena, a 13,000-seat venue that was used for UFC 242 on Sept. 7, 2019.
What time will the fights start?
Without fans in attendance, the UFC doesn’t have to worry about the local timing of the event, so the plan is to proceed with normal timing for a pay-per-view, which is:
Early prelims — 6-8 p.m. ET on Fight Pass, ESPN, & ESPN+
Late Prelims — 8-10 p.m. ET on ESPN & ESPN+
Pay-per-view — 10 p.m. ET
That translates into strange local times for the fighters. Abu Dhabi is eight hours ahead of Eastern Time in the U.S., which means prelims start at 2 a.m. local time, and the main card starts at 6 a.m. local time. There were fans in attendance for UFC 242, so times were adjusted and the prelims started at 12:30 p.m. ET.
What are the safety and security measures related to the coronavirus pandemic?
Abu Dhabi’s department of culture and tourism, in a joint statement with the UFC, said there will be a safety zone that will include the arena, a hotel, training facilities and dining establishments. The safety zone will be open to only the fighters and their coaches, UFC staff, event personnel and Yas Island employees “who are necessary to ensure the operation of the facilities.”
A source further specified that the zone is for those participating in near-term events, meaning that once a card is over, fighters who have competed are not expected to stick around.
What about coronavirus testing?
The UAE government has been testing all airline passengers upon arrival, according to a statement from the U.S. Embassy & Consulate. There is no forced quarantine for visitors, but arriving passengers will be directed to self-quarantine until their test results are confirmed. The U.S. Embassy says that some restrictions are being relaxed in the UAE, so restrictions that exist now might not be in place by the second week in July.
A UFC spokesperson said Tuesday that the promotion will be administering coronavirus tests during fight week, but a detailed protocol has not been finalized. A source told ESPN the testing will be no less stringent than what is being done in Las Vegas under the auspices of the Nevada State Athletic Commission.
How many times have UFC fights been held on Yas Island?
UFC 112 also was held on Yas Island, and the April 10, 2010, card was memorable for a couple of reasons.
First, the positive: Frankie Edgar, a 7-1 underdog, shocked the MMA world by dethroning lightweight champion BJ Penn. It was the first of three Edgar wins over Penn, and Frankie would retain the 155-pound belt for nearly two years.
That was the co-main event, and Dana White probably wishes the night had ended there. In the headline bout, middleweight champion Anderson Silva successfully defended his belt for the sixth time, and apparently was bored doing so. He taunted Demian Maia and fought so passively that referee Dan Miragliotta issued a warning. The fans booed Silva both during the fight and as his unanimous-decision win was being announced. White said he was “embarrassed” by the champ’s performance. “It makes me sick to my stomach,” he said.
Have any issues arisen during previous cards that might present a concern this summer?
Heat, but not to the extent that it has been a problem in the past.
Temperatures in Abu Dhabi are hottest in July, reaching an average high of 108 degrees. The events in 2010 and ’14 were at open-air venues with no air conditioning, but both were held in April, when the climate is milder.
Just spoke to Belal Muhammad, he said he could feel “steam” down near the cage. Said it was hot and humid. He heard about it in the locker room before going out, and ended up turning off his AC to try to get used to the conditions. Definitely worth monitoring as night plays out.
— Brett Okamoto (@bokamotoESPN) September 7, 2019
Shortly before September’s Nurmagomedov-Poirier bout, The Arena was constructed. It is an indoor facility with air conditioning. However, perhaps because the building had been completed just before the fight, the AC did not work properly.
During the UFC 242 broadcast, Jon Anik said it felt like “123 degrees” under the lights. Ring announcer Bruce Buffer broke with his usual stylishness by removing his jacket while cageside.
Fighters said they had trouble performing. After his win, lightweight Don Madge said, “I couldn’t breathe properly. The heat really sapped my energy really quick.”
He fought in the first bout, when the building was not yet full of fans and their body heat.
The UFC told ESPN that there will be air conditioning in the UFC 251 venue and temps will be at a comfortable level.
It still promises to be oppressively hot outside during fight week, with high humidity. Will that practice Octagon the UFC plans on setting up on the beach get much use? The heat could help make weight cuts easier.
How time-consuming will it be for fighters to travel to Yas Island?
It depends on the fighter’s home base. Take the UFC 251 co-main event, for example. Alexander Volkanovski lives in Wollongong, New South Wales, on the southeastern coast of Australia. His travel to Abu Dhabi will take about 15 hours, the same time as a trip to Las Vegas. That’s not the case for his challenger, Max Holloway. His trip from Honolulu to Abu Dhabi will take about 27 hours.
The UFC said there will be charter flights from different hub cities, although some fighter camps reached Wednesday afternoon said they were still uncertain about travel.
Once at Abu Dhabi International Airport, fighters are mere minutes from Yas Island.
Contributing: Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto and Marc Raimondi