Back in early April, UFC president Dana White first made mention of an island to host events centered around international fighters during the global coronavrus pandemic, and three months later it’s happening. Starting July 11 with UFC 251, the promotion will hold four events in 15 days on “Fight Island,” a.k.a. Yas Island, Abu Dhabi.
How is the promotion pulling this off? What’s it like being part of this? What’s happening behind the scenes? MMA Junkie lead staff reporter John Morgan is on site to provide a first-hand account of the experience?
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Saturday, July 4
We arrived at the Abu Dhabi International Airport on Saturday, but just barely. It was about 11:50 p.m. local time when we landed (for reference, Abu Dhabi is eight hours ahead of Eastern Time).
Customs and immigration was a breeze – after all, we were the only plane arriving at the time, and of course the entire trip has been planned with the local government’s assistance. There was a thermal scanner that checked us as we passed, but otherwise there was minimal interference in our arrival. Leaving the airport, though, it became immediately clear how different this experience was going to be as opposed to the UFC’s May events in Jacksonville, Fla.
Masked staff members whisked us through the airport to buses waiting outside. This is my third trip to Abu Dhabi, but it’s the hottest one yet. As I write this, it’s 3 a.m. local, and it’s 93 degrees with 67 percent humidity, meaning a “feels like” temperature of 117 degrees. It’s going to be a warm few weeks – but fighters definitely shouldn’t have trouble cutting weight.
As we loaded up on the buses, it was clear the drivers were taking their protection serious. Masks weren’t enough. There was an entire plastic curtain to shield them.
Once the buses were loaded, we received a police escort from the local authorities to make the 10-minute drive from the airport to the hotel zone. Nice for ease of transportation, but it didn’t seem exactly necessary for our transit needs. I imagine it was more just to make sure everyone did stay on the bus and didn’t deviate from the plans. Plus, we didn’t even get the usual perks of a police escort! See this red light? We stopped at it and waited for it to turn green! Aren’t we supposed to get to run those with a police escort?
The first stop was the W Abu Dhabi. This is the host hotel, where the fighters and UFC staff are staying. It is very, very nice. That said, when we pulled up, it looked like something out a movie. Staff members were swarming outside, and each of them was covered head-to-toe in PPE, including masks and face shields. It looked like some kind of bizarre crime scene investigation or nuclear fallout reaction rather than just a big collection of bellmen and desk attendants.
There was UFC signage in multiple locations. The local government here is certainly adopting the “Fight Island” brand.
The staff assisted everyone from our bus staying at the W before we moved on to the media hotel located a few minutes down the street, Staybridge Suites.
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Once we arrived to the Staybridge Suites, we exited the bus and were asked to immediately sanitize our hands and place gloves on them. While we tended to that, a gentleman sprayed our luggage with a sanitizing solution.
Once that was complete, we headed inside to the front desk to check-in. Full PPE was worn by all staff, and a large plexiglass shield was placed between us. Once we had our room key, it was off to receive another COVID-19 test – which I believe represents No. 13 for me, counting the UFC events in Florida and Las Vegas.
And now, we wait.
We have been instructed to quarantine for the next 48 hours. We are not to leave our room for any reason, though the staff was quite nice in explaining they will get anything to us that we require. At some point on Sunday, once our first test result is back, medical staff will come visit our rooms and issue another COVID-19 test. When that result comes back negative at some point on Monday, then we can break quarantine and begin to be able to navigate outside of our rooms, though we’re still expected to wear a mask at all times and maintain social distancing protocols.
So me and this hotel room are about to get real familiar with each other for the next two days. Fortunately, the view isn’t too bad.
Friday, July 3
The journey to “Fight Island” begins with a hard truth – it means some 23 days away from my wife and son, which isn’t an easy thing for them, or me. But it’s a reality many of the staff and contractors working these four events will also face, so certainly no one is in this alone.
Having covered pandemic-era MMA now in both Florida and Nevada, I’m pretty familiar with all the safeguards that will be in place. One major difference this time, though, was the flight to Abu Dhabi. First, to even get on the plane, we had to submit to a COVID-19 test one day prior, on Thursday, and produce a negative result.
With that approval, we boarded a chartered Etihad Airways plane that left from Las Vegas’ McCarran International Airport and flew directly to Abu Dhabi, a flight of about 14-and-a-half hours. We checked into Terminal 3 in a section that had been blocked off to other customers. We then went to the D Gates section of the airport, where again, there were no outside passengers around.
The plane was big, a Boeing 777-300ER that seats around 300 people. I was told there were only about 75 of us on the plane, so there was plenty of room to stay socially distanced. We also faced a temperature check as we stepped on the plane.
Of course, the flight didn’t exactly start smoothly. A few hours before we boarded, the staff at MMA Junkie received some information that UFC 251 headliner Gilbert Burns had potentially tested positive for COVID-19, endangering his planned welterweight title fight with Kamaru Usman. We struggled to get confirmation, but as the time to board drew closer and closer, it was clear that neither Burns nor Usman were in the empty terminal.
Presented with that information, a few contacts who wished to remain anonymous because the promotion had made no official announcements, confirmed with me the fight was off.
MMA Junkie’s Mike Bohn confirmed shortly after that COVID-19 was indeed the culprit. We knew we were facing some late changes to the card, but it was certainly too late to turn back now – for us and the UFC.
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