When former featherweight champion Max Holloway touches gloves in the center of the Octagon on Saturday with dangerous contender Calvin Kattar in the main event of a UFC Fight Night card from Abu Dhabi, there will be no shortage of significance for the promotion.
Not only will the card kick off a series of three fight cards on "Fight Island" in the United Arab Emirates over an eight-day span, including the much-anticipated lightweight rematch of Conor McGregor-Dustin Poirier at UFC 257 on Jan. 23, it will signal UFC's official start to 2021 after a one-month break.
That part of it is significant enough considering how successful UFC was in 2020 despite the coronavirus pandemic as Dana White set the blueprint that much of professional sports would follow in terms of safely holding events. But Holloway-Kattar also signifies the promotion's return to terrestrial television after UFC's exclusive U.S. broadcasting partner ESPN moved the card to its sister network of ABC (3 p.m. ET).
Promoting a single card on network television might not feel like a monumental move for UFC in 2021, especially considering its previous deal with Fox from 2011 to 2018 featured quarterly cards on the parent network that were seen by millions. It's a feather in the cap, just the same. And it kicks off a three-month stretch of announced fights to open the new year that has the UFC poised to huge numbers while regularly grabbing the attention of the sporting world at large.
If the trio of Fight Island cards aren't enough to get fight fans enthused, including a must-see lightweight duel between Dan Hooker and Michael Chandler as the co-main event of UFC 257, business picks up quickly from there for fights that have either been officially announced or reported to be close to finalizing.
- Feb. 6 (UFC Fight Night): Alistair Overeem vs. Alexander Volkov, Cory Sandhagen vs. Frankie Edgar
- Feb. 13 (UFC 258): Kamaru Usman vs. Gilbert Burns
- Feb. 20 (UFC Fight Night): Curtis Blaydes vs. Derrick Lewis
- Feb. 27 (UFC Fight Night): Dominick Reyes vs. Jiri Prochazka
- March 6 (UFC 259): Jan Blachowicz vs. Israel Adesanya, Amanda Nunes vs. Megan Anderson, Petr Yan vs. Aljamain Sterling
- March 13 (UFC Fight Night): Leon Edwards vs. Khamzat Chimaev, Ciryl Gane vs. Jairzinho Rozenstruik
- March 20 (UFC Fight Night): Derek Brunson vs. Kevin Holland
It's hard not to look past just how loaded the UFC 259 pay-per-view is thanks to a trio of world title bouts atop the marquee. But it's also one of the deepest cards altogether in recent memory thanks to the additions of Aleksandr Rakic-Thiago Santos, Joseph Benavidez-Askar Askarov and Dominick Cruz-Casey Kenney (among a handful of others).
The scary thing is, that's just the first three months and doesn't take into account Jon Jones' eventual debut at heavyweight, a wildly anticipated Stipe Miocic-Francis Ngannou title rematch or whether White will be able to talk unbeaten lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov out of retirement in favor of a superfight with former two-division king Georges St-Pierre.
Armed with the lucrative ESPN deal and an equally beneficial relationship with the UAE (which has helped offset the lack of a live gate throughout the pandemic) the UFC is seemingly in as strong of a position as it has been since 2016 when stars like McGregor, Brock Lesnar and Ronda Rousey all competed in monster PPV cards and the company sold to Endeavor for over $4 billion.
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Whether promoting cards domestically at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas or relying on the insulation of Yas Island in the UAE, White and company found a way to thrive in 2020 when everyone else in sports was focused on merely surviving. It's a credit to White's stubborn willingness to gamble on being first while having the flexibility to overcome the last-minute loss of several main events due to COVID-19.
On Saturday, the Holloway-Kattar card will also usher in another step forward for the UFC during these uncertain times as a few thousand fans will be allowed to safely take in the action inside Etihad Arena.
It's certainly a gamble, no different than what the NFL or professional boxing has done in limited attempts over the second half of 2020. But it remains par for the course for White, who went to great lengths to ensure UFC was able to fulfill the minimum number of dates in the ESPN contract last year to make sure Endeavor could profit from the reported $750 million windfall from the cable network.
Some of White's methods, including a four-minute propaganda video he released in December attacking media members who questioned him by taking out-of-context shots, can certainly be called into question. But his success throughout these uncertain times simply can't be.
UFC is set to open the new year as strongly equipped as any promotion or league in professional sports to carry on the best it can with business as usual. Between continued expansion in China and a superstar like McGregor set to fight three times in a calendar year for the first time since 2016, expect this year to be a special one for the sport of MMA's leading promotion.