From the moment the idea was first given public breath by a maniacally charged Dana White to its completion this Saturday in Abu Dhabi, UFC's "Fight Island" has served as a romanticized symbol of freedom and rebellion amid continuously uncertain times for the sport of MMA's biggest promotion.
White, the ambitious UFC president who has made it his mission to keep business as usual despite a challenging global pandemic, delivered the iconic words on April 7 during an interview with ESPN's Brett Okamoto.
Doing everything short of extending his pinky to his chin in what would have been an apropos homage to "Austin Powers" character Dr. Evil, White revealed his plans to counter attack the three-week old coronavirus outbreak that forced UFC to pause its operation.
"I've also secured an island," White said. "I've got an island, the infrastructure is being built right now. We are going to do all of our international fights on this island."
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Considering the praise White has been rightfully lauded with of late, just days out from UFC kicking off a 14-night stand in the United Arab Emirates over two weeks with a loaded UFC 251 pay-per-view card, it can be easy to forget how much criticism the brash promoter was facing when he initially shared his plans.
Since that time, UFC has become a forerunner in American professional sports as to how to go about promoting events in a safe manner. But three months ago, White's mysterious island and his purposely cryptic choice not to divulge its location (which White did to spite the skeptic media), was perceived as a way to buck the system and counteract strict health and travel guidelines domestically.
It's because of all this that one might forgive the average fight fan for conjuring up images of tropical paradise, including an Octagon on the beach and everything from machine guns and exotic animals to Bruce Lee's "Enter the Dragon."
By June 12, however, when the location of Fight Island being merely Yas Island in Abu Dhabi, a piece of land on the shores of the Persian Gulf that closely abuts the mainland, there was understandably a feeling of buyer's remorse of a vision that was never meant to be. This was a location UFC had promoted shows as recently as last fall and, despite placement of a ceremonial Octagon by the water, would ultimately be holding all four shows indoors.
White, who spoke to the media members in Las Vegas the day before a UFC Fight Night card, seemed to be taken aback that anyone would have assumed the realities of Fight Island. Although his comments came off as a bit tone deaf, especially considering UFC had done everything to play up the illusion by capitalizing on a marketing opportunity, it's kind of difficult one month later to do too much complaining.
On one hand, UFC is delivering a card headlined by three title bouts that could compete in the conversation for best of the year under any circumstance (and also got gratuitously upgraded with the addition of Jorge Masvidal on six days' notice). Secondly, it's not certain looking back that the idea of Fight Island, in all of its romantic glory, was ever really feasible to begin with.
Have you checked the weather at all this time of year in the United Arab Emirates, where temperatures will reach as high as 110 degrees this week? That's just the beginning of the logistical nightmares.
"First of all, the lighting grid. I mean, you couldn't put the lighting grid on a beach. You could try it but I don't think it's going to turn out very well," White said. "I'm always afraid of the elements -- wind, rain and all the things that can happen. I like the comfort and safety of an arena and pulling off a perfect show. That's what I'm into every single time we go out and do it.
"Pulling off what the fantasy of Fight Island was is pretty tough and I think it would look like shit on TV, too."
Anyone seeking further proof why the idea of placing fighting surfaces on a beach is a practice not recommended by elite promotions can look no further than the experiment pulled off by the defunct promotion BodogFIGHT nearly 15 years ago.
Former UFC title challenger Chael Sonnen was nothing more than a journeyman middleweight back in 2006 when, after being cut by UFC for losing two of three fights, he made the first of two BodogFIGHT appearances on the beach at a private resort in Costa Rica with the view of the ocean as the backdrop.
"This wasn't done for regulation reasons or pandemic or anything else, this was done and decided that we were going in a boxing ring on a beach in Costa Rica for artistic reasons," Sonnen told CBS Sports' "State of Combat" podcast in April. "They thought the camera angle and the shot would be so wonderful and so baffling that this is what was going to set the promotion apart.
"Now, they didn't spend too much money and it didn't turn out to be all that great of a shot and there is a reason this organization isn't here. Like anything that's never been done, there is unforeseen."
The promotion, run by former Canadian offshore betting mogul Calvin Ayre, went on to have very limited success before folding in 2008. Sonnen, however, used his nearly two-year stop there to go 4-0 and launch himself into a WEC run that led him back to UFC. But he has very fond memories of his fighting days in Costa Rica, even if the setup was wonky at best.
After Sonnen recorded a first-round TKO of Tim Credeur at night on the beach in 2006, he returned to Costa Rica one year later and needed just 13 seconds to submit Tim McKenzie. It's a good thing, in hindsight, considering the fight was moved up to an 11 a.m. time slot in peak sun.
"We are in a boxing ring, which means we have a tarp to cover it and not a canvas like a cage would use," Sonnen said. "So, when you set that up on a beach in a tropical location with the sun coming down, the tarp is now 112 degrees. Also, the tarp is exactly what you have at home in your backyard and put out so the kids can get wet and you call it a Slip and Slide. So when the tarp gets wet, it's an ice skating rink to the highest levels and that's exactly what this thing turned into.
"So, in between fights, they put ice there just to cool the tarp down and now the ring is wet. Guys were sliding around at the highest levels and it was a mess but I'm not complaining. I love crazy memories like this."
Bringing a fight card to a remote island somewhere in the middle of the ocean is also asking for trouble from a health and safety standard given the realities of the coronavirus. Although UFC has had its share of cases, which include Gilbert Burns being pulled from Saturday's main event and Masvidal's head trainer being unable to make the trip, the promotion has spent an incredible amount of time and money to make Yas Island its own isolated village.
In addition, all fighters and trainers were forced to pass an initial COVID-19 test, fly to Las Vegas (for U.S. based athletes) to quarantine before taking another test before a flight to Abu Dhabi would be allowed. After landing and serving an additional quarantine, fighters would be subject to two more tests before being allowed to fight.
"It's an incredible thing that we have pulled off. They have this thing called the 'safety zone,' it's 10 square miles where only we exist on the island," White said. "There are hotel, restaurants; every fighter will have their own private training facility. It's going be a very unique experience.
"We're making sure that everybody that goes over to Fight Island is negative. We are going to make sure that everyone gets tested and tested and tested."
An estimated total of 630 UFC staff members, athletes, cornermen and Yas Island contractors will inhabit the "safety zone" over the 14-day stand, which includes four fight cards in total. Flash Forum, the indoor fighting arena which will operate without fans, will also feature mist tunnels upon entry, which is expected to kill 99% of surface bacteria.
This may not be the tropical image once hoped for. There will be no stone statues or camouflage attire. No sharks. No laser beams. But there will be world class fighting in as safe an environment as can be delivered given the circumstances.
While other sports have struggled to get out of the gate or are financially unable to present their best product given the lack of a live gate, UFC has rallied to produce an international card that fight fans of any kind simply must see.
So what if it took a bait-and-switch promise and a few t-shirts with palm trees to make it happen. Fight Island is fully functional for the first time and its the quality of fights, more than the location, which matters most.
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