For the first time since March 2020, the UFC will put on events with non-essential event personnel – in this case, fans – in attendance.
The promotion’s upcoming three-event stint at “Fight Island” in Abu Dhabi will take place not at Flash Forum on Yas Island, like its two 2020 visits to the country, but at Etihad Arena. In addition, a “limited number of spectators” will be able to watch the fights on site.
Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism on Thursday made official the UFC’s next three events at Etihad Arena, starting with UFC on ABC 1 next Saturday. There was no mention about how many total fans will be allowed inside the venue. That event will be followed by UFC on ESPN 20 on Wednesday, Jan. 20, and UFC 257 on Jan. 23.
In November, UFC president Dana White said he would not be interested in putting on events in partially filled arenas or stadiums.
“I’ll stay here at the Apex instead of going somewhere where we can’t have a full crowd,” White said after UFC 255. “What I’m not going to do is I’m not going to take a 10,000-seat arena and sell 5,000 tickets. I’d rather stay (in Las Vegas).”
But White also said this past year that when the UFC returns to Abu Dhabi, the partnership the promotion has with officials there would have him likely to cede to event organizers’ wishes for circumstances like a limited number of fans instead of a full house, and that appears to be the case.
After the UFC’s second Flash Forum series of events this past fall, the plan was for Etihad Arena to host future UFC fight cards in Abu Dhabi, which was posted to the arena’s official Twitter account in October.
As @YasIsland says farewell to the spectacular 'Return to Fight Island', we prepare to welcome the future of @ufc to our state-of-the-art venue. We can’t wait to see you soon, @DanaWhite and a big shoutout to @DCTAbuDhabi and #YasIsland for putting on a spectacular show. pic.twitter.com/ZpFnw9iRt1
— Etihad Arena (@etihadarena_ae) October 27, 2020
After getting past the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic and cancellations of events, White and the UFC eventually put on a series of events without fans in Jacksonville, Fla., then have made the UFC Apex in Las Vegas its semi-permanent home, also without fans. In addition, the UFC twice in 2020 made multi-event visits to “Fight Island” in Abu Dhabi for fight cards without fans.
UFC on ABC 1 will be headlined by a featherweight fight between former champion Max Holloway and Calvin Kattar. Four days later, Michael Chiesa meets Neil Magny in the UFC on ESPN 20 main event.
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But the big-splash finale for the three-event run in Abu Dhabi over the course of just seven days is UFC 257, which will feature a rematch between former lightweight and featherweight champion Conor McGregor and former interim lightweight champ Dustin Poirier.
McGregor is the UFC’s biggest draw by far. He has headlined all but three of his 12 career UFC fights, including his past seven on pay-per-view. In January 2020, he fought Donald Cerrone and generated a reported 1 million pay-per-view buys, which was his lowest number since UFC 189 did a reported 825,000 buys for his interim featherweight title win over Chad Mendes. His UFC 229 submission loss to Khabib Nurmagomedov generated a reported UFC record 2.4 million buys.
Where the UFC will have to suffer likely significant losses are in the live gate totals that McGregor fights typically have generated, mostly in Las Vegas. His UFC 246 fight against Cerrone ha a live gate in excess of $11 million at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. UFC 229 at T-Mobile Arena and UFC 205 at Madison Square Garden in New York each generated more than $17 million in live gate totals – an MMA record, as well as the Garden’s gate record.