LAS VEGAS — There was never a doubt in Dana White’s mind that he’d be able to stage a fight card, even as the coronavirus pandemic raged in late March and early April. Sports were being canceled, businesses were being shut down and people were ordered to stay in their homes.
Despite all of that, the UFC president never doubted for a moment that he’d be able to find a way to safely stage a show.
A larger problem confronted him, however: With international travel restrictions put in place by the Trump Administration in an attempt to combat the virus, White quickly realized he’d soon run out of fighters if he could only use fighters who were already in the U.S. at the time the lockdown began.
Thus was born “Fight Island,” which in actuality is Yas Island, a man-made island in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. The Abu Dhabi-based group Flash Entertainment once owned 10 percent of the UFC and is closely affiliated with the government.
Because of that relationship, the UFC is able to get fighters from all over the world into the Emirates and able to compete.
The UFC will thus put on four shows in a three-week span, spending the entire month of July on the island in an area called a “Safe Zone” in which no one not affiliated with the event will be permitted. The UFC delegation will be 630 people and at least 3,300 antigen tests for COVID-19 will be performed.
Despite the pictures that were all over the internet of an Octagon on the beach, the fights will not be outside, but in a temporary structure that was created called Flash Forum.
“Dana has had some great ideas over the years, but I think this one may be at the top of the list,” Lawrence Epstein, the UFC’s chief operating officer, told Yahoo Sports.
UFC 251, which will feature three championship fights, will be held July 11. There will be three Fight Night cards that follow, on July 15, July 18 and July 25.
The UFC chartered planes to fly to Abu Dhabi which left from four hub cities: Las Vegas; Sao Paolo; London and Moscow. Epstein said a very small number of people who will be at Fight Island and who couldn’t get to one of the hub cities will fly commercial.
For the rest leaving from the hub cities, the procedure was the same. They had to report to the hub city the night before to take a COVID-19 test and then be quarantined overnight in the hotel. If the test was negative, they could board the plane.
Upon arrival in Abu Dhabi, all passengers will again be subject to a COVID-19 test and will be quarantined until the results come back negative. If anyone tests positive while on the island, they will be transported to a hotel that is only for those who have COVID-19 and they will be quarantined there, away from the rest of the island’s population.
“One of the reasons we’re doing so much testing on the front end is so that we want to do whatever we can to make sure no one tests positive once they’re there,” Epstein said. “But we will have that dedicated area ready in case we have any positive tests.”
Those attending the event — fighters, their coaches, UFC personnel and media — will stay in one of two hotels, the W and the Crown Plaza on the island. There will be restaurants open in the hotels, and seven hotels in all will be used inside the safety zone.
In addition, there is a golf course, a beach and a Formula One race track available for the use of people on the island. Epstein said there will be activities available during the daylight hours, but not at night, so there will be no concerts or things like that.
Because the events will start at the normal time in the U.S., they’ll be early in the morning in Abu Dhabi, which is eight hours ahead of New York. UFC 251’s preliminary card will begin at 7 p.m. ET, which is 3 a.m. in Abu Dhabi. The main card for UFC 251 will be 10 p.m. ET, which is 6 a.m. in Abu Dhabi.
There will be individual training areas for each team, which will be heavily sanitized after each usage. All social distancing requirements will be in effect, Epstein said.
Epstein said there is a possibility of a small number of VIP fans who could attend but the event will not be open to the public and in most respects, will look like the shows the UFC produced at Apex on its campus in Las Vegas. If the decision is made to invite VIPs, it would be less than two dozen people.
Epstein confirmed that the 30-foot Octagon will be in use for the fight cards, not the 25-foot cage that has become so popular during the June shows at Apex.
“This is going to be so bad ass,” White said. “It’s going to be an incredible experience for all of us.”
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