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The Journey to Fight Island

The UFC has made a gruesome fantasy into a slightly less problematic reality. This weekend, the cameras come on in the free state of MMA for UFC 251.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Fight Island. Two words that sent the minds of the world’s sports fans—nay, the minds of the entire world—reeling with gruesome anticipation.

When UFC president Dana White first mentioned the idea in early April, he didn’t give many details up front, other than to say the UFC would continue to function through the coronavirus pandemic, and that the island would be a kind of isolated, decidedly tropical safe haven to stage its fights. He even went so far as to boast that the UFC was actively building the infrastructure on the island, as if there were men with machetes out there hacking through the wilds, looking for the primo spot to erect a Tiki torch–ringed cage. One imagined a volcano in the backdrop, that had a great rock maw that yawned open to welcome Dana’s private plane and a stone stairway down to the octagon on the beach.

Yet as “Fight Island” slowly came into focus over the last few weeks, things sobered up. The first revelation was that Fight Island would be on Yas Island, a man-made island in Abu Dhabi. So much for the shark-infested moats. The UFC has hosted fight cards in Abu Dhabi before, beginning all the way back at UFC 112 in 2010, the night Frankie Edgar took B.J. Penn’s lightweight title and seemingly aged him in dog years.

Still, Dana insisted the octagon would be on the beach, which confused anyone who is familiar with July forecasts in the United Arab Emirates. Rarely does it dip below 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Would the UFC really subject fighters—who somehow managed to train full camps, board planes, and make it to Abu Dhabi virus-free—to Venus-like temperatures, even if the fights occur just after midnight local time to cater to a North American audience?

Of course not. This may be Fight Island, but the UFC aren’t monsters.

There is an octagon on the beach, about 5 meters from the warm water of the Persian Gulf, but it’s strictly for photo ops. It’s no different than when the UFC ran shows out of the MGM Grand Casino in Las Vegas and dropped an octagon in the hotel lobby.

The actual octagon, the one where fighters will compete on Saturday night at UFC 251, is in an air-conditioned, makeshift structure a stone’s throw from Ferrari World. It’s a venue where no sand will get stuck between the toes, in the Gilligan sense. It’s in the kind of structure that the UFC always holds its events in, yet with commemorative T-shirts that say “Fight Island.”

Maybe the UFC originally contemplated a private island and simply couldn’t get it done. Maybe Abu Dhabi offered more money to host the summer events than the UFC could sanely pass up. (Actually, that definitely happened.) In any case, for the month of July—beginning Saturday at UFC 251, and ending July 26—the UFC will host four cards, featuring something like 48 total fights (pending injuries, coronavirus cases, and volcanic eruptions).

So let’s set the table for this weekend’s kickoff of Fight Island.

How Did We Get Here?

The UFC has already put on eight defiant shows since the rest of the sports world shut down in March due to the coronavirus, so shows 9 through 12 come with some experience. The first event the UFC did during the pandemic was in Brazil back on March 14, and—though the arena was empty—fighters hugged and got into each other’s faces without masks and generally disrespected each other’s personal space. Those were the early days, barely a week removed from when Rudy Gobert, the NBA’s patient zero, groped those digital recorders.

After that, the UFC was shut down from attempting bootleg events at the Tachi Palace in California and the FireLake Arena in Oklahoma in April, and they didn’t run another show until May, when they put on three cards in one week in Jacksonville, Florida. Under the increased scrutiny of health officials, Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza was forced out after testing positive for coronavirus, but otherwise those shows came off without much of a hitch.

After that, the UFC did four more shows from its APEX facility in Las Vegas, where it had the charged air of a final dress rehearsal for a big show. All the lights were on, the music was blaring, the fighters were making the walk, but overall it felt like a walkthrough at an empty dinner-show theater. The UFC ran these shows as well as could be expected, with ramped up testing and monitoring and by sequestering fighters in hotels.

The need for Fight Island was more than its inherent thriller-novel charms. It came down to logistics: Foreign fighters couldn’t travel into the States to compete, so an island setting—where visas can be flashed and accepted like fake IDs at a college bar—was the workaround. This weekend’s UFC 251 event is the first truly global affair of the pandemic-era UFC. In the three title fights that top off the main card, five different countries are represented.

Yet doing a monthlong series of shows with fighters from across the globe is completely inconvenient for the UFC, not to mention very expensive for the host city. The Abu Dhabi government chartered Etihad Airways planes from four different rally ports in Las Vegas, London, Moscow, and Sao Paulo to bring the fighters to Abu Dhabi. The fighters are tested before the fights and after, and quarantined each time pending results. The fighters and their factions will be tested five total times on the island up through the fights.

Fight Island could just as easily be known as Fight Bubble, as it’s been called a “10-square-mile safe zone” for the 2,500 people gathered for the events. Everyone is cut off from outside contact. And getting into that safe zone has been no picnic. The Florida-based coach Din Thomas tested positive for COVID-19 while in Las Vegas to jump on the Abu Dhabi charter, and is now quarantined there for the next two weeks. That meant that Paul Felder, who was seated next to Thomas on the airplane and was scheduled to do color commentary on the UFC 251 broadcast, was quarantined too, even though he tested negative.

Then there’s American Top Team coach Mike Brown, who also tested positive before boarding the charter. He helped take Jorge Masvidal from journeyman to BMF superstar, and now he’ll have to watch Masvidal try to win the welterweight title from 8,000 miles away. Masvidal is only stepping in on short notice because the original contender, Gilbert Burns, caught the virus and was forced out. That’s life in the UFC during the pandemic. Luckily, the UFC is used to rolling with the punches.

Oh Yeah, the Fights …

Every now and again, a UFC main event falls apart and the replacement fight is a million times more alluring. The most classic example of this was UFC 196, when Conor McGregor was going up a division to challenge Rafael Dos Anjos for the lightweight title. But when RDA fell out with a leg injury and Nate Diaz stepped in to face McGregor on short notice—at an arbitrary weight of 170 pounds, with no title on the line—it opened up the floodgates of imagination. It was straight alchemy. Flowers bloomed. Enthusiasts emerged from woodwork. Everyone was glued. The fight broke the UFC’s pay-per-view record at the time and made everyone forget about poor Dos Anjos, who was left watching the sparkle disappear off his title.

That’s what’s going on at UFC 251. The current welterweight champion, Kamaru Usman, is a Nigerian-born bulldozer who’s gone 11-0 in the UFC’s toughest division. He could easily be declared a national hero after not just beating MAGA-hat-wearing Colby Covington last December, but breaking his jaw, yet for whatever reason he’s still an unsung champ. His match with Mr. Pandemic Gilbert Burns—who has gone 2-0 in the COVID-19 era—was a die-hard fight fan’s delight, but a nonevent for the broader sports public.

Then Burns got the coronavirus, and the possibility of Masvidal stepping in kicked up—and that possibility alone was enough to make UFC 251 go from a pretty great main card to a special one. Miami’s Masvidal became a cult figure over the last year through a perfect storm of events. After beating Darren Till in London last March, he got into a backstage fight with Leon Edwards, later telling ESPN that he gave him “the three-piece with the soda.” That landed him in a big fight against the loud-mouthed Ben Askren, whom he knocked out in five seconds with a flying knee. The fastest KO in UFC history led to the creation of the Baddest Motherfucker title (BMF), which he fought Diaz for at Madison Square Garden last November.

Since then Masvidal has been seen making the rounds on ESPN platforms wearing silk pajamas, but a money dispute with the UFC has kept him on the sidelines. As happens with these things, his leverage to get a new deal showed up in a moment of desperation for the UFC. Burns fell out, and Masvidal was very publicly willing to step in. The UFC needed only to give him a new contract to get it done. So they did. And when the fight was announced, it was just like when Diaz stepped in for Dos Anjos in 2016. For fight fans, it was winning the lotto.

Can Masvidal actually beat Usman? Vegas oddsmakers don’t give him a great shot at it. Even for a guy called “Street Jesus,” Usman’s wrestling pedigree and the pressure-forward offense feels like the wrong formula for Masvidal to solve. The exhilaration of such a title fight doesn’t come from breakdowns of style, though. The exhilaration in a fight like this is always hitched to the star in the equation, and that is Masvidal. What it would mean if Masvidal upsets Usman? If he “baptizes” yet another welterweight and carries around the BMF and welterweight titles over the shoulders of his Versace robe? How big can a late-blooming cult figure like Masvidal get?

That’s what people want to find out.

Other Titles Are on the Line, Too

Having such a compelling main event helps diminish some of the nitpicking concerns accompanying the other title fights on Saturday night. The co-main event between featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski and former champion Max Holloway is a rematch from UFC 245. Volkanovski, a former pro rugby player, didn’t just get by Holloway, he confounded him—he took the fight to him, and dominated most of the 25 minutes. This was a big deal, even if he did make it look easy.

Holloway hadn’t lost a featherweight fight in nearly seven years heading into that fourth title defense. He’d won 14 in a row in that division going back to 2013, and had surpassed Jose Aldo as the greatest feather of all time. Yet Volkanovski quietly dismantled him, and just as quietly walked away with his belt. The fight was so quiet and one-sided that it carried a dreamlike quality. If Holloway hadn’t been such a dominant force for so long, the idea of a rematch might’ve felt absurd. Yet since he was that dominant for so long, there’s a need for Volkanovski to show his work in the margins. He needs to do it again, just as Holloway had to beat Aldo twice to leave no doubt that a baton had been passed.

The other title fight—a bantamweight clash between Jose Aldo and Petr Yan—is a lot of things. It’s a low-key awesome head-scratcher that’s impossible to truly justify yet strong enough to defy justification. Jose Aldo has been a featherweight his whole career, and his move to bantamweight this past winter felt desperate, ill-advised (given the gruesome weight cut), and somewhat delusional. The big concern heading into his bantamweight debut last December against Marlon Moraes was whether or not he could healthily cut down to 135 pounds.

He did. And—to the surprise of many—he looked pretty good against a power broker like Moraes, though he still lost a split decision. What did the loss mean for him? A title shot, of course. At first he was going to fight titleholder Henry Cejudo for the belt, a bit of matchmaking that left defenders of the meritocracy at a loss for words, but Aldo’s visa issues kept that fight from taking place. Cejudo ended up fighting Dominick Cruz instead, and—after knocking Cruz out—abruptly retired. That meant a vacant title fight needed to be arranged.

And that meant Jose Aldo and Petr Yan, an old school legacy-vs.-potential matchup without a lot of backstory. The Russian Yan has a lot going for him here. He’s six years younger than Aldo, and has suffered far less damage over the course of his career. He has a nice head of steam, having gone 6-0 in the UFC since debuting two years ago. He has a dark streak in the cage that so far has been unmatched (poor Urijah Faber still has toenail prints on his face from that headkick that did him in), and you get the feeling he’s coming into the peak of his powers. He’s a junior juggernaut, and honestly it doesn’t seem like he has much of a sense of humor.

When you throw in the rematch between Rose Namajunas and Jessica Andrade—who fought for the strawweight title a little over a year ago and ended when Andrade power slammed Namajunas into spectacular unconsciousness—UFC 251 is the most stacked card of the year. It’s a hell of a way to kick off the monthlong residency on Fight Island, even if there’s no volcano, and no beach, and no bloody splattering the sandy beach in the firelight. It’s not the action movie Dana White dreamed up, but with all the action happening in the cage, it might be close.