If Dana White and Charles Darwin were to enter a conversation, what would they talk about?
No, not how Khabib Nurmagomedov defies all logic in being able to wrestle bears in his native Dagestan, nor Israel Adesanya’s cat-like reflexes in eluding all manner of opponents.
The UFC supremo and the naturalist are likely to concur in their approach to change. It was Darwin who famously said that ‘it is not the strongest or most intelligent animals that survive, but those who can best manage change’.
The past year has proved a lesson to sports chiefs the world over that those who can best adapt to change will not just survive, but thrive too. For White, the UFC has managed to react sharply to the wrecking ball that is coronavirus in hosting regular events despite the pandemic.
Dana White is setting his sights on ambitious plans to bring fans back to UFC events
Fight Island, in Abu Dhabi, has proved a popular location amid coronavirus for UFC fighters
And that is in huge part thanks to ‘Fight Island’. White has shifted his promotion to the obscure location, situated in Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, proving a huge hit among fans and fighters.
Nurmagomedov, Adesanya and Jorge Masvidal have all competed at Flash Forum, a 4,500-seat arena on the island, for UFC gold. But now White has set his sights on a bigger prize.
The 51-year-old is looking to host events at the Etihad Arena, just down the road on the south of the island, and hopes that fans will be able to attend for Conor McGregor’s UFC return against Dustin Poirier on January 23, 2021.
So what has White said? What is the new arena like? How could fans attend? And who could compete at the arena? Sportsmail details what we know so far.
And the UFC chief has laid out plans to move venues at Fight Island to an exciting new location
What has White said?
White has never been shy in setting his stall for the UFC. The supremo famously said he wanted the promotion to be ‘the first sport back on television’ at the height of the pandemic, and realised his ambition with UFC 249 in Jacksonville, Florida.
And after confirming that McGregor has signed to take on Poirier for a second time in the new year, White set out plans for the bout to be held in front of fans at the brand new, 18,000-seat capacity Etihad Arena.
The 51-year-old said that a new stadium has been designed in Abu Dhabi with the UFC in mind
‘The new Etihad Arena will be open and that thing was designed with us in mind. Concerts, pool parties, all kinds of cool stuff and yes, I hope to bring fans back,’ he told Barstool Sports.
‘So imagine this. All the things people have seen around the world with Fight Island, now you’ll finally get the opportunity to come, be a part of it and make it international fight week. Maybe with everybody. That’s what I’m shooting for.
‘What I would love to do is we’ll get there, and do it Saturday, Wednesday, Saturday fights,’ White added. ‘We go out there and kill it.’
Plans are under way for the UFC to host international fight week at the new Fight Island venue
What is the new arena like?
White has said the Etihad Arena has been designed with the UFC in mind and it is hard to argue with that claim upon first look at the designs for the brand new arena.
The venue, which is the largest indoor entertainment venue in the Middle East, is coated in distinctive gold, making it the new standout feature of the exciting Yas Bay development.
White wants to take UFC’s ‘Fight Island’ and put it into the new Etihad Arena in Abu Dhabi
The new arena is part of a $1bn titled ‘mega-project’ in Yas Bay in the south of the island
The United Arab Emirates has long held ambitions to become a powerhouse in the sports and entertainment business, and this $1.1bn ‘mega-project’ appears tailor made for sports fans from across the world to visit.
Located on the southern end of the Island, Yas Bay houses the Etihad Arena, a beach club, a boardwalk pier, cafes, retail units and The Waterfront. A new Hilton hotel will also be opening at the site.
‘Projects such as Yas Bay are part of our efforts to raise the bar and set a new global standard in leisure and entertainment,’ Sheikh Khalid, Chairman of the Abu Dhabi Executive Office, told The National in September.
‘We are focused on realising our vision, no matter what changes we face, of cementing Abu Dhabi’s position as a global hub for tourism, business, and investment.’
The project sees a boardwalk pier, beach club and waterfront alongside the new venue
Why does he want to ditch the old Fight Island?
Flash Forum, the 4,500-seat venue that has hosted the Fight Island events thus far, has proved adequate while UFC events have been hold behind closed doors during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The UFC has had a longstanding relationship with the UAE, first hosting events in the Middle East back in 2011, before signing a five-year deal that would see the country host one UFC event a year.
Flash Forum, the current Fight Island venue, holds just 25 per cent of the new arena’s capacity
But the UFC have been more frequent visitors this year, due to the pandemic, and the popularity of Fight Island has seen White claim that Abu Dhabi is the new fight capital. As such, the supremo is looking for a venue to befit that title.
‘This is the fight capital of the world, right now,’ he told ESPN’s Brett Okamoto. ‘The infrastructure that’s here, all the cool things to do, I think that fans are going to flock here as soon as this thing opens up.’
With the Etihad Arena four times the size of Flash Forum, as well as Yas Bay offering fight fans entertainment before and after the fights, there is no surprise that White is looking to relocate.
How could fans attend?
While White was able to realise his ambition of returning to action swiftly back in April, the plan to bring fans to the Middle East in January may be a lofty one.
Covid-19 figures are comparatively low in the UAE, the country has so far had just over 155,000 cases with a little over 500 deaths. The virus continues to spread nationwide in the United States, in contrast, as deaths hit a total of 250,000 on Thursday.
Whether the UFC and Abu Dhabi can plan for mass fans to attend the island remains to be seen
Current UK government advice rules that those travelling to the UAE do not need to self-isolate upon their return to Britain, making the prospect of flying out to the Middle East more attractive for fans.
But Abu Dhabi and the UFC need to come up with a plan that will allow for a mass group of fans to attend events without coming into close proximity of one another, and in so doing risk the spread of the disease.
Who could compete there?
If you are looking for a star to open up a new venue to UFC audiences, there can surely be no one better than Conor McGregor to do so.
The Irishman had been hoping that his rematch with Poirier would be held at the new AT&T Stadium in Texas, home to the Dallas Cowboys, but White’s recent comments appears to signal that the former two-weight champion is off to the Middle East.
McGregor has now officially signed his contract to fight Dustin Poirier on January 23
The pair first met in 2014 and are set to do battle at lightweight on Fight Island early next year
White wants Fight Island to host International Fight Week, a landmark week in the UFC calendar. The biggest stars typically feature on the International Fight Week card, so expect at least one title fight on the same bill as McGregor-Poirier.
Fight Island has also hosted several other events in the weeks leading up to the big title cards. Max Holloway has already featured on the island, and it would seem common sense for his featherweight bout with Calvin Katter, scheduled for January 16, to be held in Abu Dhabi.
White has also said he expects middleweight champion Adesanya to return in the first quarter of 2021, with a fight for the light heavyweight title against Jan Blachowicz on the cards. However, it seems unlikely that the chief will put two of his biggest stars on the same bill.
Max Holloway could also compete at the new venue as he fights a week before UFC 257