The imagery evoked by Dana White's crazy idea was undeniably intoxicating: An octagon perched amid swaying palm trees on a white sand beach, waves lapping at the canvas while mixed martial arts fighters traded blows in the tropical sun.
A few months later, the project that came to be known as Fight Island is real and ready for competition.
And while Fight Island is not exactly the idyllic scene evoked by its name, the octagon inside an air-conditioned arena on Abu Dhabi's Yas Island also sits inside a bubble that seems highly unlikely to burst.
“It's the biggest thing we've ever undertaken,” White said. “I’m always of the mindset that there is a solution for every problem."
The coronavirus pandemic is an unprecedented problem for modern professional sports, but White leveraged the UFC's advantages in mobility and size to get back into full-scale competition much more quickly than other leagues and tours. White said he never worried about whether he should keep staging shows, but only worried about where he would be allowed to do it, and how he could do it safely.
The UFC went only eight weeks without competition before staging eight events in Jacksonville and Las Vegas, but White knew he would quickly run out of U.S.-based fighters if he couldn't find a venue less encumbered by travel restrictions.
So he partnered with his longtime friends in Abu Dhabi's government to create a fight oasis. Rather than a deserted tropical paradise, Yas Island is a modern tourist destination with amusement parks, malls and a Formula One racetrack. Dozens of fighters and their camps have already travelled from around the world to Fight Island, where they're relaxing in luxury hotel rooms and training for their shows.
Fight Island will host four UFC events in 14 days, starting with three championship fights at UFC 251 this weekend. Although the UFC will return to Las Vegas in August, White told the AP he believes the UFC will be back at Yas Island repeatedly this year, and perhaps beyond.
“Fight Island is indefinite right now,” White said. “I love it there. On this trip, I’ll probably go looking at either houses or a condo to buy over there. Incredible restaurants, hotels. It’s a great place.”
Roughly six square miles of the island have been set apart as a “safe zone” for the roughly 2,000 people involved in the UFC’s production over the next three weeks. The locals went through a 14-day quarantine, and everyone inside the safe zone has passed several coronavirus tests.
The organization is following the same health and safety protocols that appeared to work splendidly over the past two months. The promotion has announced only a few positive tests, with minimal schedule disruptions and no significant outbreaks.
White admits he has significant advantages over his counterparts in charge of team sports. He has no more than 20 to 24 athletes in his shows, which are individual events largely run by a well-trained, veteran group of employees. The UFC even handles all television production of its own fights for ESPN and its international clients.
“Athletes that are involved in combat sports are more in tune to making sure they've got clean environments,” UFC chief operating officer Lawrence Epstein said. “Whether it's bacterial infections or other things that can happen if you don't keep your space clean and don't start with proper hygiene. We’re sort of used to being a little bit safer than everybody else, and also, our athletes are used to undergoing a tremendous amount of testing.”
Epstein says the UFC is eager to help any sports entity who wants advice, calling their plans “open source code.” White also knows their methods might not be feasible to meet the challenges faced by other U.S. leagues.
“I have 600 fighters under contract,” White said. “The NFL has God knows how many football players (nearly 2,000). It’s so hard to control these people. They’re all grown adults. They can do what they want to do. I honestly don’t know how to give any of these other guys advice. For these other leagues, it’s more a financial problem than anything, a massive financial burden on sports leagues. Losing season ticket holders, concessions, parking, it's devastating."
The UFC is bolstered by its $1.5 billion rights deal with ESPN and its pay-per-view income, which is likely to be robust this summer. While the NFL and college football look for ways to have fans in the stands this fall, White is “running this business right now like there won’t be fans. It’s not even a consideration right now.”
Although White and the UFC have been leaders in the sports world since the start of the pandemic, the boss still has a few doubts about most experts' recommendations on public health.
When asked if he thinks Americans should be wearing masks in public places, White — an ardent Donald Trump supporter who has also backed Democratic politicians, including former Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada — pauses and chuckles.
“I don’t know,” White said. “I don’t know the answers to these questions. This whole thing is so mind-boggling to me. I don’t know what the truth is. I honestly don’t know how to answer that question. ... But yeah, everybody has to wear a mask on Yas Island.”
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