Abu Dhabi has become the UFC’s home away from home since the global pandemic started. Seeking a way to stage international shows at a time when worldwide travel has been severely restricted, the UFC struck a deal with the capital of the United Arab Emirates to stage ‘Fight Island’.
The first Fight Island series, held in July, proved so successful that the UFC returned to the Middle East in September for a second edition.
Now attention has turned to the possibility of Fight Island 3, and while there has yet to be confirmation from the UFC or local organizers, Dana White has strongly suggested that it will take place, most likely at the end of January, start of February.
Understandably, much of the attention surrounding Fight Island 3 focuses on the return of two-weight champion Conor McGregor, who is expected to confirm his comeback fight in a rematch with Dustin Poirier. UFC president White expects that fight to headline a show in the next Fight Island series.
“Jan 23 on Fight Island if everything goes according to plans,” White told ESPN last week. “There are a ton of ifs right now. I have to see where the world is in the next couple of months.”
Such were the epic match-ups that took place during the first two Fight Island series, McGregor v Poirier would probably not even feature in the top three, even if it does involve arguably the biggest superstar the UFC has ever had.
Kamaru Usman’s welterweight title bout against the hugely popular Jorge Masvidal headlined the very first Fight Island show, UFC 251, although the fight itself failed to live up to the hype owing to Masvidal’s extremely late call-up to replace Gilbert Burns, who withdrew at the last minute after contracting Covid-19.
There was the hugely anticipated and bad-tempered clash between Israel Adesanya and Paulo Costa for Adesanya’s middleweight belt in the first show of Fight Island 2. Adesanya proceeded to put on a clinic in the UFC 253 main event to retain his title.
Then there was the biggest of them all: UFC 254, which saw lightweight king Khabib Nurmagomedov return to the octagon after more than a year out to face interim lightweight champion Justin Gaethje. Nurmagomedov’s ruthless win was given greater importance after the Russian star emotionally announced his retirement immediately after the fight.
Yet, in terms of historical importance, there was another bout that carried even greater significance than the three mentioned above. At UFC Fight Night 4 on October 11, Holly Holm and Irene Aldana became the first women to headline a main event in Abu Dhabi.
In total, there were 16 female bouts staged across both Fight Island series and women had competed in the UAE capital before, at UFC 242 – incidentally, the last time Khabib fought prior to his final bout in Abu Dhabi when he defeated Poirier, who now looks likely to return to the city to face McGregor.
However, the magnitude of a female headline bout cannot be overstated. With Abu Dhabi demanding top quality fights to make their investment in Fight Island worthwhile, it was another clear sign that female MMA is strong enough to carry its own UFC show.
But beyond that, it was a strong indication of the changing times in the Middle East. Granted, Abu Dhabi is one of the more liberal societies in the region, but it is still strongly conservative compared to the UFC’s other regular destinations such as the US, UK, and Brazil.
Holm, who shot to prominence in 2015 when she destroyed Ronda Rousey, said she was “honoured” to win the first ever women main event bout in Abu Dhabi. But given the depth of female talent, she will surely not be the last.
One fight that could come into play following recent developments could be the rearranged featherweight title clash between champion Amanda Nunes and Megan Anderson after their initial bout was called off when Nunes withdrew due to “serious medical issues”.
Nunes is regarded as one of the greatest five female UFC fighters of all time, if not the very best and she easily has the talent, fanbase, and clout to headline a Fight Island card.
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Should her fight with Anderson be rescheduled for early next year, that could fall around the same time the UFC is expected to return to Abu Dhabi.
Elsewhere, Chinese star and strawweight champion Weili Zhang would be another female fighter that could headline a show in Abu Dhabi. A showdown with No 1-ranked Rose Namajunas, whose rematch win over Jessica Andrade was one of the most exciting bouts on Fight Island, would comfortably carry an event.
However it plays out, if the UFC returns to Abu Dhabi for a third Fight Island series as expected, then a female main event as the potential to be just as enticing as McGregor’s rematch with Poirier.