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'Fight Island' chronicles: A first-hand account from Abu Dhabi

MMAJunkie logo MMAJunkie 7/13/2020 John Morgan
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Back in early April, UFC president Dana White first made mention of an island to host events centered around international fighters during the global coronavirus pandemic, and three months later it’s happening. Starting July 11 with UFC 251, the promotion will hold four events in 15 days on “Fight Island,” a.k.a. Yas Island, Abu Dhabi.

How is the promotion pulling this off? What’s it like being part of this? What’s happening behind the scenes? MMA Junkie lead staff reporter John Morgan is on site to provide a first-hand account of the experience of the first leg of the journey, from the trip over to the conclusion of UFC 251.

* * * *

Previous entries

Friday, July 3

The trip over

The journey to “Fight Island” begins with a hard truth – it means some 23 days away from my wife and son, which isn’t an easy thing for them, or me. But it’s a reality many of the staff and contractors working these four events will also face, so certainly no one is in this alone.

Having covered pandemic-era MMA now in both Florida and Nevada, I’m pretty familiar with all the safeguards that will be in place. One major difference this time, though, was the flight to Abu Dhabi. First, to even get on the plane, we had to submit to a COVID-19 test one day prior, on Thursday, and produce a negative result.

With that approval, we boarded a chartered Etihad Airways plane that left from Las Vegas’ McCarran International Airport and flew directly to Abu Dhabi, a flight of about 14-and-a-half hours. We checked into Terminal 3 in a section that had been blocked off to other customers. We then went to the D Gates section of the airport, where again, there were no outside passengers around.

The plane was big, a Boeing 777-300ER that seats around 300 people. I was told there were only about 75 of us on the plane, so there was plenty of room to stay socially distanced. We also faced a temperature check as we stepped on the plane.

Of course, the flight didn’t exactly start smoothly. A few hours before we boarded, the staff at MMA Junkie received some information that UFC 251 headliner Gilbert Burns had potentially tested positive for COVID-19, endangering his planned welterweight title fight with Kamaru Usman. We struggled to get confirmation, but as the time to board drew closer and closer, it was clear that neither Burns nor Usman were in the empty terminal.

Presented with that information, a few contacts who wished to remain anonymous because the promotion had made no official announcements, confirmed with me the fight was off.

MMA Junkie’s Mike Bohn confirmed shortly after that COVID-19 was indeed the culprit. We knew we were facing some late changes to the card, but it was certainly too late to turn back now – for us and the UFC.

Saturday, July 4

The arrival

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We arrived at the Abu Dhabi International Airport on Saturday, but just barely. It was about 11:50 p.m. local time when we landed (for reference, Abu Dhabi is eight hours ahead of Eastern Time).

a large passenger jet sitting on top of a tarmac at an airport © Provided by MMAJunkie

Customs and immigration was a breeze – after all, we were the only plane arriving at the time, and of course the entire trip has been planned with the local government’s assistance. There was a thermal scanner that checked us as we passed, but otherwise there was minimal interference in our arrival. Leaving the airport, though, it became immediately clear how different this experience was going to be as opposed to the UFC’s May events in Jacksonville, Fla.

Masked staff members whisked us through the airport to buses waiting outside. This is my third trip to Abu Dhabi, but it’s the hottest one yet. As I write this, it’s 3 a.m. local, and it’s 93 degrees with 67 percent humidity, meaning a “feels like” temperature of 117 degrees. It’s going to be a warm few weeks – but fighters definitely shouldn’t have trouble cutting weight.

As we loaded up on the buses, it was clear the drivers were taking their protection serious. Masks weren’t enough. There was an entire plastic curtain to shield them.

Once the buses were loaded, we received a police escort from the local authorities to make the 10-minute drive from the airport to the hotel zone. Nice for ease of transportation, but it didn’t seem exactly necessary for our transit needs. I imagine it was more just to make sure everyone did stay on the bus and didn’t deviate from the plans. Plus, we didn’t even get the usual perks of a police escort! See this red light? We stopped at it and waited for it to turn green! Aren’t we supposed to get to run those with a police escort?

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I did get a chance to do a little work this afternoon, speaking on the phone to both UFC featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski and former titleholder Max Holloway.

“Blessed” was just waking up as we spoke in the early evening, having already made the same sleep adjustments I’m starting to make. But he was adamant those concerned that his pandemic-modified training camp was a mistake shouldn’t be worried. Meanwhile, Volkanovski was humble but remained confident he can turn in a repeat performance of their December meeting and said really thinks he can finish Holloway this time around.

My quarantine foodie blog then continued when dinner was delivered.

a tray of food on a table © Provided by MMAJunkie

I don’t remember the last time I had a Fanta. Its arrival might have been the highlight of my day, if for nothing other than the memories of the sugary orangeness it provides. I didn’t drink it, but it’s still in my fridge in case I start feeling froggy in the next three weeks.

After that excitement, I went back to waiting in my room, where I’ll be until that wristband slides under the door and ends my quarantine. I’m totally not counting down the hours at all. Promise.

Tuesday, July 7

So this didn’t go as planned

Well, one thing worked out perfect: I’m still awake from last night. I believe I have fully converted myself back to U.S. time, and I’m going to do my best to sleep during the day for the rest of these three weeks on “Fight Island” and have myself primed for working at night.

Unfortunately, that’s about all that went as planned.

Last night, I was incredibly excited about finishing up with quarantine and getting to leave my room for the first time since I arrived in Abu Dhabi. While I was waiting for the last 30 minutes or so to tick off the clock, I decide to open the door to my patio and take in a little fresh air. Now, in fairness, there is a warning sign on the door itself that gives very clear instructions not to leave the thing open for an extended amount of time. Why? Well, in a phenomenon I have honestly never heard of before, apparently rising humidity in the room will cause the smoke detector to set off.

a screenshot of text © Provided by MMAJunkie

Now look, I’m not saying I thought this was impossible, but I assumed it took a little bit of time for such a scientific phenomenon to occur. I’d say my door was open for about seven minutes before the alarm went off. I was sure to record proof of my misfortune, but be aware the audio is incredibly annoying should you click on the video.

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