By GEORGE WILLIS
The Ultimate Fighting Championship once was viewed as an outcast in the world of mainstream sports. Heck, most traditionalists and media didn’t view mixed martial arts as a sport until the UFC was sold for $4 billion in 2016.
Fast forward to 2020 and the UFC has positioned itself as a standard in conducting a sporting event in the midst of a Pandemic and is sharing its knowledge with major sports leagues across the globe. The UFC has staged eight events in the midst of COVID-19 and plans to hold four more over the next two weeks at what has been dubbed Fight Island in Abu Dhabi. It begins with UFC 251 on Saturday where Kamaru Usman defends his welterweight title against BMF champ Jorge Masvidal in the main event of a loaded PPV main card on ESPN-plus.
UFC COO Lawrence Epstein told TheNYExtra.com the MMA promotional company has shared its ever evolving health, safety and operations protocols with other major sporting leagues around the globe including Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NFL. “We’ve shared all our plans with a bunch of the other leagues,” Epstein said. “We really view what we’re doing here as an open source. We want to share all of our learning and our experiences and our plans with everybody. Even though we’re doing great—our ratings are incredibly strong and our pay-per-view is way above of what we projected—we’re strong believers in the sports eco system. We want baseball; we want hockey; we want basketball; we everybody out there because that ultimately is good for us. If ESPN has all sorts of sports on its platforms, it means more opportunities to market UFC.”
Unlike the NFL, NBA, and MLB, the UFC has found a private island, dubbed Fight Island, to hold its events, starting Saturday with UFC 251. UFC Fight Night cards are set for July 15, July 18 and July 25. According to the UFC, 22 charter flights will be arriving from Las Vegas, London and Sao Paulo, Moscow. The total delegation of athletes, staff, etc., will be 630 bringing the population on site to about 2,500. The UFC is projecting it will administer an estimated 3,300 COVID-19 antigen tests, pre-departure and on-site to UFC athletes and event personnel. Each person traveling to Abu Dhabi will be tested prior to departure, twice at the hotel where they will undergo a brief quarantine period, once before the event and again after the event. The athletes are also subject to nightly temperature screenings.
A designated safe zone is closed to the public and face coverings must be worn at all times in public. Social distancing will be enforced. Known formally as Yas Island, the safe zone includes a beach, a golf course, seven hotels, multiple training facilities and more than a dozen dining establishments. The Flash Forum where the fights will take place is the only structure being specifically built for the UFC’s arrival.
The UFC held three events in Jacksonville, Florida, before moving to their APEX Training Center in Las Vegas where five cards were staged. Each has been a learning experience. Epstein said more than 2,500 tests for COVID-19 were administered in Las Vegas, producing 11 positive tests.
“We’re really proud of what we’ve done to date,” Epstein said. “Our plan around the event is working. People are not getting infected at our events. That’s a .004 percent positivity rate, which is the lowest of any of the major sports leagues. It means our procedures before, during and right after the events are working. It also means our athletes, the UFC employees and third party contractors are doing the right things between fights. They’re respecting social distancing. They’re wearing (masks) and they’re careful with who they associate with.”
Epstein said the protocols are “written in pencil” and “constantly changing” for the better. “Now we’re taking it to the next level in our partnership with the government of Abu Dhabi to put on these Fight Island events,” he said.
UFC president Dana White first broached the idea in April of a Fight Island where his international fighters could compete without the travel restrictions and quarantine rules that vary from country to country. It initially sounded like a reckless idea, but has grown in anticipation because of its novelty.
“Dana is our leader and our emotional and energy guy,” Epstein told theNYExtra.com. “He has come up with a lot of great ideas over the years. But Fight Island, I’m going to put at the top. It’s created a tremendous amount of buzz. There’s a lot of people that frankly might not have been interested in the UFC, but once the concept of Fight Island popped up they became interested.”
Masvidal stepped in on short notice after Usman’s original opponent Gilbert Burns and his coach tested positive for COVID-19. Masvidal passed his initial test and traveled to Abu Dhabi for the biggest fight of his career. However, he will be without his coach Mike Brown, who tested positive, according to ESPN, and did not make the trip. The other title bouts have Alexander Volkanovski defending his featherweight belt against Max Holloway, and Petr Yan and Jose Aldo meeting for the vacant bantamweight title. Rose Namajunas and Paige VanZant are also on the UFC 251 card in separate bouts.