Back in September of last year, UFC owners William Morris Endeavor (WME) made the move to take more complete control of the world’s largest MMA promotion by buying out longtime stockholders – and Abu Dhabi government subsidiaries – Flash Entertainment. Flash purchased a 10% stake in the mixed martial arts promotion back in 2010, telling fans that they looked forward to “an exciting future ahead, working closely with our UFC partners to activate this sport in the UAE, the region, and across the world.”
And while the UFC has continually looked for avenues of international expansion over the past decade – especially in China and Russia – the hope of creating a strong MMA fanbase for the promotion in and around the UAE seems to have largely fallen by the wayside. The promotion put on only two events in Abu Dhabi over their nine years of involvement with Flash. However, if their 2018 stock buyback seemed like a clear indication of a failed experiment, that may not quite be the case.
In a recent press release, the promotion announced that not only would they be returning to Abu Dhabi this year, with a Khabib Nurmagomedov title defense on September 7th, but they have started a 5-year partnership with the Advantage Abu Dhabi program to bring more events to the UAE.
“UFC will become a key component of Abu Dhabi’s thriving events calendar for the next five years,” said HE Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, Chairman, DCT Abu Dhabi, “which is already packed full of not only great sporting events, but also cultural, arts and entertainment offerings as well. This spectacular mixed martial arts event, which has a huge following around the world, will bring heightened impetus to visitation in the third quarter for the emirate and will no doubt boost incoming tourist numbers as fight fans across the world gather in Abu Dhabi.”
“We are making a long-term commitment to Abu Dhabi because we have had great success in that market,” said UFC President Dana White. “The demand from our fans to bring UFC back to Abu Dhabi has been overwhelming, and over the next five years, DCT Abu Dhabi will help us deliver some spectacular UFC championship fights to the UAE. I’m very excited about this partnership and what it will mean for the growth of this sport and for UFC in the region.”
In actuality, the UFC’s past luck with their Abu Dhabi fight cards has not been great. Alongside broader criticisms of the partnership, their first event (which promised to be a star-studded affair on paper) ended up headlined by Anderson Silva’s notoriously lackluster title fight against Demian Maia, and a highly-questionably judged lightweight title fight between then-champion BJ Penn and challenger Frankie Edgar.
“No doubt about it, absolutely, 100%,” Dana white agreed, when asked if UFC 112 was his lowest moment as president of the UFC in a post-event interview with Ariel Helwani. And when the UFC finally did return, four years later, it was with an 8-fight Fight Night card headlined by Roy Nelson vs. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. Dana White was not in attendance, telling reporters after ‘Big Nog’’s KO loss in the main event, “I don’t want to see Nogueira fight ever again.”
Whether this new plan bears more fruit remains to be seen. But, at the very least the UFC has promised that “subsequent UFC events held in Abu Dhabi will be headlined by at least one championship bout.” For as often as the WME-IMG promotion plans on returning to the UAE in the next five years, it sounds like they’ll be looking to bring big fight cards with them. Maybe this time around they’ll be met with better results.