Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019 marked the UFC’s first trip back to the Middle East for UFC 242, and it was my first UFC event as a credentialed media member.
It’s actually pretty coincidental since I started covering the sport in 2014, the last time the UFC came to Abu Dhabi. So timeline wise, it worked out pretty perfectly.
And I can’t stress enough how great it felt to have the UFC come back to my region. I have been covering this sport for the past five years religiously from Egypt, where I’ve spent my life. For those who don’t know, there is barely an MMA scene there, just a few gyms and minor promotions still trying to figure out how this sport works. There is little knowledge on the sport; the average person just doesn’t really know what MMA is.
But everything changed at UFC 229 last October, when Khabib Nurmagomedov defeated Conor McGregor to retain the lightweight title. The build-up turned ugly, with religious and ethnic jabs being thrown by McGregor. It is a sensitive topic that some don’t take as well as others. Nurmagomedov, who is a devout Muslim, certainly didn’t take it well. And the beauty of this sport is, you get to make your opponent pay by literally beating him up. That’s what Nurmagomedov ended up doing, which apparently wasn’t enough, so he proceeded to jump over the cage and attack McGregor’s corner after the fight. It was personal.
The good of UFC 242
Khabib handles pressure, shines bright
A hero was born, and the Arab region finally found someone to root for. It’s no coincidence that the UFC finally returned to Abu Dhabi after all these years. It was because of Nurmagomedov. Everyone and their neighbor texted me after that fight. Suddenly, people cared about MMA. Nurmagomedov became not only a hero to the Arab world, but to the Muslim community, something of a Mohamed Salah, Liverpool FC’s star player who took the world by storm.
But this is different. Everyone knows what football – or soccer – is. MMA, on the other hand, is still very much a growing sport, and Nurmagomedov made the region care. They even aired the fight at the Cairo Jazz Club in Egypt, which I believe had never been done before.
So the UFC’s decision to return to Abu Dhabi for UFC 242 and seal a five-year deal was a brilliant move. Abu Dhabi has been promised a pay-per-view event every year with a title fight. Nurmagomedov headlining vs. a very worthy Dustin Poirier was a great fight, not just for the region but the whole world watching.
I saw the amount of pressure on Nurmagomedov all week. Us media didn’t even get an opportunity to speak to him. He was hounded by local media and TV partner interviews, as well, giving him no time to speak to the rest of the media. He had not only all of Dagestan, Russia, the MENA region, and his fans all over the world, but the whole Muslim community behind him. His father, who has always had visa issues entering the U.S., was able to corner Nurmagomedov for the first time in his career. He had friends and family fly to watch him fight for the first time, as well.
I asked Khabib about that at the post-fight news conference, about the pressure and the media leading up, and he proceeded to nod in agreement. Nurmagomedov was overwhelmed, but he handled everything like a champion. And his performance said no different. He faced little stints of adversity from Poirier, even a deep sunken guillotine choke that he managed to escape. The crowd erupted, and Nurmagomedov’s pressure, grappling and control proved to be too much once again.
“The Eagle” was relentless and able to submit Poirier in the third round via rear-naked choke. An elated Nurmagomedov raced across the octagon and jumped over the fence, this time to hug UFC president Dana White. You could tell how much this win meant to him, knowing UFC 242 was built for him to shine.
Local coverage of MMA
Even if Khabib doesn’t end up headlining the next UFC event in Abu Dhabi, his job is done. He put a massive spotlight on the sport in the region. Abu Dhabi Sports, the local news outlet, was heavily involved, bringing numerous guests for live on-set interviews, including Ottman Azaitar, who competed at UFC 242, Tristar head coach Firas Zahabi and even White.
They even brought me on, which was great to introduce myself to the fans in the region. Even if I’m based in Egypt, I had little to zero support in pursuit of my goals as a journalist. Not because people didn’t want to support me, they just didn’t understand enough to even care.
Fighters like Islam Makhachev, Zubaira Tukhugov, Mairbek Taisumov, Belal Muhammad, and Azaitar got massive pops from the crowd that were behind them all week. People traveled from all over the world to watch these fighters compete, as well as the fantastic main event between Nurmagomedov and Poirier. Abu Dhabi was a cultural melting pot.
Where were the Arab fighters?
One of the things I had an issue with at UFC 242 was the lack of local talent. The UFC should have invested more time in trying to find local talent based in the Middle East. It was a perfect time for these fighters to get a massive platform, especially with someone like Nurmagomedov headlining. There were four Arab fighters on the card: Muhammad who picked up a performance bonus finish over Takashi Sato; Azaitar, who made an emphatic debut with a knockout over Teemu Packalen; Fares Ziam, who lost a unanimous decision to Don Madge; and Nordine Taleb, who suffered a knockout loss to Muslim Salikhov.
I had even written a piece throwing some shine on these fighters, which originally included Khalid Taha, who had his fight vs. Bruno Silva moved to UFC 243 in Melbourne. I just didn’t feel like there was enough coverage on the actual Arab fighters competing on the card. There’s a lot of great local talent that I believed should have gotten an opportunity, but hey, good news: I asked White about plans to do a “Lookin for a Fight” next year in Abu Dhabi, and he said that’s been discussed.
And that’s what I like to hear. That’s the kind of thing that will actually help the sport grow in the region. Because at the end of the day, Khabib is not Arab, but he is Muslim, and the region has adopted him as one of its own. His presence will help shine the spotlight on Arab talent fighting to get noticed. Countries like Jordan have fantastic fighters and ever growing gyms, and we could very well see some of those fighters grace the UFC octagon.
Hot, hot, hot
With all the glitz and glam that comes with being in Abu Dhabi, I have to say The Arena was a little disappointing. First of all, it was unbelievably hot and humid, feeling like 125 degrees Fahrenheit apparently. November, when it’s cooled down, would have been a better time for the UFC to come. It was just way too hot. The setup for the fan experience, as well as media room and fighter locker rooms, were basically tents. Everyone was pouring sweat – like actually pouring. Some fighters even said they felt like they were suffocating in there. You’d think after all these years they’d have it figured out, but there was still some rubble and construction outside while we had to find our way to the media room. Of course, it was a lot worse for the fighters.
Nurmagomedov’s win over McGregor took the world by storm, and it would be crazy not to capitalize. Who knows how long it took behind the scenes to finalize Khabib vs. Poirier for Abu Dhabi, but it would have been a real shame to have anyone else headline the first show back in years. Nurmagomedov’s star never has shined brighter, and he has been embraced by the Arab world and Muslim community.
I suspect that next year, things will run a lot more smoothly. The venue inside actually looked great, but many complained about the heat. The media room was hot, as well, but overall I have to say the event was a success. The sport has grown exponentially in the region, and I’m very glad to have been a part of it. I knew when I started covering MMA, that we’d get here. I can’t wait for next year and what’s to come.
- Tony Ferguson alludes to hotel encounters as more motivation for Khabib Nurmagomedov fight
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- Paulo Costa predicts win for Robert Whittaker over 'fake champion' Israel Adesanya at UFC 243
Source: USA Today – MMA Junkie
Read the full article here: A local journalist reflects on covering Khabib Nurmagomedov and the UFC's return to Abu Dhabi