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BIG FIGHT Inside 'Fight Island': how the UFC are preparing for Conor McGregor's fight in Abu Dhabi

Led by its brash, defiant president Dana White, the UFC was one of the first sports to return in the pandemic, instituting a bubble in Jacksonville, Florida.

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Conor McGregor interacts with media during the UFC 257 press conference event inside Etihad Arena on UFC Fight Island

Conor McGregor interacts with media during the UFC 257 press conference event inside Etihad Arena on UFC Fight Island

A general view prior to the UFC 257 press conference event inside Etihad Arena on UFC Fight Island on Yas Island, Abu Dhabi

A general view prior to the UFC 257 press conference event inside Etihad Arena on UFC Fight Island on Yas Island, Abu Dhabi

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Conor McGregor interacts with media during the UFC 257 press conference event inside Etihad Arena on UFC Fight Island

Elite athletes and the media that cover them are often accused of living in a bubble, unaware of the outside world – in the case of the UFC and “Fight Island” in Abu Dhabi, that has become an undeniable reality.

Led by its brash, defiant president Dana White, the UFC was one of the first sports to return in the pandemic, instituting a bubble in Jacksonville, Florida that allowed it to get back to business and providing a template for other leagues and sports scrambling to fulfil broadcasts deals and entertain restless fans.

There have been varying degrees of success. The NBA’s bubble allowed them to finish the basketball season without a hitch but, having returned to playing in North American cities, they are now being hit by a wave of infections.

The bubble for the Australian Open in tennis has also seen a number of positive tests, as well as a tsunami of entitled whining from spoiled brats who don’t realise how good they actually have it.

The current UFC bubble at ‘Fight Island’, as Yas Island in Abu Dhabi has been rebranded and which began hosting events last July, is tighter than ever before. The promotion has seen plenty of fights drop off cards due to positive tests over the last nine or 10 months, but it has avoided a widespread outbreak among its staff or the media that might have derailed it.

The United Arab Emirates has a population twice that of Ireland’s but only around 20pc more cases of

Covid-19, and less than half the deaths. Its vaccine roll-out is second only to Israel in terms of its rapidity, but still the UFC is taking no chances.

The comprehensive operation begins before departure. The UFC books all flights to and from Abu Dhabi for those who have anything to do with the events, taking care of visas and even the customs forms for the cameras and microphones that the media bring with them.

Journalists wishing to travel have to take two Covid tests, one 10 days before and one no more than 72 hours before travelling.

On arrival, airport staff board the planes and whisk the UFC’s passengers off first – even before the business class passengers – and lead them quickly through passport control and customs to waiting buses for the short drive to the Crowne Plaza Hotel, which has been block-booked by the UFC.

On exiting the bus, all luggage is disinfected by a hotel employee in full protective gear before entering the hotel, and directly after check-in guests are led to a basement restaurant which has been converted into a Covid testing centre, where staff, dressed head to toe in PPE, take tests and passport details.

Guests are then swiftly led to their rooms where they are quarantined for 48 hours (72 if coming from the UK). During that time, meals are sent at regular intervals in takeaway trays with plastic cutlery. The leftovers and packaging are thrown into specially marked refuse bags and treated as hazardous.

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While in their rooms, guests are tested again after 24 hours – if both tests are negative, they are allowed to leave their rooms once their quarantine period expires but even then, there is nowhere to go.

The climate in Abu Dhabi is pleasant at this time of the year with sunshine and daytime temperatures in the mid-20s, but there is no question of reporters or staff being allowed to take the 15-minute walk to the Etihad Arena, or to the five-star W Hotel where fighters such as Conor McGregor are billeted and where press events take place.

Instead, shuttle buses run every half-hour to avoid the possibility of the UFC’s visitors coming into contact with local people, where they could be exposed to the virus and bring it into the bubble.

Even the beach just below the Crowne Plaza, which was accessible during past UFC events, is off-limits.

Despite the strict rules and limited movement, there is little moaning. Though there is little training left to be done before their bouts, fighters and coaches have been moving hotel beds aside so they can do “prison workouts” consisting of push-ups and burpees.

Face masks are mandatory in indoor spaces, except for brief interludes when fighters are being interviewed or journalists are speaking on camera.

The three events that will culminate in McGregor’s main event against Dustin Poirier at UFC 257 on Sunday morning (Irish time) will also see some 2,000 fans in attendance, and they too will be subjected to a stringent programme of testing and their ability to move around the arena will be strictly limited.

Perspex screens have been erected between the spectators and the cage. The chances of them coming into contact with fighters or journalists are almost non-existent.

The vast majority of MMA media is consumed online, and under normal circumstances many of the athletes would spend half an hour or more giving one-to-one interviews to reporters.

Though they still happen, safety constraints limit these opportunities, and there is little of the usual mingling in lobbies and hotel bars that is the source of so much useful information.

But what they do have is fights, and lots of them. The first card on January 16 provided a barn burner of a main event between Max Holloway and Calvin Kattar, and Wednesday’s card was stuffed full of intriguing prospects.

Saturday’s card sees the return of McGregor, the biggest star in the sport, and something that was unthinkable when the pandemic began, such are the financial and logistical challenges.

As the pandemic took hold, many scoffed when White tried to circumvent the rules by trying to stage events in casinos on Native American land. He scrambled quickly to recover, suggesting that he would exhaust every possibility to keep the show going.

When he suggested buying a private island – ‘Fight Island’ – where he could keep staging events, many laughed at him. They’re not laughing anymore, and once again, White and the UFC are laughing all the way to the bank.


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