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5 things we learned from the UFC’s journey to Fight Island

For the foreseeable future, the UFC has a new home away from home and just as we did last month when we took stock of the promotion’s return to Las Vegas, we’re going to look at the key takeaways from the first official Fight Island events.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the global travel restrictions that followed left many of the best fighters not based in the U.S. wondering when they’d be able to make that walk to the octagon again. After months of hype and speculation, the UFC finally revealed its plans to head back to Abu Dhabi, which has hosted major events in the past, and it didn’t waste time booking a slate of fights that in terms of quality stood with any four-week stretch of shows in recent memory.

There were plenty of memorable moments to sort through both in and out of the cage, so let’s break it down to five notes starting with an eventful UFC on ESPN 14 main card that went down on Saturday night.

Never underestimate the heart of a champion

Robert Whittaker and Darren Till
Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

What goes up inevitably comes down in combat sports and that axiom holds twice as much weight in the UFC. Once you make it to the top, there’s no going back, and you either add to your legend or find yourself buried under an onslaught of elevated expectations and hungry contenders aiming to take your spot.

There was plenty of reason to believe that July’s final Fight Island show could end in disappointment for a quartet of former UFC champions, but instead all four triumphed and made a statement that they’re not giving up their seat at the table just yet.

Robert Whittaker, fighting for the first time since losing the middleweight title to Israel Adesanya in October, entered his match with Darren Till having not only been beaten in resounding fashion in his most recent outing, but having admitted that mental fatigue was the main reason for his layoff. That kind of talk is regrettably still taboo in some corners of the sports world, and it had some wondering if “The Reaper” could regain his old form.

He answered emphatically, showing off every facet of his skills to defuse a game Till and earn a unanimous decision and keep himself right at the front of the contenders’ line.

In the co-main event, Fabricio Werdum was coming off of a head-scratching split decision loss to Aleksei Oleinik and now being asked to guard the door to Club Heavyweight against longtime light heavyweight contender Alexander Gustafsson. Though there were just as many questions about how wise it was to throw the slumping Gustafsson into a fight with a veteran of Werdum’s calibre, it was reasonable to think that this could be a showcase fight for a new and improved Gustafsson.

Werdum stans (they’re out there) were rewarded for their faith as he was in prime form, effortlessly bringing the fight to the ground where he finished Gustafsson with a gorgeous armbar halfway into round one. With the win, Werdum showed he has a lot to offer and he did it at the perfect time as he announced beforehand his plans to head elsewhere after completing the last fight on his UFC contract.

Former light heavyweight champion Mauricio Rua and inaugural UFC strawweight champion Carla Esparza silenced the doubters as well, with “Shogun” and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira ending their trilogy with another classic, and Esparza making it clear she’s nobody’s stepping stone by winning a grind-it-out decision against the previously unbeaten Marina Rodriguez to pick up her fourth straight victory.

Add in the fantastic three-round battle between former strawweight champions Rose Namajunas and Jessica Andrade, and strong efforts in defeat from Jose Aldo and Max Holloway in recent weeks and it’s clear that the “old guard” aren’t ready to lay their arms to rest just yet.

The UFC vs. COVID-19, Round 2

If one was impressed by the UFC’s handling of COVID-19 testing and precautions in Las Vegas, then it’s fair to say that it stepped procedures up a notch when it came time to take the octagon back overseas.

Before even stepping on to a plane to Abu Dhabi, fighters were asked to check in at one of four hub cities (Las Vegas, London, Sao Paulo, Moscow), with the UFC reportedly assisting with both commercial and charter flight arrangements, and undergo two stages of COVID-19 testing. Test positive and you’re staying in the good ol U.S. of A.

The promotion stuck to its guns too. Gilbert Burns was pulled from his championship fight with Kamaru Usman just a week before UFC 251 after testing positive for COVID-19. Deiveson Figueiredo almost missed out on his title fight and had to go through a rigorous process to be cleared. Paul Felder missed out on UFC 251 commentary duties after a positive test, though he did find extra work as a last-minute cornerman for Jared Gordon at UFC on ESPN 13 when Gordon’s coaches and teammates also tested positive.

Suffice to say, the UFC and its fighters have been dealing with strange circumstances, but as far as we know, the show has gone on with as minimal risk possible for the parties involved and the staff and workers of the UFC and Yas Island are to be commended.

Fight Island was a myth

A UFC octagon on a beach in Abu Dhabi
Kirsty O’Connor, UFC

The in-cage action delivered, but for those hoping that their UFC meal would consist of something a little more exotic, they were left wanting.

Credit Dana White and the UFC’s marketing team for gussying up the pre-fight marketing with Fire Festival-esque video clips that teased the possibility of fights happening on the beach under the blistering Abu Dhabi sun, but outside of a few photo opportunities and face offs, it was all set dressing. There would be no fighters shaking sand from their toes as they stepped into the cage.

Otherwise, the production, pacing, and commercials (JUST WATCH ME NAAAAAOOOOOO!!! OOOOOOOH OOOOOH OH OH OOOOOOH) were mostly the same, for better or worse.

Stop trying to make “in the mix” happen

Far be it from me to tell the UFC president how to do his job, but when it comes to promotion maybe he should consider, I don’t know, promoting?

With new champions at 125 and 135 pounds following those titles being vacated by Henry Cejudo, those divisions are finally heading towards stability. Establishing a line of contenders can only help steady the ship in the lighter weight classes and yet, for whatever reason, White is reluctant to push the names of some very, very deserving challengers.

First and foremost, one Aljamain Sterling, who has done everything in his power to establish himself as the next man up at 135 pounds. Look, Sterling can’t go back in time and erase his defeat to Marlon Moraes, but since that fight two and a half years ago he’s won five straight, punctuating that run with an 88-second dismantling of Cory Sandhagen.

Aljamain Sterling and Cory Sandhagen
Zuffa LLC

Even if a bout agreement isn’t close to being signed, UFC PR should be pushing Sterling’s name hard as a future challenger for whenever that opportunity comes his way.

As for the flyweight division, there’s been nary a peep from White regarding three worthy contenders, Alex Perez, Brandon Moreno, and Askar Askarov. Any would make for an exciting matchup with new flyweight king Figueiredo, so the time is now to stop vaguely waving your hands and saying they’re all “in the mix.” Lay out reasons why fans should be excited for one of these men getting the next title shot.

Is it that hard to say “who’s next?”

International Players Anthem

The Fight Island shows were touted as a chance for international talent to shine and they did just that. Who stood out the most? Take your pick.

An argument could be made that Khamzat Chimaev wasn’t just the breakout star of the past month, but maybe the brightest star period from a stretch of cards that included a bevy of current and former UFC champions and the “BMF” titleholder himself Jorge Masvidal.

Chimaev, 26, set UFC records by fighting and winning twice in 10 days, in two different weight classes no less. He made opponents John Phillips and Rhys McKee look like they didn’t belong with him. He charmed reporters afterwards by referring to MMA as “too easy.” From unknown to internationally known, Chimaev made the most of his time on Fight Island, to say the least.

Just two weeks earlier, it was the effortlessly charming Amanda Ribas who was designated as the future star. Ribas, 26, needed a little over two minutes to armbar former UFC golden child Paige VanZant, a performance that was matched by her effervescent pre- and post-fight interviews.

Amanda Ribas
Zuffa LLC

And that’s just scraping the surface of the international talent that was introduced to a whole new audience over the past month. Arman Tsarukyan, Movsar Evloev, and Rafael Fiziev cemented their stud reputations. RIZIN champion Jiri Prochazka showed off his mystifying movement before dusting top-10 light heavyweight Volkan Oezdemir. Not all the Cage Warriors signees had a warm welcome to the octagon, but Tom Aspinall—the rare UFC heavyweight under the age of 30—impressed with a 45-second TKO of Jake Collier.

Scan any of the previous four cards and you’ll find not only potential headliners for when the UFC is able to expand its international schedule again, but also fighters who could someday challenge for championship gold.

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