It is a remarkable sight on the Arena stage in Yas Island, Abu Dhabi. In the spotlight in front of thousands of cheering fans, the fighters weigh in to their weight classes for their duels on Saturday. Directly behind them are officials, promoters, cameramen – and in between a memorable five-person constellation: A man in a traditional Arabic robe. And four ring girls.
Sheik dresses next to bikinis. In the emirate, where even the public exchange of affection is forbidden and overly revealing clothing is at least frowned upon by women. This weekend, in this place, they can coexist, smiling kindly for the cameras.
The reason for the meeting of the unusual constellation is “UFC 280” (Saturday from 6:30 p.m. on DAZN). The mixed martial arts event is one of the most important events of the year for both the hosts and the employer of the ring girls.
For the “Ultimate Fighting Championship” the sold-out fight evening can become trend-setting for the next few years. Because she has suffered a kind of brain drain in recent years with the resignations and extended breaks of various stars – with bitter rivals Khabib Nurmagomedov and Conor McGregor, two of her biggest box office hits are not available to her.
The situation should be remedied on Saturday. And with two candidates, each to follow in the footsteps of one of the two exes: Islam Makhachev and Sean O’Malley could be the next two big things for the largest martial arts league in the world. If they both win in Abu Dhabi.
Because they don’t fight each other, they are in different weight classes. While Makhachev battles 11-fight unbeaten Brazilian Charles Oliveira for his first world championship belt at the lightweight division, bantamweight whiz O’Malley faces his first real test in the form of former Russian champion Petr Yan. So victories are anything but a foregone conclusion; even if the UFC might hope for it.
O’Malley doesn’t look like an athlete, but like an entertainer – or, as his opponent puts it, “like a whore on the side of the road”. That’s maybe a little rude. It refers to O’Malley’s appearance and lifestyle. The 27-year-old is 1.80 meters tall for bantamweight (61 kilos), lanky, doesn’t look dangerous at all. Spread-out tattoos cover half of his body.
Outside of sports, he drives a pink and neon-green Lamborghini, earns money by streaming video games and, last but not least, has developed a following of 2.4 million users on social media with videos that appear dadaistic. He occasionally dyes his hair the colors of the flag of the country his opponent comes from. He knocks out most of his opponents.
He is, especially since he also has sporting success, a provocation incarnate for the typical, rather stoic MMA fighter. With his cheeky wit and knockouts, he is reminiscent of an early Conor McGregor before he lost control of his life in the depths of his wealth.
So O’Malley provides the star factor with glitz and trolling. Raised in the mountains of Dagestan, Islam Makhachev is the opposite in personality and fighting style, but achieves the same effect: attention. Because it heals nostalgia-fueled phantom pain.
The 31-year-old is a lifelong friend of Khabib Nurmagomedov, the UFC’s most dominant lightweight champion to date, legend and fan favorite. He recently said about Makhachev: “He was my father’s favorite student.”
Nurmagomedov’s father was considered the head of the successful team from the Russian republic, he died in the summer of 2020 as a result of a corona infection. Shortly thereafter, Nurmagomedov retired from active competition and replaced his father as head coach – a promise he had made to his mother. Makhachev is now to carry the baton on for the Dagestans.
For the UFC it is not only important who fights, but also where the fights take place. In the Emirates, people are fascinated by the martial arts decathlon MMA. The MMA Champions League UFC, which was organized in umpteen different countries before Corona, on the other hand, needs international markets again after the pandemic peak phase, where new fans who are willing to pay are waiting. Hosting here is a win-win situation.
For Abu Dhabi, the UFC even threw their habits overboard. UFC 280 starts locally in prime time, which is 11 a.m. on the US West Coast. For years, the UFC has been reluctant to hold major fights outside of US prime time. The last title fight on European soil was fought in Manchester at 4 a.m. local time a few years ago to better serve the American TV audience over there.
But Abu Dhabi is not Manchester, for various reasons.
In the still young, rapidly developing sport of MMA, sometimes one or the other fighting style has the edge for a while until it is decrypted and replaced by an even more effective system. Currently, wrestlers hardened by training and life from Dagestan or Chechnya are on the rise. Fighters like Makhachev. For them and their fans, the United Arab Emirates is a more comfortable venue than the United States of America. You have to show your presence there.
And from the point of view of the UFC, there is also a lot to be said for holding the event in the Emirates – although from a human rights point of view they are not so dissimilar to the much scolded World Cup host Qatar. Compared to football, MMA is still a niche sport that gets away with such partnerships.
In 2010, for example, an investor from Abu Dhabi had invested ten percent in the league for a number of years. At the beginning of the corona pandemic, the emirate also allowed the UFC to hold its fights without spectators in a bubble isolated from the outside world, when all other sports were still stewing in the compulsory break caused by the virus. The concept actually worked, there were no significant Covid outbreaks, the show could go on.
As a thank you, the Americans now regularly not only bring second-rate fight nights into the desert, but also bring out the big guns. With stars and title fights. UFC 280 is considered the most important event of the year. Accordingly, it makes sense to let rough diamonds like Makhachev and O’Malley fight here – and at best to make them known for the first time.
On Friday, at the obligatory weigh-in of the athletes with the memorable robe vs. ring girl contrast, the success of this decision could already be observed. O’Malley, with his avant-garde hipsterism at odds with the venue, was loudly booed. Makhachev, on the other hand, celebrated wildly.
Either way, the mood was right: either hoping that the man triumphs in the arena or that he goes down with flying colors is the salt in the martial arts soup. Both ensure quota. Both can be seen in Abu Dhabi this weekend. You could say nothing can go wrong now – if something completely unpredictable didn’t always intervene in this crazy sport.