UFC 251: 'Beautiful, surreal, insane' - what's Fight Island really like?

By Ben CollinsBBC Sport
Octagon on the sand at UFC's Fight Island
There really is an octagon on the sand as UFC heads to the Middle East for Fight Island

"I had Enter The Dragon on video. I used to think 'oh yeah, look at them, as if'. And now it's happening."

And not only is it happening, but Liverpool's Molly McCann is among those who will be fighting at UFC's Fight Island.

Bruce Lee's 1973 film saw the world's greatest fighters gather on a private island for a martial arts competition, before conquering an "evil island empire".

Now McCann and a star-studded list of UFC fighters are flying to the United Arab Emirates for four events between 11 and 25 July, beginning with Kamaru Usman and Jorge Masvidal headlining UFC 251.

'He's nowhere near as good as advertised' - Usman and Masvidal preview UFC 251

What is Fight Island?

UFC president Dana White came up with the idea in a bid to continue hosting mixed martial arts events during the coronavirus pandemic.

McCann was due to fight at UFC London on 21 March - but that became the first UFC event to be cancelled - and broadcasters told White to "stand down" from letting UFC 249 go ahead on 18 April.

While trying to organise events behind closed doors in the United States, White announced a plan to stage fights on an island for international fighters restricted from travelling to the US.

So UFC began holding events with no fans in Jacksonville and Las Vegas, before White confirmed on 9 June that Fight Island would take place on Abu Dhabi's Yas Island.

It is far from the desert island UFC fans initially envisaged; fighters won't be arriving by boat. Instead they're flying to a five-star leisure resort which has already staged three UFC events in 2010, 2014 and UFC 242 last September.

Spanning an area of 9.6 square miles, Yas Island has hosted Formula 1's Abu Grand Prix since 2009; staged music concerts by the likes of Beyonce, Madonna and the Rolling Stones; has several theme parks including Ferrari World, which boasts the world's fastest rollercoaster; plus a shopping mall, a golf course, a marina and a beach.

As White promised, there really is an "octagon on the sand", but (spoiler alert) the fights won't take place there.

How will it work?

About 630 UFC staff members, athletes, corners and contractors are flying to Fight Island, with all being tested for coronavirus before they travel and several times in Abu Dhabi. In total, about 3,300 tests are expected.

From the airport, it's a five-mile drive to Yas Island and a 'Safe Zone' which visitors cannot leave, with checkpoints to prevent the public getting in. The zone includes the golf course, beach, hotels and restaurants, plus three medical facilities with 17 personnel.

Map of Safe Zone for UFC's Fight Island
The Safe Zone (in green) includes part of the circuit for Formula 1's Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

Over 2,500 UFC personnel and Yas Island employees will stay within the zone, with all local staff having been in quarantine for 14 days and had three negative tests.

When quarantining before flying from London, McCann had to stay alone in her hotel room but fighters can have a coach with them at Fight Island so they can do some training in their room. After that, they can access a private training facility with meals supplied by UFC's nutrition partner.

Come fight night, it's a short walk from the hotel to the venue - the Flash Forum, a much smaller venue than the Arena, which staged UFC 242.

At the entrance there are 'mist tunnels', which kill 99% of surface bacteria, and all communal areas have been removed. The Forum is also air-conditioned, with the temperature set to peak at 43C this weekend.

Surreal, ghost town, next level - what they said

Three fighters are putting an unbeaten UFC record on the line at UFC 251. Welterweight champion Usman faces BMF title-holder Masvidal, Petr Yan takes on veteran Jose Aldo for the vacant bantamweight belt and featherweight champ Alexander Volkanovski has a rematch with Max Holloway.

Brazilian Aldo, 33, has been at Yas Island since early in the week and said: "It's beautiful. Coming here and seeing the hotel and everything they've built, it's pretty insane. This whole infrastructure is pretty surreal."

The main card features another rematch as Jessica Andrade faces fellow former strawweight champion Rose Namajunas.

American Namajunas, 28, said: "There's definitely a few weird little things. It's like a ghost town, and doesn't really feel like an island. We've just been in the hotel room, but so far it's been a really cool, peaceful fight week."

McCann, 30, flew from London on Wednesday, in readiness for her flyweight fight with Brazil's Talia Santos on 16 July.

Speaking from her hotel room in London, McCann said: "The arena looks next level; the cage on the beach is just for show. But I've asked if I can train in it. I told my coach: 'We're getting our cameras and we're hitting the pads in there!' It's just proper old school, like Enter The Dragon.

"There's a few curveballs so it's getting used to handling them and not letting it affect your mindset. If you're a superstitious fighter you're stuffed because nothing is like how you'd normally have it."