The mystery of Fight Island, the UFC’s marketing spin for its events held at Abu Dhabi’s Yas Island during the coronavirus pandemic, has faded.
Fans know what it looks like by now. There’s an octagon on the beach, but it’s little more than a photo op for those with clearance to occupy the same restricted space as the fighters. The real action goes down in the Du Forum, which from home looks like a nondescript hangar. There are no fans in attendance, which has been the case for all UFC events since the pandemic upended the way things operate in the United States in March. Until now.
When the UFC returns for its third Fight Island stint, beginning with Saturday’s event headlined by featherweights Max Holloway and Calvin Kattar and airing on ABC, a small number of fans will be in attendance. TSN reported that, according to the UFC: “The capacity for the UFC event per fight will be around 2,000 spectators, as the safety and well-being of guests and staff is the top priority.”
Kattar (22-4, 13 finishes) is among those who’s thrilled to have fans back. The 32-year-old fought twice during the pandemic in empty venues, first in Jacksonville Fla., and then again during the UFC’s first Fight Island set of events.
“After the fight, it’s almost like — after that big win over Jeremy Stephens on May 9 [in Jacksonville] — I would have loved to have heard that crowd cheer,” Kattar said, “and that’s mostly, for me, when I take it in is after I’m done competing, and I feed off that energy.
“Mainly, that’s why I did it when I started my career, that feeling of getting the ‘W’, climbing the cage and screaming after a big win. And hearing the energy of the crowd going wild, there’s nothing like it.”
It’s easy to tell the difference the lack of fans makes on the viewing experience. Cornermen instructions are loud and clear. The in-cage sounds are visceral. Fighter-to-fighter chatter often comes in clear as day.
Holloway (21-6, 12 finishes) agreed the atmosphere in the Du Forum reminded him of what the 29-year-old imagined of the primordial days of what became known as MMA.
“If I could explain it any way, it felt like a hard sparring match,” Holloway said, “like a super hard sparring match, like the olden days when the Gracies first came over and them just challenging and fighting people in gyms and stuff.”
Occasionally, the athletes acknowledge what boisterous cageside color analysts Daniel Cormier and Michael Bisping, a pair of retired former champions, have to say about the proceedings. Perhaps even a scaled-down live crowd can help drown that out.
“The crowd noise does muffle out some of the commentators as well because you can hear them pretty clear through the [fights during the] pandemic,” Kattar, 32, said of fighting at bigger arenas in the pre-pandemic world.
To hear Holloway tell it, none of it makes a difference to him. The former champion, who will be competing in his first non-title fight since June 2016, just loves to fight, fans or no fans.
“A fight is a fight to me,” Holloway said. “I don’t care if [UFC president] Dana White says we gotta fight in a parking lot or something … you know it’s gonna happen. At the end of the day, I’m a fighter, man. I love fighting.”
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