Russian GP likely to be season’s first racing with fans

DUBAI: When mixed martial arts supremo Dana White first floated his “Fight Island” concept, with its echoes of the Bruce Lee blockbuster “Enter the Dragon” where fighters were drawn into combat at a private getaway, eyebrows were raised.

“‘Fight Island’ is real. It’s a real thing,” said the Ultimate Fighting Championship boss when he announced the plan in April. “The infrastructure’s being built right now, and that’s really going to happen.”

White’s vision will be unveiled on Sunday with the staging of the 13-fight UFC 251 event on Abu Dhabi’s Yas Island.

The event will be headlined by a welterweight world title encounter between the Nigerian-American champion Kamaru Usman and Cuban-American challenger Jorge Masvidal.

It’s one of four “Fight Island” cards to be staged without an audience inside an arena on the resort and entertainment island throughout July, kicking off with three world title bouts and a title challenge eliminator.

Usman said during a virtual media event that he had been impressed by what he’d seen since arriving in the UAE on Thursday.

“I’m grateful for everything that’s been done,” said Usman, gunning for the second defense of his title. “All the precautions have been taken. After I go out there on Saturday and get my hand raised I’ll be glad to be heading home COVID-free.”

The UFC has made the move to Abu Dhabi from its Las Vegas base in an effort to isolate its fighters during the coronavirus pandemic.

Safety has been a major motivator, as has the promoter’s need to keep staging events — and collecting revenue — during a crisis that has shut down or forced massive overhauls to the staging of the world’s major sporting events.

Strict lockdown measures have been imposed on athletes, their entourages, officials, staff and media for the duration of their stay on Yas Island, on a site that has been completely sealed off until the event concludes on July 26.

Tests were taken before people arrived — initial headliner Gilbert Burns of Brazil failed, and stayed home, Masvidal’s coach Mike Brown suffered the same fate — and after landing there has been more testing, and 48 hours in-room quarantine.

“We were able to lock away with some mats and pads in our room and keep training as much as we could,” said Russian welterweight Muslim Salikhov, who fights Brazil’s Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos in Sunday’s preliminaries.

“The main thing everyone is saying is that we are here, and we are ready to fight because that’s what we do for a living.”

Abu Dhabi’s executive director of tourism and marketing, Ali Al-Shaiba, said protocols were stringent in the expansive “safe zone,” patrolled by police and expected to house around 2,000 people for the duration of the month-long event. Staff will be tested every 72 hours.

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