The upcoming world title fight between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Justin Gaethje could see the return of spectators to a UFC event for the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic, says the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism.
Since the onset of the ongoing global health crisis, the UFC have been limited in their ability to hold events with fight cards taking place exclusively at their UFC Apex facility in Las Vegas and ‘Fight Island’ in Abu Dhabi, as well as a trio of cards in Florida in May – but for the first time in several months an opportunity appears to have presented itself for the UFC to allow fans attend next weekend’s UFC 254, but only if the concept is “fool proof“.
The UFC’s residency in Abu Dhabi is taking place within a 10-mile exclusion zone, or ‘bubble’, meaning that fighters, coaches and media alike require segregation from the outside world so as to limit the chances of spreading the infectious disease.
Despite a handful of fights falling off the various cards in recent months due to positive Covid-19 tests, the safeguards put in place by the UFC and the Abu Dhabi government have been considered an unqualified success – so much so that the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism (DCT) have begun exploring the possibility of allowing fans into the October 24 fight card, so long as the idea is signed-off on by the relevant authorities.
“We are currently studying how to bring fans into UFC 254. Right now we’re going through how to segregate fans from people inside the bubble but still get them inside the space in the safe manner,” DCT’s destination marketing director Saeed Rashed Al Saeed said in quotes published by Hotelier Middle East.
“If everything goes to plan we’ll be announcing this soon. It’s not confirmed yet but the plan is in place but it needs to be endorsed. I’m optimistic but health and safety cannot be compromised. That is our priority, it will not happen unless it is fool proof.”
In the midst of the near-global shutdown of sport earlier this year, UFC boss Dana White pledged that his product would be among the first major sport to once again hold events with a crowd present. So far at least, that has yet to come to pass.
White was beaten to the punch by Bellator chief Scott Coker, whose event in Paris, France was recently attended by 1,000 fans. Various NFL teams have been trialling having reduced capacities in their stadiums, while New Zealand – a country which appears to have combatted the virus effectively – have been holding sports events with full capacity attendances.
For now, though, the Coronavirus restrictions will remain in place in Abu Dhabi but the rigid nature of their application, Al Saeed says, has left some wiggle room for the reintroduction of a crowd.
“We’re a bit more intense when it comes to the standard protocols,” he said. “For now, Abu Dhabi still has a 14-day quarantine period for any visitor. When that will be lifted and how that will be lifted is a studied approach.
“Instead of a blanket reopening for all countries, I imagine authorities will study each country individually, looking at infection rates and various other factors. If a country is deemed safe by us in Abu Dhabi, we’ll look into air corridor, though they must still perform a Covid-19 test pre-flight and on arrival.
But as far as ‘bubbles’ go, Al Saeed says that he hopes that this ‘new normal’ is only a very temporary solution.
“When people ask me if there will be a Fight Island 3, my honest answer is ‘I really hope not’. That’s not because I don’t enjoy the work or I don’t enjoy bringing in world-class fighters, it’s because I want future sporting or UFC events to be able to take place outside the confines of the pandemic.
“I’m trying to be optimistic and hope that we wouldn’t need another bubble. We can have more UFC events, but I want the guests to be able to watch them in person and I want our fighters to be able to go out and enjoy the emirate.“