The Greatest Underdog in 2020

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Photo by unci_narynin, Creative Commons

Aerial view of Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, home of the UFC and “Fight Island.”

Andrew Hale, Assistant Sports Editor

After the world seemed to end in March with sporting events and seasons across the world being canceled and postponed, the state of live sports was in jeopardy for the upcoming summer right? WRONG! What if I told you that the UFC was the only sports league to play through a global pandemic? 

“The UFC?” you ask. 

To which, I reply: Yes, the Ultimate Fighting Championship was able to defeat COVID-19.

The UFC to the majority of sports fans is unknown, so here is its summary: The UFC is a company that promotes the sport of mixed martial arts, which is a MIXTURE of boxing, wrestling, judo, jujitsu, karate and Muay Thai (Thai boxing). In other words, MMA is fighting with the use of your arms, legs, and feet all while being enclosed inside of a caged octagon.

With all that being said, how exactly was this sport able to function in a time where social distancing is necessary in order to “fight” this deadly virus?

The obvious answer to this question: create a bubble similar to what the MLS, NBA, NHL and MLB have done. Also keep in mind that the UFC was able to continue their play three months before these major sport leagues decided to resort to a “bubble.”

Yes, the UFC tried the whole bubble idea during UFC249 which took place in Jacksonville, Florida on May 10. UFC249 was the first live sporting event since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and was ultimately a success, even without fans. 

But as I mentioned earlier, the UFC is pretty unknown to many, so to break the barrier between unfamiliar and familiar, they literally went to the capital of the United Arab Emirates and purchased an ISLAND in Abu Dhabi!

Yas Island, which now deems the name “Fight Island”, was purchased by UFC President Dana White in order to allow fighters from around the world to get to the events without having to deal with travel issues preventing them from getting into the U.S.

Abu Dhabi’s government officials have taken big precautions to ensure the safety of residents, athletes, staff and anyone in the United Arab Emirates. So how does a person get to this “safe-zone” of an island?

As of Feb. 10, 2018, according to the Ultimate Fighting Championship themselves, the UFC roster consisted of fighters from 60 different countries. That means fighters are traveling from around the world, but before they are allowed into Fight Island, in Abu Dhabi, they must test negative for COVID-19.

Depending on the fighter’s location, there are four destinations (Las Vegas, London, Moscow and Sào Paulo) that they have to travel and be tested before entry into Fight Island. 

If everything goes to plan and the fighter tests negative, then they can board one of the 11 charter planes coming from the four destinations. If a positive test occurs, the fighter is required to stay and quarantine at the designated location for five days until the results are negative.

According to the AP, about 2,000 people work on the Island, which means more than 8,000 tests have occurred.  

When fighters, broadcasters and staff finally arrive at Fight Island, they are tested two more times and are required to quarantine in their hotel rooms for 48 hours straight. 

This may seem very tiring, but this is truly necessary to carry on with sports in a healthy environment, no matter what league an athlete is playing in.

In my opinion, the one thing that I feel goes overlooked the most is the time difference. Normally when events are being held at the UFC Apex (headquarters) in Las Vegas, Nevada, the prelims (fights mostly featuring lesser-known fighters) start around 3 pm with the main cards starting around 8 pm. 

Las Vegas is 8,204 miles away from Abu Dhabi. That is about an 11-hour time difference, so fights must happen during the middle of the night due to the time the difference in the U.S. 

Along with all the testing, traveling and jet lag, fighters, broadcasters and staff have to completely change their sleep schedule so that they are ready to broadcast fights in the middle of the night.

ESPN+ has even released a four-part documentary series showing a behind the scenes look of the creation of FIght Island called, “UFC Fight Island: Declassified.”

So far there have only been five fight events at FIght Island, but there is much to look forward to for the UFC.

Connor McGregor, Anderson Silva, Jon Jones, Chuck Liddell and Ronda Rousey are just some of the household names that many people who don’t even follow UFC have heard of, but as this sport continues to rise in popularity, there are many more names to come.

While the UFC may be unknown to sports fans now, many predict that the UFC will be categorized as a major sports league along with the MLB, NBA, NHL and NFL. 

While the MLB, NBA, NHL and NFL ratings have been low throughout the pandemic, the UFC has had a total of 22.7 million viewers on ESPN networks as of Aug. 24, according to Yahoo Sports. 

So if you’re looking to watch two professional fighters battle it out in a cage for three rounds consisting of five minutes each, like me,  you can catch the UFC on ESPN and ESPN +  every Saturday starting at 3 p.m.