When NRL Island was floated by Project Apollo as one of the ways to get the footy back on track during the coronavirus shutdown, it was justifiably seen as a bit of a joke.
Gilligan, Lord of the Flies, some too-real stuff about what rugby league players could get up to away from the prying eyes of the mainland … every version of every quip was made.
Ultimately it wasn’t required, but the UFC is making it a reality.
On Sunday, some of the mixed martial arts world’s biggest names will square up on “Fight Island” for UFC 251.
What is ‘Fight Island’?
It very much does what it says on the tin. It’s an island, where there will be fighting.
The UFC reached an agreement with Abu Dhabi to hold its most recent event on Yas Island, which is home to luxury hotels, beaches, a Formula One circuit and a golf course.
You may also have seen shots of an octagon on the beach, but that, according to the UFC, was built solely “for the fighters’ enjoyment” (read: for promotional images). And that’s probably a good thing, considering temperatures are expected to nudge 50 degrees Celsius on Sunday.
The real fights will be held in the air-conditioned Flash Forum, where luminaries such as The Wiggles have performed and the UFC has hosted previous events, as far back as 2010 and as recently as last September.
An 11-kilometre stretch of the island has been cordoned off as a “safe zone” for the fighters and crew, with employees required to quarantine for 14 days in Yas hotels and undergo three tests in the lead-up.
“Innovative ‘mist tunnels’ — 1.5-metre passageways on entry to the venue — have been added to sanitise everyone entering, with the mist killing 99 per cent of surface bacteria,” Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism (DCT) said.
The whole “safe zone”, according to the DCT, took 350 tonnes of steel and 18 kilometres of cables to build.
While the employees on the island have had to quarantine for two weeks, the fighters touched down in the UAE just a couple of days ago and the UFC said they were tested on take-off, landing, two days after arrival and will be tested once again before the fight.
After Sunday’s bouts, there are at least three more fight nights slated on the island over the next two weeks.
How did we get here?
Three months ago, White was bragging about how his organisation was going to be the first sport to come back after COVID-19 started shutting down the world.
In reality, the sport stopped for almost two months, from March 15 to May 10, despite White’s repeated insistence that they would have events through April.
Even so, Fight Island was on June 10 confirmed as the ninth UFC event since the shutdown.
All of them have gone ahead with strict health and safety measures in place, and no crowds.
The island idea was first mentioned back in early April, when White said he secured a location and the infrastructure was being built.
It was initially supposed to be a measure to ensure international fighters could get in the ring and to avoid, in White’s words, “smoking all the talent in the United States”.
There are three belts up for grabs on Sunday, with Australian featherweight champ Alexander Volkanovski among the fighters.
He’s scheduled for a rematch with Max Holloway after beating the American back in December to become the sport’s first Australian-born champion.
That precedes the main event: a welterweight title bout between Kamaru Usman and Jorge Masvidal.
Highlighting the dangers of an event like this in the middle of a pandemic, Masvidal himself wasn’t even supposed to be fighting in UFC 251, only getting a shot after Brazil’s Gilbert Burns tested positive for coronavirus last week. Then Masvidal’s coach tested positive, meaning he couldn’t make the trip.
The other title fight is between Russian Petr Yan and Brazilian Jose Aldo for the bantamweight belt.
Elsewhere on the main card, Rose Namajunas is taking on Jessica Andrade in the strawweight division, and flyweights Paige Vanzant and Amanda Ribas face off.