In a concluding choke-hold, Khabib Nurmagomedov forced interim American title holder Dustin Poirier to submit in the third round, before making a victory leap over the caged fence of the arena, and ending the Ultimate Fighting Championship 242 in Abu Dhabi on Saturday as the lightweight winner.
For the dominating Dagestani national, this jump was one of joy, unlike his October win at last year’s UFC 229 in Las Vegas, where he hopped the fence to brawl with his opponent’s coach, leading to a nine-month suspension and a $500 thousand dollar fine.
This year fans in the UAE capital welcomed back the ferocious fighter along with others in a star-studded lineup which also included women for the first time, with Canadian Sarah Moras breaking the record as the first female winner of a UFC fight at a Middle East event, after scoring a third-round technical knockout over Georgian Liana Jojua.
Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia fighters were especially received with celebratory fanfare, including Moroccan mixed martial artist Ottman Azaitar, who walked in carrying his native country’s flag and overcame his counterpart in a first-round knockout.
A highlight of the night was Palestinian-American combatant Belal Muhammad, who delivered a crowd-pleasing speech after his win in a welter-weight bout with Japan’s Takashi Sato.
“I knew I had to go out there and put on a great show for the Middle East, this is my home crowd,” said Muhammad, before waving the Palestinian flag on his way out of the octagon ring.
Fans meet their heroes
Seeing familiar faces speaking directly to regional fans ignited the stands with roaring cheers from UAE residents and global fans alike, for whom having a UFC fight for the second time in the Emirates meant garnered interest.
Like in the case of one Palestinian-Canadian super fan living in the UAE who developed a passion for the martial fighting form of jiu-jitsu about six years ago, after it became more available in the country with high level gyms over the past decade.
Kamel Abdul Rahman said he has attended eight live UFC events in North America, but this one gave him a real feel of the sport due to what was called the Abu Dhabi Showdown Week.
“The week was celebrated as a cultural event that goes beyond Martial Arts to include music and fitness. This helped bring more attention to the event,” said Abdul Rahman, a finance manager at a multinational consumer goods company.
The seven-day series of events held open workouts at local gyms, a concert by the world-renowned Red-Hot Chili Peppers, and a weigh in with the fighters, where fans like Abdul Rahman had the chance to meet their heroes face to face.
“That made me emotionally invested in the fights which gave the event a distinct flavour for me,” said Abdul Rahman, who had the opportunity to hear directly from American fighter Stephen Thompson about how he relied on his inner will to push through the pain of breaking both of his thumbs during his 2017 New York fight.