Premier MMA promotion UFC have now been putting on cage fighting events from the Middle East for a decade. Combat sports have flocked to the region in recent years, with WWE following suit by putting on five pro wrestling pay-per-views in Saudi Arabia since 2018.
Major boxing bouts have also taken place in the Middle East with Anthony Joshua regaining his world titles from Andy Ruiz Jr at the end of 2019. These events came long after UFC decided to tap into this emerging market, though.
MMA has experienced a surge in popularity at a time when major sports events descend on the region. The last World Athletics Championships were held in Qatar, the Indian Premier League cricket was played in the United Arab Emirates in 2020, and the next football World Cup will also be in the Middle East in 2022.
The popularity and success of sports in emerging markets are often measured by what is the most-watched and engaged with in betting markets. While soccer, horse racing, thanks to the Dubai World Cup Carnival, and boxing remain the popular sports to bet on in the Middle East, UFC has also stepped up the action taking place inside the octagon with some memorable fights. Here, we look back over 10 years of major MMA fights.
UFC 112: Where it all began
On 10 April, 2010, the first-ever UFC pay-per-view from the Middle East took place on Yas Island in the Emirati capital of Abu Dhabi. This card has two great title fights for the price of one on it which may have got those interested in MMA from the region hooked.
Frankie Edgar dethroned UFC lightweight champion B. J. Penn in the bout before a memorable main event. Middleweight legend Anderson Silva made a successful defence of his title against fellow Brazilian cage fighter Demian Maia.
Both of these bouts went to the judges’ scorecards, but they were unanimous in awarding victory to both Edgar and Silva. As debut shows go, there was lots to like about this inaugural offering from the region.
UFC 242: Khabib unifies his division
Apart from a minor show in 2014, the next big UFC event from the Middle East was this one on 7 September, 2019. Headlining this pay-per-view was a lightweight unification bout between Khabib Nurmagomedov, who had beaten fellow MMA star Conor McGregor when last in action, and Dustin Poirier.
Again coming from The Arena on Yas Island, the Russian pulled off a submission victory over the interim champ and extended his undefeated streak to 28-0. Khabib got a rear-naked choke in on Poirier which left the American with no choice but to tap out.
The supporting card here saw three other lightweight bouts go to the judges. This event was all about Dagestan native Khabib, however, who earned performance of the night, but this wouldn’t be the last MMA fans saw of him in the Middle East.
UFC 251: Usman retains against Masvidal
A string of MMA events followed in 2020, but the first major show was UFC 251 where welterweight champion Kamaru Usman made a successful defence of his title against Jorge Masvidal. The Flash Forum in Abu Dhabi was used this time to host the octagon action on 12 July, 2020.
Nigeria-born Usman got a unanimous decision from the judges with Masvidal suffering another loss in his topsy turvy MMA career. Supporting this championship bout was a high-profile women’s fight which saw Rose Namajunas beat Jessica Anrade via split decision.
UFC 254: Khabib gets Gaethje
The most recent MMA pay-per-view to come from the Middle East was UFC 254 on 24 October, 2020, where Khabib was again asked to unify the lightweight division. This time, he tackled another pretender to his crown in Justin Gaethje.Like Poirier before him, the result was the same with a submission victory for Khabib. This was an emotional bout, however, as it was his first fight since the death of his father and he duly announced his retirement from MMA after drawing huge box office success for two Middle East events.