UFC Fight Island to feature safe zone, increased testing

After already having completed eight events in the coronavirus era, the UFC is promising even tighter protocols on what has been dubbed "Fight Island."

In addition to undergoing significantly more testing than the UFC has done so far, those involved in the four events this month on Abu Dhabi's Yas Island will be relegated to a "safe zone" where members of the general public will not be allowed. All those contained in the "safe zone," including local workers and the UFC's traveling party, will be tested for COVID-19 several times. Generally, people in the contained area will not have in-and-out privileges.

"It's going to be the tightest bubble that you could sort of ever produce," UFC COO Lawrence Epstein told ESPN. "It's a pretty unique situation on an island with incredible controls over who's coming in and not letting people come back in once they've left."

The presence of a true bubble is one of the biggest differences between the shows in the United States and those being held this month in Abu Dhabi.

The promotion got up and running on May 9 with its first show since the pandemic started and has been rolling nearly every week since then. The first three UFC events back were in Jacksonville, Florida, followed by five in Las Vegas. Now, the promotion is going international with four July cards on Yas Island, beginning with UFC 251 on Saturday and followed by shows on July 15, July 18 and July 25.

With each set of shows, the UFC's coronavirus protocols have tightened and become more stringent. Fighters, corners and staff were tested for COVID-19 once in Jacksonville and at least twice in Las Vegas. On Fight Island, those involved in the events could be tested up to five times from beginning to end.

"As we went into those events we had sort of a saying that the plan is written in pencil," Epstein said. "With the mindset that it's gonna change -- it's gonna change for the better with each event and each experience we have."

The fighters competing at UFC 251 on Saturday and their corners are already on the ground in Abu Dhabi. Most left on charter planes Friday from four anchor cities: Las Vegas; Sao Paulo, Brazil; London; or Moscow. They had to travel to those cities, get tested for COVID-19 and quarantine before boarding a charter to Abu Dhabi once the test results came back.

UFC 251 headliner Gilbert Burns tested positive for COVID-19, along with two of his corner people, on Friday before takeoff. He has since been replaced on the card by Jorge Masvidal, who challenges Kamaru Usman for the UFC welterweight title. Masvidal and Usman both left for Abu Dhabi on Monday.

Upon arrival in Abu Dhabi, everyone will be tested again (at least once) and be in quarantine for up to 48 hours until the results came back. There is one more prefight COVID test plus quarantine before the fights and then a final test before departure. That's at least four tests (and possibly five) per fighter, corner and staff member. The UFC is expecting 3,300 tests to be administered over the course of the month.

Sources on the ground told ESPN that quarantines are enforced via CCTV surveillance. Meals are pre-ordered and delivered to rooms. One source called the attention to detail "amazing" and "the most thorough protocol I've ever seen."

"I poke holes in protocols and processes for a living," another source said. "They did this one good. Home run."

Epstein said the UFC administered more than 2,500 coronavirus tests in Las Vegas for the cards from May 30 through June 27. There were 11 positives, just 0.4%, he said. The number of COVID tests expected in Abu Dhabi represents about a 32% increase.

Per the UFC, there will be 22 charter flights utilized over the course of the month to transport 630 people. The total population of Fight Island will be about 2,500 at any given time, including those involved in the UFC events and local workers and staff. There are three medical facilities and 17 medical personnel people on site.

In addition to testing, face coverings must be worn in public at all times and social distancing -- 6½ feet -- will be enforced at all times. There will be nightly temperature screenings.

The "safe zone" features Yas Beach (where an Octagon is set up for training), a golf course, the Flash Forum fight venue, seven hotels, multiple training facilities and more than a dozen restaurants.

"I think we've done a great job on the path," Epstein said. "I think our system and protocols and education are working. But additional measures being taken to make sure this is even safer, we're always open to getting better. And that's what we're trying to do for every single event."

The plan following Abu Dhabi is to return to Las Vegas for nine events in August, including four Dana White's Contender Series cards and UFC 252 on Aug. 15. Epstein said the UFC is monitoring the increase in coronavirus cases in Nevada -- and all of the United States -- but the promotion is "confident" Las Vegas will be a viable destination next month for events.

One big change the UFC will implement in its return to the UFC Apex in Vegas, a facility right across from the company's campus, is a reduction by 60% of production staff in the fight venue below, Epstein said. Those staffers will move to rooms currently being built in an upper area and never come into contact with the fighters.

"They'll be at social distance in these control rooms and they'll never interact with anybody on the floor, which is great," Epstein said. "The most important thing you can do from the outset is just limit the number of people that are involved in producing these events."

The UFC will debrief after Abu Dhabi and discuss putting forth more changes for the Las Vegas return. But first there are four events in the coming weeks from Fight Island, which Epstein described as UFC president Dana White's baby from the beginning.

"Dana has come up with some incredible ideas over the years," Epstein said. "Fight Island is right at the top of the list as far as I'm concerned."

ESPN's Ariel Helwani contributed to this report.