- Khabib Nurmagomedov is one of the most popular fighters in the Middle East.
- An Abu Dhabi government official told Insider in the UFC's Fight Island bubble last week that it has been building over time, but hit another level when Nurmagomedov mauled Dustin Poirier in the region last year.
- Nurmagomedov fights in Abu Dhabi once again this weekend, defending his UFC lightweight championship against Justin Gaethje at the behind-closed-doors Flash Forum.
- According to UFC President Dana White, Saturday's UFC 254 event is set to break UFC 229 featuring Conor McGregor as the best-selling event in the company's history.
- Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.
FIGHT ISLAND — Khabib Nurmagomedov's antics over the last 24 months have his popularity in the Middle East soar, causing fervent interest in his upcoming bout at UFC 254.
That's according to Saeed Al Saeed, the marketing director at Abu Dhabi's department of culture and tourism (DCT), which has helped organize the UFC's Fight Island-branded events during the coronavirus pandemic.
The DCT and UFC have worked together for years but the relationship grew closer when sports leagues began shuttering because of the worldwide health crisis earlier this year.
In conjunction with the UFC, the DCT purpose-built the Flash Forum and a quarantined bubble for UFC delegates, staff, athletes, and media. The result is an environment where the world's leading MMA firm can host events regardless of the pandemic.
Superstars like Jorge Masvidal and Israel Adesanya have competed at previous Fight Island events, but on Saturday at UFC 254 the main event features Nurmagomedov — Insider's No.1-ranked fighter in the world today.
By the side of the UFC's training Octagon on Yas Beach last week, Al Saeed told Insider he hopes Nurmagomedov fights in Abu Dhabi again and again.
"The global star that Khabib is, and having him here in Abu Dhabi, is establishing a relationship with him as his home away from home," Al Saaed said.
The United Arab Emirates is becoming a hotbed for fight sports. The region is renowned for its jiu jitsu tournaments, Nurmagomedov occasionally trains in Dubai, and the UFC has a long-term relationship with Abu Dhabi.
"[The relationship] works out for both himself and for us where it's a synergy of his career with what we're trying to do, to make Abu Dhabi a sports capital not just for mixed martial arts but sports in general," Al Saaed said.
"He has a huge following in the region based on his exploits and his background," Al Saaed said, a nod to Nurmagomedov's victories over Rafael dos Anjos, Conor McGregor, and Dustin Poirier. The win against Poirier came in Abu Dhabi at UFC 242.
Al Saeed said last week there was a possibility UFC 254 would be moved from the behind-closed-doors Flash Forum to a newly-built venue called the Etihad Arena, which is just outside of the bubble.
However, the bout will go ahead at the Flash Forum and any plans for a partial fan allowance will instead be studied for when Fight Island returns to Abu Dhabi in February 2021.
Regardless, there is intense fan interest in Nurmagomedov's upcoming title defense against Justin Gaethje.
UFC 254 has the potential to break company records
"The fans are going crazy here to watch this fight," he said. "We're hoping it's a long-term relationship for us and for the athlete.
Al Saeed said it was the build-up to UFC 242 last year in particular which caused exponential growth in Nurmagomedov's popularity.
He said this helped create new fans for the UFC as a whole, and believes a strong performance this weekend will see another explosion in his fame around the region.
But Gaethje provides a tough challenge," he said.
"I don't think anyone but Gaethje is up for it when it comes to Khabib. But he's 28-0 and a tough guy to beat. He'll get up in your face and bring you down — that's his kingdom.
"He needs someone as fiery as Gaethje in the Octagon. I don't want to hype it too much for myself. But … it's going to deliver.
"I have a feeling it'll be one of the best fights from an entertainment point-of-view."
UFC President Dana White seemingly agrees, telling TMZ Sports earlier this week that UFC 254 has the potential to be the best-selling event in the company's history.
Should that happen, it would break a record Conor McGregor helped set for the company as the top box office attraction.
"This thing's trending off the charts for us," said White.
"On Monday, it was trending to be the biggest fight we've ever had. Not Thursday, not Friday — Monday. It's trending bigger than [McGregor and Nurmagomedov's fight in 2018]."
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