When the UFC debuts in the Middle East this weekend, the octagon will be outdoors in the heat. The raucous, skin-baring show in the temporary arena built around it is sure to raise a few eyebrows, as well.
Yet mixed martial arts is nothing new in Abu Dhabi, where UFC 112 is expected to crack open yet another market for the growing sport's dominant promotion. The UFC's first outdoor event might be an outlandish venture on many levels, but the league's worldwide expansion is proceeding as planned.
"When we began discussing the idea of coming to Abu Dhabi, it was only in December," said Marshall Zelaznik, the UFC's U.K. president. "When you think where we are now, and you see the venue that's been built, it will absolutely blow you away. We knew this was a hotbed for Brazilian jiujitsu and other martial arts ... but the response has just amazed us."
Middleweight champion Anderson Silva will defend his belt against Demian Maia, and lightweight champ B.J. Penn will take on Frank Edgar. Matt Hughes also will fight 43-year-old MMA pioneer Renzo Gracie, whose coaching relationships in the United Arab Emirates facilitated this unlikely event.
The UFC also is in Abu Dhabi to visit its new partners: Flash Entertainment, an events promotion company owned by the Emirates government, recently bought a 10-percent stake in the UFC. The company is expected to aid the UFC's expansion into China and other markets where the American company needs local connections.
The UFC expects about 11,000 fans in the arena built next to the Ferrari World theme park on Yas Island, outside the Abu Dhabi city center. The outdoor temperature and humidity should be tolerable, although the UFC is a bit concerned about wind and sand.
And to answer the questions most commonly posed to Zelaznik and UFC president Dana White, the venue will sell alcohol, and the UFC's Octagon Girls will be allowed to perform in their skimpy two-piece outfits.
The arena was built in about three weeks, and workers still were rushing to finish the venue less than 48 hours before it opened. Although the fighters' dressing rooms are in upscale trailers, this unusual setting is a particular thrill for the two dominant champions on the card.
Silva and Penn are no strangers to going wherever White sends them, yet the prospect of an open-air octagon initially gave pause to both fighters. Although both are heavily favored to beat their opponents, they wondered whether they would have more trouble with stifling heat or sandstorms.
Silva is shooting for his 11th consecutive victory and sixth title defense. The Spider acknowledges he's considering a move to another weight class if he wins as easily as expected, yet the Abu Dhabi crowd could be behind Maia, who had a particular affinity for the place even before this adventure.
He caught the UFC's attention in 2007 by winning a submission wrestling tournament sponsored by the Abu Dhabi Combat Club.
The club was created by Sheik Tahnoon Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the son of a former president of the United Arab Emirates, to spur the growth of wrestling, jiujitsu, judo and other martial arts in the Middle East.
Sheik Tahnoon is a jiujitsu black belt who has studied for about 14 years under Gracie, who travels to Abu Dhabi more than 10 times each year. Gracie will make his UFC debut against Hughes, the former welterweight champion.
"It's a great honor to fight in Abu Dhabi, a place that I consider a second home," said Gracie, the cousin of original UFC champion Royce Gracie. "When you squeeze me, sand comes out. ... Winning or losing, I'm going to walk out of there a much better instructor and a much better person."