The UFC has held 17 events in Abu Dhabi over the years, with the bulk of them coming over the last three years on UFC Fight Island.
With the promotion headed back to Etihad Arena in a couple of weeks for UFC 294, now feels like a good time to comb through the history books and highlight some of the standout performances and captivating contests that have transpired in Abu Dhabi over the years.
Sit back, relax, and enjoy this stroll down memory lane.
Frankie Edgar vs BJ Penn (UFC 112)
Penn entered at the peak of his powers — the reigning lightweight champion, just a couple months removed from his one-sided defeat of Diego Sanchez at UFC 107 and having won five straight in the 155-pound weight class.
Edgar was the scrappy emerging contender — once-beaten and fighting up a division or two as he used his speed, movement, and well-rounded skill set to keep bigger, stronger, more powerful fighters off balance.
For 25 minutes, the champion and challenger got after one another, with Edgar having far more success than any of Penn’s most recent opponents. The judges were unanimous in scoring the fight for Edgar, making “The Answer” the new UFC lightweight champion, but the cards were all different and the public opinion was varied as well. The judges scored the fight 50-45, 48-47, and 49-46, while many observers believed Penn had done enough to merit the victory and retain his title.
An immediate rematch was booked — both because of Penn’s standing in the division and the pantheon of all-time greats, and the questions about the scoring — and Edgar left no room for argument, earning a clean sweep of the scorecards, 50-45 across the board, to cement his standing as the top lightweight in the UFC.
Khabib Nurmagomedov vs Dustin Poirier (UFC 242)
It’s really weird listening to some people suggest that Khabib Nurmagomedov “never really fought anybody” because he throttled two men that held lightweight gold and two others that held interim versions of that prestigious title, including this effort against Poirier.
This was Nurmagomedov’s first fight after being suspended for a year for the melee that ensued following his win over Conor McGregor at UFC 229. After beating Al Iaquinta for the vacant title and besting the returning Irishman to successfully defend his belt, there were questions about whether the undefeated standout from Dagestan could dial it up and stop what felt like Poirier’s pre-destined march to the top of the division.
“The Diamond” had earned stoppage wins over Justin Gaethje and Eddie Alvarez in 2018, and collected the interim title with a five-round decision win over Max Holloway at UFC 236, setting up this title unification bout. He was firing on all cylinders and there was a “potential Hollywood ending” feel to things as he readied to take on Nurmagomedov.
But Khabib didn’t care about Poirier getting his fairytale ending and becoming the undisputed UFC lightweight champion; he had “Father’s Plan” to enact, and on September 7, 2019, that’s what he did.
What looked like it could be a competitive fight on paper turned into another brilliant showing from Nurmagomedov, who secured the fight-ending submission finish two minutes into the third round to push his record to 28-0.
Alexander Volkanovski vs Max Holloway (UFC 251)
This isn’t an invitation to re-litigate the official scorecards or argue about the official decision of this fight — it was close, it was highly competitive, and it was more than two years ago; it’s time to move on.
What this is, however, is a celebration of an outstanding fight between the two very best fighters in the featherweight division, meeting for the second time in nine months with championship gold once again hanging in the balance.
Volkanovski won the belt at UFC 245, collecting a split decision win over Holloway by executing a technical, tactical game plan that featured plenty of low kicks, sound boxing, and an impressive ability to not only withstand the Hawaiian’s pressure approach, but upset his rhythm on the feet, as well.
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The second fight was even closer, with Holloway jumping out to an early 2-0 lead on all three scorecards before the Australian started to rally. All three judges saw the third and fourth for Volkanovski, who came away on the happy side of the 2-1 split in the fifth and final round, and therefore the fight, to retain his title.
This is a wonderful example of a fighter making the right adjustments mid-fight, and the win that put Volkanovski in a position to rise to where he stands currently as arguably the top pound-for-pound and most complete fighter in the sport today.
Khamzat Chimaev vs John Phillips (UFC Fight Night: Kattar vs Ige)
Everyone has their own “Do You Remember Where You Were?” moments and for a lot of MMA fans, this is going to remain one of them, especially if Chimaev continues his unchecked march towards the top of whatever division he competes in.
Here was this relatively unknown newcomer, fighting out of Stockholm’s Allstar Training Center, brandishing some good wins in Brave CF and carrying a little buzz into a clash with Welsh banger John Phillips. It took Chimaev about 12 seconds to get everyone sitting up and paying attention, and we haven’t been able to take our eyes off of him since.
While this wasn’t as one-sided as his win 10 days later against Rhys McKee or Gerald Meerschaert later in the year, it was the kind of drubbing that got your attention and made you eager to see “Borz” back in there as quickly as possible.
Although he’s faced some health issues outside of the cage and didn’t make weight his last time out, resulting in a shift in opponents at the 11th hour, Chimaev remains unbeaten, remains captivating inside the Octagon, and remains one of the most intriguing emerging contenders in the sport today.
And this is the performance that started it all.
Israel Adesanya vs Paulo Costa (UFC 253)
Adesanya has delivered a collection of highlight reel performances and memorable moments during the course of his UFC career, including his debut win, his destruction of Derek Brunson at Madison Square Garden, and his memorable title fight victories over Kelvin Gastelum and Robert Whittaker.
But if you ask me, this is his signature performance.
Every step of the way leading up to this fight, the middleweight champion told us he was going to make an example of Costa — that the Brazilian challenger was too slow, too one-dimensional, too muscular and predictable to be any test, and it took Adesanya nine minutes to prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt.
The Nigerian-born, New Zealand-based titleholder was patient and picked his spots, but he was never in danger, and the second he got Costa hurt, Adesanya put him away.
As promised, he made it look easy, reminding everyone what “The Last Stylebender” can do when given a chance to style inside the Octagon.
Joaquin Buckley vs Impa Kasanganay (UFC Fight Night: Moraes vs Sandhagen)
This remains the most ridiculous knockout I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot of knockouts over the years.
For the four people that haven’t seen the finish yet, here’s what happened: two minutes into the second round and positioned in the center of the Octagon, Buckley, fighting out of a southpaw stance, throws a left kick towards the head that is blocked and caught by Kasanganay. As Kasanganay is releasing his left foot, Buckley pivots on his right foot so that his back is facing Kasanganay, and then jumps and kicks him square in the face with his right foot, sending the Dana White’s Contender Series grad crashing to the canvas in a heap.
For Buckley to have the sheer audacity to attempt this kick is crazy enough, but for him to land it as perfectly has he did is absurd. It looked like the kind of kick you see in a well-choreographed movie fight scene or as part of some cool combination in Tekken or Street Fighter V, not a kick that actually landed flush inside the UFC Octagon.
It was always going to take something truly wild to unseat Edson Barboza’s spinning wheel kick finish of Terry Etim at the top of my personal list of ridiculous knockouts, and this was that something wild.
Khabib Nurmagomedov vs Justin Gaethje (UFC 254)
Fighting for the first time since the passing of his father, Abdulmanap, Nurmagomedov successfully defended his lightweight title with a second-round submission win over Gaethje, who had claimed the interim title earlier in the year with a fifth-round stoppage win over Tony Ferguson.
Similar to his fight with Poirier earlier on this list, this bout with Gaethje was another one of those bouts where some people had doubts about whether the unbeaten champion would be able to execute his standard game plan against the marauding Gaethje. And just like that fight, Nurmagomedov dispelled those silly questions swiftly, once again exhibiting his dominance on the canvas by wrestling Gaethje to the floor and ultimately submitting him 94 seconds into the second round.
He then shocked the MMA world by announcing his retirement, explaining that he promised his mother he would not fight again after UFC 254. Many wondered if he would go back on his word, but Nurmagomedov has clearly transitioned into his new role as a coach, one that will lead Islam Makhachev into the UFC 280 main event opposite Charles Oliveira in a bout that will determine the next lightweight champion.
Max Holloway vs Calvin Kattar (UFC Fight Night: Holloway vs Kattar)
If we’re talking about amazing performances in Abu Dhabi, Holloway’s effort in the first main event of 2021 has to be on the list because good grief was it an incredible effort.
Paired off with Kattar on ABC, you could tell “Blessed” took umbrage with the pre-fight talk of Kattar being the best boxer in the division, as he started his hands early and often to build a sizable lead. And then, down the stretch of the fight, the former featherweight champion made it crystal clear that those comments bothered him because he started shouting them back at the commentary desk while blasting Kattar with shot-after-shot.
At one point, Holloway shouted about being the best boxer in the division, looked away while slipping a returning shot, and then cracked the bloodied Kattar one more time. It was an Ali-esque effort from the Hawaiian standout and a performance that remains one of the absolute best to take place in Abu Dhabi.
Michael Chandler vs Dan Hooker (UFC 257)
There was a lot of pressure and tons of questions facing Michael Chandler when he touched down in the UFC Octagon for the first time.
A long-time standout and multiple-time champion in Bellator, the University of Missouri product was looking to prove he was deserving of a place amongst the elite in the 155-pound weight class when he took on Dan Hooker at UFC 257.
The City Kickboxing man was a perfect initial test — an established figure that had been in a number of captivating fights in recent memory and was more than capable of snuffing out a pretender. If Chandler could get through Hooker, it would instantly establish where he fit in the division.
Midway through the first round, we got our answer, as Chandler connected with a lunging left hand as Hooker circled right into it, sending him to the canvas where the final flurry was academic.
In half a round, the newcomer not only showed he deserved to be counted amongst the division’s best, but that he was a legitimate title contender and one to be feared as well.
Glover Teixeira vs Jan Blachowicz (UFC 267)
This was a solid performance, but it’s honestly more about the overall feels and what it meant in the bigger scheme of things.
Teixeira spent a number of years as one of the best fighters competing outside the UFC, and when he finally reached the biggest stage in the sport, he showed that he was one of the top light heavyweights in the world. He won his first five outings, four by stoppage, to land a championship opportunity against Jon Jones at UFC 172.
Jones emerged victorious, and over his next nine fights, Teixeira went 5-4, suffering a couple bad knockout losses, and slipping out of title contention. But then he started cobbling together a winning streak and pushed it to four with a come-from-behind stoppage win over Anthony Smith. He extended it to five with a similar effort against Thiago Santos, earning himself another title shot in the process.
Paired off with Jan Blachowicz, the Brazilian veteran finally reached his goal of claiming UFC gold, stinging the Polish champion in the second round before sinking in a rear-naked choke and drawing out the tap.
It was a magical moment and an incredible belated birthday present for Teixeira, who turned 42 two days earlier.
Aljamain Sterling vs TJ Dillashaw (UFC 280)
Aljamain Sterling's win over TJ Dillashaw was a giant one for the former bantamweight champion's legacy.
Dillashaw was one of, if not the most successful bantamweight champion of all-time, and Sterling mowed through him. It was an excellent showcase of Sterling's complete game and he was too much for the former champion.
It was also a big win for Sterling because for the first time since his two wins over Petr Yan there was no controversy. Aljo won big and there was no doubt about it.
Charles Oliveira vs Islam Makhachev (UFC 280)
Despite Oliveira’s controversial weight miss in Arizona at UFC 274, a strong contingent of people still viewed “Do Bronxs” as the best lightweight in the world after he dispatched Justin Gaethje in the first round. That said, Makhachev had long been thought of a future champion who couldn’t get the right opponents to fight him in order to climb the ranks. However, the protégé of Khabib Nurmagomedov found himself in title contention soon enough.
The tense, but respectful, buildup came to a head in a main event in which Makhachev saw the bulk of success. Where most fighters who rocked Oliveira stayed weary of going to the ground with UFC’s all-time submission leader, Makhachev happily wrestled the Brazilian. After a wayward flying knee attempt from Oliveira, Makhachev dropped his foe before sinking a tight arm triangle that earned him the lightweight title. Afterward, Makhachev welcomed Alexander Volkanovski to the Octagon where the two set the stage for their epic duel at UFC 284.
UFC 280: Oliveira vs Makhachev took place live from Etihad Arena in Abu Dhabi on October 22, 2022. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass!