Thursday, January 28, 2010

Which one of these does not belong?

The Ultimate Fighting Championship is coming to Abu Dhabi, it was announced yesterday, for one of the biggest mixed martial arts events in history. Two title fights, the sport's biggest stars, hours of bone-crunching entertainment as fighters from various disciplines bash each other bloody inside an eight-sided cage.

This country has a thing for big-time sports events. It's part of the effort to promote Abu Dhabi and Dubai as "world class" cities, along with top-flight museums (branches of the Guggenheim and Louvre are under construction), big-name concerts (from the New York Philharmonic to Beyonce) and star-studded film festivals.

I understand the attraction to Formula One racing (it's pretty obvious; the local drivers all think they're Jenson Button). Likewise the golf and tennis tournaments with all-star fields, and certainly the Club World Cup soccer tournament.

And given the interest (and investments) of certain sheikhs, staging the world's richest horse race at a new $2.7 billion race track makes perfect sense.

But Ultimate Fighting?

Admittedly, I don't know a lot about the sport, but I've seen enough to know that its brutality seems an odd fit with the country's other efforts to gain exposure. Whether you like it or loathe it, there's no arguing it's violent – John McCain once described it as "human cockfighting" – and despite rule changes to make it more palatable to the masses, it's still banned in some U.S. states.

But its popularity is rapidly growing worldwide, and the UAE's interest is no passing fancy. Two weeks ago, a government-owned entertainment company bought a 10 percent stake in the company that owns UFC, and it has the support of a sheikh who is a jiu-jitsu blackbelt and an avid fan of mixed martial arts.

It may not fit ... but with backing like that, I'm guessing it will be a hit.

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