Command Performance

ZAYED’S DREAM

 

Highway E 11 cuts 79 miles through the great Rub’ al Khali desert between the emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. FIGHT! Staff Photographer Paul Thatcher is piloting a tiny blue rental car as we speed down the busiest highway in the Arab world on the way to Dubai. We’re in the UAE to cover the debut of the UFC in Abu Dhabi later in the week and are day tripping to see the sites. We’re in the middle of one of the biggest deserts in the world, but it seems like one giant construction site with steel girders, giant cranes, and construction trailers blanketing the landscape. On the side of the road—between the billboards previewing future projects—are giant portraits of the prominent Sheiks who rule the society. Greatest of these Sheiks is the late Sheik Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan. It was Sheik Zayed, or Father Zayed as he is sometimes referred around these parts, who realized that the ocean of oil under the sands of this land would eventually run out. It was Zayed who set the emirates on the course of massive reinvestment that they are on today. Six years after the death of the sagacious Sheik Zayed, the UAE has the highest per capita income in the world and is witnessing one of the greatest investment booms of modern history.

 

The whole area is a metropolis in process. It’s as if one of the world’s great cities, a New York, Hong Kong or London, is being built before your eyes with the brute force of unlimited capital. Work crews are shipped in from East Asia and Africa and are ferried in little white vans from the dormitories in which they’re housed, to the work sites, and then back again. Eighty percent of the entire population here are ex-patriot workers, drawn either to the huge construction projects or the burgeoning financial and tourist industries.

 

With cheap labor and unconstrained by normal financial limits, the world’s leading architects have flocked in to let their professional fantasies run wild. The grandiosity and conceptual daring of the architectural projects reads like something out of a science fiction novel. There will be a collection of man-made islands shaped like a miniature map of the earth’s continents, an underwater hotel called Hydropolis, a huge building shaped like a giant sphere that has been dubbed “The Death Star,” a skyscraper that opens at the top like a giant crystal flower, and another that stabs well over a mile straight up into the sky.

 

In the middle of the region’s unbounded capitalist frenzy, it’s easy to forget that before the discovery of oil in 1958, this was one of the poorest areas of the Middle East. “A few scattered huts subsisting on pearl fishing,” according to the official tourist guide. However, there are still reminders of the region’s desert origins. On the way back, we stop to feed a group of wild camels that has wandered in from the desert to graze on the scrub that still grows along the roadside.

 

YAS ISLAND

 

UFC 112 will take place at one of the multi billion-dollar developments currently underway in Abu Dhabi called Yas Island. The island, named for one of the original Bedouin tribes, is also site of the world’s largest indoor racing facility called Ferrari Stadium. We drive past the giant bright red building on the way to our hotel.

 

Once inside the lobby, adjacent restaurants are busy with a flurry of activity with the fighters, their teams, and the many Zuffa production personnel involved with the event. Everybody we see is involved somehow in one of the event’s many interesting back stories.

 

There’s Frankie Edgar, fidgety and excited. He has a very tall order in front of him. His opponent is the most dominant lightweight champion ever. BJ Penn has been close to unbeatable at 155 pounds, and most people think the brave but undersized Edgar will get toyed with and put away in the sort of “cat torturing a mouse for four rounds before eating him” manner Penn has become known for.

 

UFC 112’s most intriguing subplot concerns the fight between UFC legend Matt Hughes and a man who is revered quasi-religiously in these parts—Renzo Gracie. It was Renzo who was most responsible for involving a powerful member of Abu Dhabi’s royal Al Nahyan Family, Sheik Tahnoon Bin Zayed Al Nahyan (one of Sheik Zayed’s sons), in the sport by interesting him in jiu-jitsu in the late 1990s. A distinguished grappler himself, the Sheik is a black belt under Renzo, and he founded the prestigious Abu Dhabi Submission Grappling Championships to promote submission grappling. He even saw to it that Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was made mandatory for the middle school curriculum in the emirate.

 

It was also Renzo, according to an interview he did with Kevin Iole, who first introduced the Sheik to the idea of investing in the UFC’s parent company, Zuffa. Soon afterward, at a request from the Sheik’s lawyers, Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta jumped on a plane to explore the possibility of a partnership. When the deal was announced, Dana, with his uncanny instinct for the potent theatrical gesture, Twittered images of the Sheik in a UFC shirt, posing with him and a beaming Lorenzo.

 

The night’s main event will pit one of the UFC’s marquee athletes, lithe super striker Anderson Silva, against one of the top ground fighters in the world, Demian Maia.

 

As far as styles go, they don’t get much more contrasting than this—Silva as the fleet-footed, precise knockout artist against Maia, the purest and best Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu fighter in the sport. The conventional wisdom going into the fight is that if the fight stays on the feet, it will be a short night for Maia, but if he can get hold of Silva, he has a good chance of slapping on one of his dreaded and inescapable submissions.

 

On the day before the fight, I share the elevator down to the main floor with Maia. My curiosity is killing me, and I want to ask him how he plans to get Silva to the ground, but then decide against it, not wanting to be tactless. Grim faced and in sweats, he is in the final hours before making weight. As we get off the elevator, we see Silva coming down the hallway with his entourage in tow. The scene is awkward, and I wonder if they will ignore each other. Silva takes the initiative and comes right up, thrusting himself abruptly into Maia’s personal space, grasping his hand while bowing and smiling, never breaking eye contact. Maia, who is the most impeccably polite man you’ll ever meet, simply nodstersely. The whole uncomfortable scene only lasts an instant, but I sense that Silva, who has a way of psyching out his opponents while appearing to be nice, was playing the scene for some subtle psychological advantage. If that was his intent, Maia is unmoved as Silva whirls past us and down the hall.

 

EARNING YOUR MONEY

 

Managers are like lawyers. Everybody talks bad about them until they need a good one to get themselves out of hot water. Then they’re priceless. This thought goes through my mind as I watch Dana White scowling from the podium at the post-fight press conference. Next to him is Silva, looking like the cat that ate the canary, and his co-manager Ed Soares.

 

Rather than the usual upbeat recap of the performance statistics of the event (attendance, live gate receipts, fighter bonuses, etc.), Dana had begun the press conference by calling Silva’s performance in the night’s main event a disgrace. Silva won the match, but did so while dancing and showboating, never once showing a willingness to engage Maia or to take the risks necessary to finish him. It was more a clinic on how to stay away and infuriate a live audience than a fight. Maia, for his part, was unable to corner the fleet-footed champ and was reduced to blindly chasing him around the ring for 25 minutes, trying to—of all things—induce Anderson to slug with him. It was a brave albeit ineffective performance, and even though he had come up short, at least Maia seemed willing to fight. By the end of the bout, the crowd had turned solidly in his favor. The snoozer of a main event marred an otherwise excellent night of fights.

 

Frankie Edgar, who nobody had given a snowball’s chance of winning, had used his speed and quickness to win a razor thin decision over BJ Penn. On any other night, this would have been the big story. I feel bad that his moment of glory was being overshadowed by the hijinks in the main event.

 

Renzo Gracie had come up short in his fight with Hughes and been stopped with only seconds left in the final round. He’d fought bravely but seemed all of his 43 years of age, and it was questionable whether he would fight again. Even in defeat, the beloved Gracie was treated warmly by the crowd and exited the stadium to a huge ovation.

 

But unfortunately for everyone involved, and for all the wrong reasons, Silva and his inexplicable and maddening performance overshadowed everything else. Dana was so embarrassed by the main event in front of his new business partners , he left the fight early and was at his fuming best at the podium before the press.

 

“You and Ed are about to earn your money,” I say to Jorge Guimaraes, Ed Soares’ business partner and Silva’s co-manager, who is next to me near the back of the room. He shakes his head before nodding back to me in weary agreement. As the press conference continues, Soares goes into spin control, translating for Silva and placating Dana. This is no easy trick, but Soares navigates the waters with aplomb. I do wonder though, how faithfully he translates Silva’s Portuguese answers during the press conference. I suspect there might be the occasional softening.

 

Silva would go on to say that he wanted to punish Maia for things Demian said pre-fight, making him suffer 25 minutes of domination. The fight was one-sided and he had, in fact, done some damage to Maia, but knocking him out would have made the clearer statement. Also, remembering the encounter at the hotel, Silva having a grudge with Maia doesn’t add up. A more likely explanation was how Guimaraes later explained it.

 

According to Guimaraes, Silva had told him he was hesitant to engage Maia because he didn’t want a repeat of his Ryo Chonan debacle in Japan in 2004. In that fight, Silva had been winning easily but then was caught with a dramatic heel hook in the final round. It was Silva’s last loss and one that was fresh in his mind, according to Guimaraes.

 

Apart from White’s anger, the press conference takes on a subdued, surreal quality, and it is unclear whether the event has been a success or not. As time passed, the event would come to be seen as a big success. The enormity of Edgar’s achievement would eventually get recognized, and the quality of the rest of the card outweighed the main event in most people’s minds.

 

Even the emotional Dana mellowed in the event’s aftermath. He later called the event a success and even a career highlight, albeit one with “one of shittiest main events ever.” That’s Dana—plain speaking, sometimes to a fault—and he and Silva present fitting foils as I watch them together at the press conference: Dana with everything on the surface, all brute force and emotion, the brusque angry boss. Anderson, chastened but coy. One of the sports chosen few, always playing his cards close to the chest, inscrutable as the Sphinx.

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