Highway E 11 cuts 79 miles through the great Rub’ al Khali desert between the emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Fight! photographer, Paul Thatcher, was piloting a tiny blue rental car as we sped down the busiest highway in the Arab world on the way to Dubai. We were in the UAE to cover the UFC debut in Abu Dhabi later in the week and were taking the day to see the sites. We were in the middle of one of the biggest deserts in the world and it seemed like one giant construction site with steel girders, giant cranes, and trailers blanketing the landscape. On the side of the road, between the billboards previewing future projects, were giant portraits of the prominent Sheiks who ruled the society. Greatest of these Sheiks was the late Sheik Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan. It was Sheik Zayed, or Father Zayed, as he is sometimes referred to, who realized that the ocean of oil under the sand would eventually run out. To prepare for that black day, Zayed set the emirates on a course of massive reinvestment. Six years after the death of the sagacious Sheik Zayed, the UAE had the highest per capita income in the world and was witnessing one of the largest investment booms of modern history. Interestingly, Zayed was the father of Sheik Mohamed Zayed, the Art of War Fighting Championships’ benefactor.
The whole area was a metropolis in the making. It was as if one of the world’s great cities, a New York, Hong Kong or London, was being built before your eyes with the brute force of unlimited capital. Work crews were shipped in from East Asia and Africa and ferried in little white vans from dormitories to work sites and then back again. Eighty percent of the entire population of Abu Dhabi was immigrants, drawn either to the huge construction projects or the burgeoning financial and tourist industries.
The lack of motivation and downright laziness of the manual laborers became a running joke between Paul and I since we never saw any of them actually doing anything. “Look at that!” Paul would exclaim, “there’s one holding a shovel, he might be about to do something.” Or, “that group of them over there standing around, I think they might be getting ready.”
“They’re planning how to move that bucket,” I offered, “you can’t waste any effort in this heat. Organization is the key.”
One time a waitress confided to us how she regretted coming over as soon as she found out she would be sharing a two- bedroom one -bath apartment with 6 other women. But she had no way to get back to her country until she had worked out her contract.
Motivated or not, the labor was cheap. The inexpensive workers and the fact that construction was not constrained by normal financial limits caused the world’s top architects to flock to the UAE to let their professional fantasies run wild. The grandiosity and conceptual daring of the planned architectural projects reads like something out of a science fiction novel. There would 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 dubbed by locals “The Death Star;” a skyscraper that opened at the top like a giant crystal flower; and another that juts well over a mile straight up into the sky.
The event we were there to cover represented the UFC’s first foray into the Arab market and the most intriguing subplot concerned the fight between UFC legend Matt Hughes and a man who was revered quasi-religiously in these parts, Renzo Gracie. I’d known Renzo for a few years and I’d always been impressed by what he was a good man he was. Although, he wasn’t the most famous he’d had the most credible fighting career of any of the Gracies, from the days of the wars with Luta Livre to his time in Japan and now finally, at the age of 43, in the UFC. He had also been an adroit businessman and his branch of the Gracie family Jiu-Jitsu Empire had affiliates in the United States, Canada, Mexico, South Africa, Israel and Singapore. He was a self-made millionaire many times over and, like his uncle Carlson he’d also been a force as a trainer. His school in New York City was one of the few bastions of BJJ and MMA on the East Coast. Champion Matt Serra would tell anyone who asked him that he owed everything to Renzo, as would many other top fighters.
It was Renzo who was 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 and the younger brother of Art of War’s patron Sheik Mohammed) in the sport by interesting him in Jiu-Jitsu in the late 1990s. A distinguished grappler himself, the Sheik was 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.
Renzo, according to an interview he did with Kevin Iole, 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 and visited the Sheik to explore the possibility of a partnership. When the deal was announced, Dana, with his uncanny instinct for the potent theatrical gesture, tweeted images of the Sheik in a UFC shirt posing with him and a beaming Lorenzo.
On the morning before the fights, at the hotel Zuffa had reserved for the press and fighters, I shared the elevator down to the main floor with Demian Maia. He was fighting in the main event against lithe super striker Anderson Silva who I’d met in Rio. Styles didn’t get much more contrasting—Silva was the fleet-footed, precise knockout artist against Maia, the purest and best Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu fighter in the sport. The conventional wisdom was that if the fight staid on the feet, it would be a short night for Maia, but if he could get a hold of Silva, he had a good chance of slapping on one of his dreaded and inescapable submissions.
I wanted to ask him how he planned to get Silva to the ground but decided against it, not wanting to be tactless. Grim faced and in sweats, he was in the final hours before making weight. As we got off the elevator, we saw Silva coming down the hallway with his entourage in tow. The scene was awkward and I wondered if they would ignore each other. Silva took the initiative and came 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 nodded as Silva, perhaps playing the scene for some subtle psychological advantage, whizzed past him.
“Frankie is going to shock the world tonight,” Mike Straka said.
“Is that your heart or your mind talking?” I asked him over my shoulder. Mike was a fellow journalist and also great friends with Frankie Edgar and came over with Frankie’s family to support his friend.
“Maybe a little of both,” he said
We were on press row sitting behind a row of Sheiks who I knew must have been big wigs because Lorenzo Fertitta himself made a point of coming over to glad hand them.
Sure enough, Frankie Edgar, who nobody, except Straka, had given a snowball’s chance of winning, used his speed and quickness to win his fight over BJ Penn and become the lightweight Champion. When the decision was announced I leaned back towards Mike and said, “He’s got to be on the cover. Do you want to do the story?”
“ Sure,” he said and just like that we got the scoop. There’s nothing like being in the right place at the right time.
In the nights other big fights, Maia and Anderson put on an odd affair with Anderson refusing to engage and the grappling ace reduced to blindly chasing Silva around for 25 minutes trying to land a punch. Dana White was so infuriated and embarrassed in front of his new business partners that he left the event early and refused to congratulate Silva on retaining the title.
Renzo Gracie ended up getting crushed by Matt Hughes and their fight was stopped with only seconds left in the final round. Renzo fought bravely but looked all of his 43 years of age, and likely should not fight again. He was the second Gracie to be humbled by Hughes, who also stopped Royce Gracie in 2006. Despite his loss the crowd treated Renzo warmly and he exited the stadium to a huge ovation. For all of his continued influence in the sport as a trainer and businessman, it was clear that as far as top-level competition was concerned, the sport they helped invent had passed Renzo and the Gracies by.