“Fight Island” sounds as if it could be William Golding’s follow-up to Lord of the Flies, or something out of a Bond movie, but’s actually the next incarnation of UFC. Not only that, but the pandemic-busting event – held in Abu Dhabi – is going to feature Welsh fighters John ‘The Welsh wrecking Machine’ Phillips, Jack Shore and Brett Johns. Chris Saunders sets the scene.
As we step out of the gloom into a brave new post-coronavirus world, it’s becoming clear that some sporting institutions are transitioning better than others.
Watching football in empty stadiums is jarring and unnatural and we haven’t even tried to play rugby without the roar of the crowd.
But for a sport like the UFC, where the action is focused on an octagon measuring barely 9-metres in diameter, adjusting to a fan-free environment hasn’t been quite so painful.
In fact, as the bulk of its revenue comes from broadcast revenue and sponsorship deals rather than ticket sales, with a few brief alterations the UFC has arguably come back stronger than ever.
There have been a string of high-profile events in recent weeks, and the biggest MMA organisation in the world aims to maintain momentum with the Fight Island extravaganza which kicks off at a custom-made venue in Abu Dhabi this weekend.
“It’s mad,” says John ‘The Welsh wrecking Machine’ Phillips. “It feels like I’m in Mortal Kombat or something!
“If someone had said to me a couple of years ago you’re going to be fighting on ‘Fight Island’ I wouldn’t have believed them and even when I first heard about the rumours I wasn’t sure it would actually happen.
“It will definitely be one to look back on in the future and tell the grand kids about.”
Welsh fighters are well represented across the four fight cards, with Phillips, who faces Serb Dusko Todorovic on July 16th, saying, “I think it’s fantastic, you’ve got myself Jack Shore, Brett Johns, and it’s amazing to have all three of us on the island coming from such a small nation.
“For us all to be selected shows the pedigree at the moment and that we come from a nation of born fighters.
“I think it’s time for a UFC card in Wales once lockdown is over! It will always spur me on knowing I’m representing my home country, my friends, and family and it’s great to have everyone behind you.”
His undefeated opponent comes with a big reputation, but the Swansea southpaw insists he’s ready.
“I think I’m going to be too strong for him. I think I’m too strong in all areas, he’s not going to be able to take me down and he leaves himself open at times. He’s a tough guy and I won’t be underestimating him, but I’m predicting a big KO and a performance bonus.”
Phillips also lifted the lid on what the past few months have been like as a fighter in lockdown.
“It’s a struggle – like it has been for everyone else,” he says.
“But I’ve just tried to crack on with it and dug deep. It has been a challenge, but I’m quite lucky as I have got some good teammates who live locally and considering the circumstances, I’ve had a great camp.
“I can’t wait to put on a show for everyone watching and show what I can do. It’s fantastic that the UFC have given us this platform to perform and I actually feel honoured to be a part of it.
“I feel incredibly lucky to be able to fight and do my job when there are a lot of people who can’t work at the moment.
“It will definitely be different and strange not having the buzz of the fans behind you, but we’re all professionals and we’re there to do a job.
“It sucks the fans aren’t there, you can’t jump into the crowd after and celebrate with mates, but it’s good to know people will be supporting back home.”
On the same night, the highly rated Jack ‘Tank’ Shore takes on Aaron Phillips in the bantamweight division, the American stepping in after six years away from the Octagon as a late replacement for Anderson dos Santos, who was pulled from the card after testing positive for COVID-19.
The undefeated Abertillery product said: “Training for this one has been a bit different with the lockdown, but I always stay in shape, and am always ready to go. It is exciting but it’s just another fight for me and I am completely focused on getting the win.
“People know what I’m about at this point, and they know I will come in looking to enforce my will and take the win in whatever way I can.”
Just three days after Phillips and Shore both fight, bantamweight Brett Johns features on a fight card headlined by the flyweight title fight between Joseph Benavidez and Deiveson Figueiredo.
Johns will meet Montel Jackson in a high stakes match-up, with the winner of the clash certain to be propelled up the rankings and possibly into title contention.
The American will prove a stiff test for the 28-year old Swansea native, who puts his impressive record of 16 wins from 18 contests on the line.
No doubt he’ll be confident of taking the win, as will his countrymen as Jack Shore explains, “This is a big opportunity because with so little sport going on at the moment, there are going to be a lot of eyes on us fighting at the island.”
He isn’t kidding.
Fight Island commences on July 12th (or 11th, depending on which time zone you’re in) with UFC 251. Keep up with UFC events here: