Why Saudi Arabia’s first UFC event could see return of Conor McGregor

Why Saudi Arabia’s first UFC event could see return of Conor McGregor
Why Saudi Arabia’s first UFC event could see return of Conor McGregor

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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - RIYADH: The recent announcement that the UFC was coming to Saudi Arabia for the first time was in danger of becoming a footnote in a chaotic week for the MMA organization.

While upgrading the upcoming UFC 294 card in Abu Dhabi on Oct. 21, with flyweight champ Alexander Volkanovski and former welterweight king Kamaru Usman joining the card as replacement fighters, the UFC signed a significant deal with the Saudi General Entertainment Authority. And on March 2, 2024, UFC Fight Night will come to Riyadh.

There are several reasons why this news is important. The most obvious is that Saudi UFC fans will see some of their favorite fighters up close as the Octagon finally lands in the Kingdom.

Beyond this, it shows the UFC’s commitment to hosting shows in the Middle East and is another step to inspire and unearth the next wave of regional fighters into the mix.

It is also a direct response to rival MMA brand PFL (Professional Fighters League), which has been a fixture in Saudi for a while and is now backed by the Saudi Public Investment Fund. MMA fans in Saudi Arabia are the big winners with both deals.

Right now, there is only one official event scheduled. UFC Fight Night will happen during Riyadh Season, a city-wide event featuring concerts, exhibitions, and more. It will also see Tyson Fury and Francis Ngannou go toe-to-toe in their heavyweight boxing match on Oct. 28.

But a long-term partnership is expected to blossom, something akin to the five-year relationship between the UFC and Abu Dhabi Tourism that brought UFC nights and title fights to the UAE capital.

However, speculation remains about who will appear on the first-ever Saudi card. Although both event types are packed with talented fighters across the roster, UFC Fight Nights and numbered events have a crucial difference – title fights are reserved for the latter. Unless there is a huge departure from how the UFC operates, the Riyadh card will not feature any championship bouts. These will likely come further down the line.

However, UFC Fight Night Saudi Arabia should provide the excitement fans have come to expect from the MMA franchise. And there is a slim chance that the card will deliver the UFC’s biggest star – Conor McGregor.

“The Notorious” was among the first people to congratulate Saudi Arabia and the UFC on the deal via his X (formerly Twitter) account, leading to rumors he may have a vested interest in the event.

Speculation will be rife for months until UFC boss Dana White announces the official line-up, but the prospect of McGregor returning after a two-year lay-off through injury and filming a remake of the movie “Road House” cannot be ruled out.

The stars are aligning for Saudi Arabia to welcome McGregor back. His next opponent is scheduled to be Michael Chandler, who he coached opposite in the last season of “The Ultimate Fighter” reality show.

McGregor is also back in the drug-testing pool – a requirement that all fighters must enter before being cleared to compete. This means the timelines for the March show are also favorable for an appearance.

And finally, it will not be a title fight, which again boosts the chances of the Irishman sitting at the top of the bill in Riyadh. All things considered, including that the UFC and SGEA will want to make a statement with the inaugural event, it would not be a surprise.

Trying to piece the card together from the outside is slightly more challenging as no fighters immediately jump out.

Middle East favorites such as Khamzat Chimaev and Islam Makhachev are in action on Oct. 21 in Abu Dhabi. Chimaev could make the swift turnaround. He would need to quickly take out Usman at UFC 294 to be in with a chance of appearing. Makhachev, on the other hand, will be either a defending champion or due for a rematch with Volkanovski – so, unlikely to be in Saudi Arabia.

Whatever happens, the UFC matchmakers will ensure the card is stacked with talent. And just maybe, McGregor could headline UFC Fight Night Saudi Arabia.

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