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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - After a few days of uncertainty, it was recently confirmed that UFC Saudi Arabia, the promotion’s first event in the Kingdom scheduled initially for March 2, has been pushed to June 22.
The MMA Hour’s Ariel Helwani first broke the news on Jan. 15, citing a source that told him the UFC’s initial card needed to be “more exciting, with bigger names on it.” While this line has never been substantiated, the official Riyadh Season press release on Jan. 24 did confirm some fighters were not ready for the original date.
We previously wrote that the UFC would want to mark its inaugural event in Saudi Arabia with a bang. UFC president Dana White echoed this in the joint statement with Riyadh Season. Although the Fight Night cards are traditionally stacked with up-and-coming fighters, we speculated it could still host some big names. However, the card put together for March 2, which will now take place at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas instead, is shy of star power. Sure, it is great for those who know their kimuras from their Superman punches, but it lacks mass appeal.
Those in the lineup are all respected fighters in the UFC, but they are unlikely to fill the Kingdom Arena in Riyadh. White initially claimed that this card was never presented to Saudi Arabia. However, the subsequent postponement and peppering of Middle Eastern fan favorites in that lineup, including Mohammed Mokaev, Mohammed Yahya and Palestinian debutant Abdul-Kareem Al-Sewady, suggests otherwise.
Saudi Arabia’s Riyadh Season is packed with some of the biggest superstars in combat sports going head-to-head over the next few months. Francis Ngannou will take on Anthony Joshua, and Tyson Fury will finally get his much-anticipated dance with Oleksandr Usyk. The PFL/Bellator venture is putting on its most ambitious card ever as each promotion’s champion will face off. That is a hard act to follow for the UFC and not a position it has found itself in often.
Here is where things get interesting. As referenced above, UFC Fight Nights are the filler, non-title cards that sit between the organization’s main events. But White recently said: “This is just going to be a type of card that we’ve never done before; it’s going to be every fight is must-see.”
That statement opens the door to the showstopping fighters that will have fans scrambling for tickets. One of these fighters is lightweight king and regional favorite Islam Makhachev. It would demand that the UFC break its template of non-title bouts on Fight Night cards, but as White confirmed, this is new territory for them.
In December, the UFC’s No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter announced that he was ready to fight on June 8, via X. This was an odd thing to put out in isolation, as there was not a planned card for June, let alone a specific date, in the official UFC event schedule. Maybe Makhachev had insider knowledge, or it was a coincidence, but a headline bout in Saudi Arabia is now a real possibility. He certainly fits the unmissable profile. However, the opponent he picked out in his post, Justin Gaethje, has since been added to UFC 300 in April, which he would have to come through unscathed to make the Saudi Arabia event in June.
Conor McGregor also comes back into contention for this card. The undisputed superstar of the fight game also announced in December that he was ready to step back into the octagon in June 2024. He claimed the fight against Michael Chandler would be at International Fight Week on June 29 in Las Vegas. However, the UFC does not traditionally host two major cards in one month, let alone within one week of each other. So, either there will be a logistical nightmare for the UFC, or he makes his long-awaited comeback in the Kingdom.
McGregor attended the recent star-studded boxing event in Saudi Arabia, sitting ringside with Al-Nassr‘s Cristiano Ronaldo and the General Entertainment Authority’s Chairman Turki Alalshikh. After the bout, McGregor vented his frustration at the UFC for delaying his return.
He reportedly said: “The lads here (in Saudi Arabia) are talking Manny (Pacquiao in boxing), the UFC aren’t talking any. Give me something. You know what I’m saying? They’ve never treated anyone (like this). No one’s ever been treated (like this). For all the figures I’ve brought in this game — I sell more than all of them combined, yeah? I sell more than every one of them combined.”
Again, this rant on its own is typical of a fighter who appears desperate to get back to what he does best. But with the added context of a potential major card happening in June and McGregor’s talks with Saudi Arabia’s organizers over a fight with Pacquiao, the puzzle pieces seem to fall precisely for the Kingdom to bag the biggest UFC fight of 2024.
According to the aforementioned press release, the full UFC Saudi Arabia fight card will be announced “in the coming weeks”.
As of late January the card now set for Las Vegas on March 2 is:
Jairzinho Rozenstruik vs Shamil Gaziev
Mohammad Mokaev vs Alex Perez
Eryk Anders vs Jamie Pickett
Vinicius Oliveira vs Yanis Ghemmouri
Joel Alvarez vs Ludovit Klein
Javid Basharat vs Aiemann Zahabi
Abdul-Kareem Al-Sewady vs Loik Radzabadov
Vinicius de Oliveira vs Yanis Ghemmouri
Mohammad Yahya vs Brendon Marotte
Julia Polastri vs Josefine Lindgren Knutsson
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