Should it come to fruition, the UFC’s plan to stage bouts on “Fight Island” won’t mark the first time an MMA organization has battled on the beaches.
Former UFC star Chael Sonnen remembers fighting under the hot sun of Costa Rica against the backdrop of blue tropical waters back in 2006 and ‘07 in the Bodog Fight promotion, run by former Canadian offshore betting mogul Calvin Ayre.
At a time in MMA when getting fights wasn’t easy, securing a bout that came with an all-expenses trip to a tropical paradise was a bonus.
“It was amazing,” Sonnen recalled.
“There’s a reason that Bodog isn’t here any more. They spent a lot of money and didn’t get a return on their investment. But from my perspective, I don’t know that I’ve had better experiences. Calvin would fly us out to these most beautiful locations. He’d pay for everything.”
Bodog didn’t bother with selling tickets.
“There was no audience. It was just fellow fighters and production crew,” said Sonnen, now an ESPN MMA analyst and promoter in his own right. “What [Ayre] wanted was just the beauty – the artistic shot, from a production standpoint, of the ocean and the beach in the background.
“And it was beautiful. I think maybe it came off as a little weird to some people, I don’t know that it was quite what he was looking for. But as far as being a unique spot to fight, yeah he succeeded.”
Bodog and the UFC had different reasons for staging fights offshore.
Ayre was based in the Caribbean at the time, unable to set foot in the United States because of his gambling empire. The UFC is looking to escape the reach of government and health authorities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the wake of pulling the plug on UFC 249 last week at the behest of broadcast partner ESPN – reportedly after calls by the California Governor and other state officials to Disney, ESPN’s parent company – UFC president Dana White declared his organization would be the first back in action.
“Fight Island is real,” he told ESPN. “It’s a real thing. The infrastructure is being built right now. That’s really going to happen.”
He said he would be ready in a month to bring fighters to the island to train in advance of competition.
While the backdrop was exquisite, the Bodog Costa Rica experience was not without problems.
Bodog opted for a tarpaulin surface for its open ring, rather than the canvas used by the UFC in its Octagon cage. It proved to be a painful decision for the fighters, Sonnen said.
“A tarp is exactly what you would lay down in your backyard on a sunny day, put a hose on and turn into a slip-and-slide. If a tarp gets wet at all, it is an ice skating rink to the highest of levels.”
Under the unforgiving sun of Costa Rica, the tarp retained heat. So in between fights, ice was sprinkled on the ring surface to cool it down “just so guys could stand on it and fight.”
“Well what that does is it then turns it into a slip-and-slide,” Sonnen continued. “So guys are either sliding around or they’re fighting on this scolding hot surface.”
Some fighters would make deals to take the bout into a shady corner of the ring, to escape the worst of the conditions. Others would look to take advantage of the heat, taking their opponent down to place their back on the hot canvas. Sonnen recalls one fighter tapping out when he was taken down because the heat was too much.
Timing was also an issue.
Sonnen fought Tim (The Wrecking Machine) McKenzie in Costa Rica in February, 2007, in a bout that happened ahead of schedule, at 11 in the morning rather than later in the afternoon.
Sonnen was taking a nap in his room when there was a knock and a door and he was told “Hey, you’re up. McKenzie’s already walking to the ring.” Sonnen grabbed his gear and ran to the ring, having a quick warmup and his hands wrapped as McKenzie waited.
There were no heat issues in that bout, however. Sonnen took McKenzie down with an inside trip and locked in a choke, forcing a tapout in just 13 seconds.
McKenzie hurt a rib in the takedown and was carried out on the ring on a stretcher.
Sonnen spent a week in Costa Rica on that trip as they filmed a string of fights. He recalls flying into a private airstrip and then taking a boat just to get to the venue – an exclusive private resort.
Sonnen had defeated Tim (Crazy) Credeur by TKO in a night Bodog fight at another Costa Rica venue in August, 2006. Bodog also staged fights around the globe, including one in Vancouver in 2007.
The 43-year-old Sonnen, a former all-American wrestler at the University of Oregon, is an MMA pioneer who fought for the UFC middleweight and light-heavyweight titles. He last competed in Bellator in June, 2019, and now runs his own Submission Underground Grappling promotion.
For his part, White insists that the UFC will make Fight Island work despite the continuing global pandemic.
“First of all, health and safety is all we care about. It’s No. 1 for the UFC. It has been for 20 years, long before the coronavirus popped up,” he told ESPN.
“No. 2, we figure out solutions. We figure out how to make thing work, how to make it safe, how to make it happen. That’s why we’re the biggest and the best in the world. We pull off things that other people can’t.”