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UFC Abu Dhabi kicks off with a tribute to Maradona

UFC Abu Dhabi kicks off with a tribute to Maradona

The prelude to the 2021 Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) season in Abu Dhabi was dominated by ‘the beautiful game’ on Friday.

Yes, it was a tribute to Diego Maradona, the footballing genius who died last November, that melted the hearts of even the most fierce UFC competitors that fight in a cage for a living.

Santiago Ponzinibbio, a welterweight division fighter from Argentina whose health issues threatened to end his mixed martial arts career after his knockout win over Neil Magny in 2018, paid a moving tribute to Maradona during his face-off with Li Jingliang in Abu Dhabi on Friday.

Just after the face-off, the 34-year-old Ponzinibbio rolled out a banner named ‘Forever’ that had the famous image of Maradona holding aloft the World Cup trophy.

Come Saturday, Ponzinibbio’s Chinese opponent Jingliang will be leaving no stone unturned in an attempt to beat him in the cage.

But on this occasion, the Chinese fighter was happy to lend a helping hand as Ponzinibbio rolled out the banner, with both fighters presenting beautiful smiles as Dana White, the UFC boss, looked on.

Perhaps, Ponzinibbio could not have found a bigger inspiration than Maradona, who attained mythic status by single-handedly dragging an average Argentina team to 1986 World Cup glory, as he attempts to resurrect his UFC career in Abu Dhabi.

Meanwhile, the main card of the UFC Fight Island 7 series: ‘Holloway vs Kattar’ presents a big opportunity for the challengers to put them in line for the featherweight title against champion Alexander Volkanovski.

Max Holloway and Calvin Kattar on Friday made weights at 146 pounds giving official seal to the encounter.

Holloway, the former featherweight champion and the top-ranked fighter, is still nursing the wounds of losing a split decision to Volkanovski in July last year.

“It isn’t hard to be mad about the last fight because 80 to 90 per cent of the world thought I won the fight and it’s just not my fans but competitors. But I am not too mad about it. Saturday night I got an opportunity again. I can’t wait to make that walk,” he told reporters.

This is actually the first non-title fight since 2016, but Holloway is fully focused and motivated.

“The belt is just something to show the world that I am a champion. I am going to carry myself as a champion, belt or no belt, we are going to go out there and fight.”

Meanwhile, Kattar is determined to extend his winning run by nailing Holloway and throwing his hat into the ring for a date with Volkanovski.

“I don’t know what else you could do other than going on a three-fight win streak, take out the number one contender and try and earn a title shot,” he said.

Kattar said he will be making a “crazy statement” by defeating Holloway.

“It could be a crazy statement. To make him take a fall is a big thing. Max Holloway is the real deal. And I get to go out and prove that I am next in line on Saturday night. I am looking to get my hand raised,” Kattar added.

The fixture features five main card fights and six undercards as the arena will start welcoming fans from 7.30pm.

Meanwhile, the authorities have put strict health and safety protocols in place for the fighters, fans and all the stakeholders, keeping in mind the threat of coronavirus.