Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
As soon as Eddie Alvarez set foot on the beachside ring in Costa Rica, one thing became abundantly clear to him — there was no chance he was taking his fight to the ground.
It was 2007, and Alvarez was making his second appearance in the now-defunct Bodog Fights. He’d fought in some strange places before – he was “The Underground King,” after all. But this was something entirely different.
“Just going in the ring with your feet, it felt like you were in hot sand,” Alvarez told MMA Fighting. “The ring was crazy hot. So if you ended up on your back, your back was cooking. You probably had some burns on your back if you hit the canvas in that heat.”
When the UFC first touted plans for “Fight Island,” many former Bodog athletes went down memory lane to the exotic locations chosen by the cash-rich promotion.
One favorite landing spot was Costa Rica in Playa Tambor. Not exactly an island, mind you, but it shared many of the same features as UFC 251’s host on Yas Island, Abu Dhabi.
Athletes were flown out well in advance of the card, and training facilities were set up directly on the beach. It was an entirely inclusive resort, so the fighters mostly had the place to themselves. Every comfort possible was provided free of charge.
Back then, Alvarez was only nine fights into his fight career, but the experience competing on a beach in Costa Rica is definitely one he’ll never forget.
“That was the first fight where I quit my job; they paid me like $30,000 flat to fight as their champion,” Alvarez revealed. “They said, ‘We’re going to pay you that, and your first fight is going to be in Costa Rica,’ and that was a dream come true.”
At that point, Alvarez was still competing as a welterweight, so he wasn’t all that concerned with cutting pounds ahead of his fight. He made sure to enjoy all that the resort had to offer.
“You’d literally wake up, you’d get breakfast and then you’d go out and train,” Alvarez explained. “You’d get your training in, head to the pool, maybe go to the water, go to the beach and then get your next session of training in.
“I didn’t have to get down to weight then. I think I weighed like 168 [pounds] normally, so I fought at welterweight. I didn’t have to worry about weight cuts. I ate a ton cause the food was free. It was basically like a two-week fight vacation.”
Andy Foster, who went onto become the executive director of the California State Athletic Commission, was also scheduled to compete on that card, and he considers that Bodog show in Costa Rica as one of the best of his entire fighting career.
“I really enjoyed it,” he told MMA Fighting. “To be honest with you, it was one of the more memorable experiences of my life because it was so different. It was very unique.”
At the time, Bodog was sinking a seemingly endless amount of money into the promotion, which meant fighters competing on these cards wanted for nothing. Well, maybe they could have used better transportation.
“I forget all the guys in my group, but they were taking us out for different shoots, filming for different things,” Foster said. “They took us in this van and the driver, he had this one song on the tape, and it was ‘Karma Chameleon,’ and I just remember distinctly going around in this van and that song was playing while you’re going along.
“We were going up this hill one time and the van wasn’t going to make it. The fighters, we had to get out and push it up the hill. I remember that. That was fun.”
After living and training on the beach for the better part of two weeks, fight night finally arrived.
Andy Foster Photo courtesy of Andy Foster
According to Bellator heavyweight Roy Nelson, who earned a TKO victory at the event, the scenery around the ring was like nothing he’d ever seen before – or probably will see again.
“It was literally set up on the beach,” Nelson said. “Then in the background a plane is landing on an air strip that is maybe 100 yards away. It’s literally coming off the beach to land on that little air strips.
“Where the beach was, you’re probably 100 feet [from the ocean]. In the old Bodog videos, you could see the plane landing on the airstrip. It was freaking crazy.”
As soon as “Fight Island” was announced, many fans pictured fights on a beach in some sort of tropical setting. UFC President Dana White put the kabosh on that when he revealed Yas Island’s Flash Forum as the host.
It probably doesn’t help much that extreme heat in Abu Dhabi would see fighters competing in temperatures well over 100 degrees, even in the early morning hours when fights get underway.
An octagon set up by the promotion on the beach was merely a heated photo op. But the fighters in Bodog didn’t have that option.
“It would be like fighting in Vegas, 105 [degrees], and if you could jump in the water it was great,” Nelson said. “If you couldn’t jump in the water, it was hot and humid. Warming up was really good, cause you could warm up really fast. But then if you warm up too early, then you’re dehydrated.
“It plays with your head. Like am I going to get tired right now because of the heat? You just have to roll with the punches.”
High temperatures outside led to the canvas heating up to an uncomfortable level by the time Nelson was set to compete. To add to that, he said the canvas itself was an unforgiving surface, and much like Alvarez, he had no intention of testing himself on the ground despite hi a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
“I wasn’t planning on going to the mat, because the mat was actually canvas – like old school canvas,” Nelson said. “So if you want to the ground, you knew you were getting a mat burn. It was that thick canvas, no rubber coating. Think of an old school boxing canvas where it had grip for your shoes.
“I think I actually did shoot when I was messing around [in training] and I shot and scraped up my knee, and I was like ‘I’m good, I’m going to throw punches.’ It was going to hurt more rolling on the ground than getting punched in the face.”
While Alvarez and Nelson largely avoided grappling in their fights, Foster wasn’t so lucky.
“I got quite a few mat burns from that ring,” Foster said. “The guy I was fighting was more of a jiu-jitsu guy, so it was more grappling. Because of the two weeks and the acclimation process they gave us, I felt like I was in good shape to go 15 minutes of MMA.
“It was hot, but we had gotten used to it. We had been training outside the whole time.”
Outside of the fights, Alvarez, Nelson and Foster definitely all agreed on the most bizarre – yet hilarious – aspect of competing on that card. Just as the action was about to kick off, Bodog owner Calvin Ayre arrived to watch the fights. But he didn’t just walk up to the ring and plop down in a seat to enjoy the show.
“It was literally like a movie,” Alvarez explained. “When the fights started, all you would see is this giant yacht and this guy would get off it with 15 girls.
“He [sat] down surrounded by his women. The fights would get over, he would go back to his yacht with all his women and float away. I’m like, is this real life? It felt like we were in a movie.”
Nelson had almost an identical recollection of watching Ayre arrive.
“It was almost like out of ‘Enter the Dragon,’” Nelson said. “He came up on the beach, he had a little throne with a couple of girls and him in the middle to watch the fights. Right where the beach, there’s Calvin Ayre with a couple of women.”
Foster believes a helicopter actually brought Ayre to the beach to watch the fights. As it turned out, that came in handy whenever medical attention was needed. Because the fights were happening in an all-inclusive resort, there were no medical facilities nearby. So when Alvarez shattered his opponent’s jaw en route to a TKO win, the opponent was forced to fly off the beach to receive treatment.
“There was no real doctors or anything,” Alvarez said. “Anybody who sustained a serious injury had to take a helicopter back to San Jose, [Costa Rica]. It just wasn’t set up.”
Even if somebody did receive medical treatment after the fights, Alvarez wasn’t exactly confident in the care provided.
“I’m not kidding, I turned and looked at my cab driver and said, ‘Where do I know you from?’” he remembers. “He said, ‘Yeah, I worked the fight yesterday.’ So our cab driver worked as one of the paramedics at the fight.
“Someone just reached out to me and said, ‘When I was 16, I was working the cameras for that fight.’ This sh*t was like the Wild West.”
Alvarez no longer competes for the UFC, but he definitely gives his former promotion a salute for coming up with the idea for “Fight Island.” The action may not be on a beach, he said, but from a marketing standpoint, what the UFC is doing is nothing short of genius.
“UFC’s in the business of making money, so I doubt they’re going to be able to top what Bodog did, because Bodog had no budget,” Alvarez said. “The UFC will have a budget, and it will be fun to kind of compare the two. But marketing-wise, it’s an incredible idea.”
For viewers, UFC 251 on Saturday night and three additional cards planned for “Fight Island” will probably look very similar to every other shows that take place in the United States.
The UFC has gone out of its way to create a standard format when it comes to broadcasts. So it’s not likely any aspect of the island will play a part in the actual events. Even White has said he won’t be doing anything different in his usual role, which means no throne and no models.
Even if he attempted it, Alvarez said, Ayre might still have the UFC boss beat when it comes to showmanship.
“Those are some big shoes to fill,” he said with a laugh.
UFC “Fight Island” kicks off Saturday night with UFC 251 followed by UFC cards on July 15, July 18 and July 25 before the promotion returns home to the United States for the next card on Aug. 1 from the APEX facility in Las Vegas.