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Memories from Fight Island: Max Holloway's resolve, Conor McGregor's fall

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Stephen A.: McGregor should get back in Octagon as soon as he's ready (1:40)

Stephen A. Smith says Conor McGregor should be hungry for his next fight after suffering an upset loss to Dustin Poirier. (1:40)

At the UFC 257 postfight news conference in Abu Dhabi -- just moments after Dustin Poirier defeated Conor McGregor in a blockbuster event -- the man of the hour compared his two-week experience on Fight Island to being in "a prison in my own mind."

"You couldn't call this Fight Island," Poirier said. "This is Fight Hotel."

Poirier's description was probably a little different from the images most conjured up the first time we heard the term Fight Island. A "prison" of the mind is not exactly crashing waves and parties on the beach -- what I assume most of us would want the island experience to be.

The truth about Fight Island is this: It was a bubble, and a strict one. When I arrived at the W Hotel in Abu Dhabi, I was met by staff in hazmat suits and quickly shuttled to a testing area, which I visited four more times while I was there, even though I wasn't allowed to leave the hotel.

I will say, the experience was fantastic -- because everyone in the hotel was associated in one way or another with the fights. Think of it kind of as a camp or college campus, with the biggest fighters in the world in attendance.

And although there was monotony in staying within a -- I should mention, extremely nice -- hotel for 14 consecutive days, there was a palpable feeling of excitement and pride even, to be on the ground for the first week of UFC events in 2021.

At one point, you had Conor McGregor, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Dustin Poirier, Max Holloway and Michael Chandler all in the same building at the same time. That alone was exciting.

For those 14 days, Fight Island was the epicenter of the fight world. And even though a large portion of the time consisted of sitting in a hotel room or eating at the same restaurant for the eighth time, there were incredible moments to witness.

Here are the top five, from my perspective being there on the ground.

1. Max Holloway's legendary performance

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Holloway taunts Kattar en route to dominant decision win

Max Holloway puts on a clinic and pours it on Calvin Kattar through five rounds for a unanimous decision victory.

If there is only one thing I'll never forget about those two weeks, it's Holloway's fight against Calvin Kattar on Jan. 16. I said it a lot during the week -- it just felt like a different Holloway. He was still very friendly and he cracked a few jokes here and there with Daniel Cormier, but usually during fight week, Holloway has a big team around him, he likes to branch out and see sights in the region -- there's this carefree air about him, at least from what I've observed. During this prefight period, though, I felt a more serious edge to him. As one person phrased it to me on Fight Island, Holloway unleashed some demons in that performance.

I watched the fight from the commentary area at cageside. After the fourth round, a time when many felt the fight should have been stopped, I looked down and saw some of Kattar's blood on the notepad that was sitting in front of me. And there was a lot more of it splattered on the plexiglass shield that was situated between my table and the Octagon.

Holloway and Kattar's chartered flight didn't end up leaving Fight Island until the following Thursday, so they were around the hotel the next several days. I saw Kattar a few times. The first was in the hotel gym. He and his team were in the weight room, just a day or two after the fight. And I saw him again on the patio of a restaurant, eating dinner with his team. He kept sunglasses on, but all things considered, he looked remarkably well.


2. Khabib Nurmagomedov's return to Fight Island

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Umar Nurmagomedov wins debut via rear-naked choke with Khabib in his corner

Umar Nurmagomedov defeats Sergey Morozov via rear-naked choke in his UFC debut, with his cousin Khabib in his corner on Fight Island.

Khabib was there to corner his younger cousin, Umar Nurmagomedov, in his UFC debut on the Jan. 20 card. I watched that fight from the broadcast desk, which was on a lifted platform in the corner of the arena. And when Umar landed a nice body kick and started to chase his opponent, the way Khabib leapt out of his seat and was screaming at him to remain patient was very memorable.

I think I saw more enthusiasm and nerves out of Khabib while cornering his cousin than I did at any point in his own fight career. And the look of pride he had after Umar's win was pretty heartwarming. Khabib translated for Umar during our postfight interview, and I joked that Umar's striking already looked better than Khabib's did at any point in his career. I love that we still get this Khabib in the sport, post-retirement.


3. The strange case of Ottman Azaitar

When I first heard Azaitar's fight at UFC 257 had been canceled, on the day of the weigh-in, obviously my initial thought was that it had to be health-related. Either something connected to a difficult weight cut or an illness of some sort. By the end of the day, UFC president Dana White had revealed Azaitar was no longer in the UFC, and stated that Azaitar had helped an unauthorized individual sneak into the bubble. According to White, the unauthorized individual "shimmied" across four balconies to deliver a bag (contents unknown) to Azaitar's room, before getting caught by UFC security.

The talk within the bubble was the same as it was outside ... which is to say, everyone wanted to know what was in that bag. Neither Azaitar nor his manager, Ali Abdelaziz, has commented publicly on the matter, so we'll see where this ends up going. But it was definitely the talk of that day in Abu Dhabi.


4. Michael Chiesa, Neil Magny bromance

Michael Chiesa and Neil Magny's prefight stare-down on Jan. 19 broke down into a "who would giggle first" contest, with Magny coming up on the short end. These two had called each other out previously in their careers, but they were always friendly.

The morning of the fight, my producer Charlie saw Chiesa go up to Magny in the breakfast area and wish him luck, then ask him what he was doing after the fight -- as in, would he want to hang out afterward? The following day, they conducted a UFC jersey exchange in the lobby of the hotel. Anyone familiar with either of these two isn't surprised by any of this, as they've been nothing but classy their entire careers. Bbut it was still very cool to witness firsthand.


5. Highs and lows of Conor McGregor

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Conor McGregor and his son do some beach construction

Check out Conor McGregor and his son as they operate heavy construction machinery on the beach.

Early on during UFC 257 fight week, there was talk that McGregor was going to roll into the marina right next to the hotel on his personal yacht, which would have been pretty cool. Imagine Holloway on his balcony overlooking the marina, sipping an espresso, yelling down at McGregor about being the best boxer in MMA. But ultimately, McGregor docked the yacht out of view from the hotel -- and much later than anticipated. The lobby was packed with staff, security and cameras the night before he ultimately checked in, because that's when he was originally scheduled to be there.

When he did check in, it was in style, of course. Shirtless, carrying Conor Jr. into the lobby. When his media rounds began, the week was all about McGregor. As you'd expect. We'd all been robbed of what 2020 might have looked like for McGregor, had he been able to follow up on his 40-second knockout of Donald Cerrone on Jan. 18 of last year. There was definitely an optimistic vibe to McGregor's week and his upcoming year, and I don't mind sharing that the overwhelming majority of people I spoke to before the fight believed McGregor would win.

And contrasting that moment of his arrival with the moment I saw him come out of his locker room after the loss to Poirier, using a crutch as he headed to the news conference, it's extremely memorable for me. Because obviously, in time, we'll know where McGregor goes from here, what his next fight becomes and how he fares in it. But in that moment, watching him hobble away from the first knockout loss of his career, there was a huge question of whether or not we were seeing the beginning of the end for McGregor's career as an elite fighter. It's just amazing what can happen to the outlook of a fighter's career in the span of one week in this sport.