The PFL emerges as a potential challenger to MMA in the UFC



From the start, Professional Fighters League founder Donn Davis felt his mixed martial arts league could rival the Ultimate Fighting Championship, despite the latter’s 24-year lead and a brand so entrenched that fans sometimes incorrectly refer to any MMA entity as “UFC”.

Davis has a long-term plan to make the PFL a legitimate contender, but in the meantime, looking ahead to his championship this week in New York, he’s taking advantage of the PFL’s recent growth. Fueled this year by an ESPN broadcast extension and a string of new fighter signings, the league is believed to have stood out among a crowded field of mixed martial arts challengers. Although he remains in the shadows of the UFC, recent league moves have elevated him to a promising prospect in the sport.

“The PFL aren’t perfect, but all things considered, they’re going in such a fast and positive direction that if you call them the No. [promotion] right now, that wouldn’t necessarily be incorrect,” said Brian Campbell, combat sports analyst for CBS Sports and Showtime.

Originally created as the World Series of Fighting in 2012, the promotion was relaunched with the support of DC area sports and business leaders as the PFL in 2017 and debuted the following year. Its inaugural roster featured several contract retainers, including Kayla Harrison, a two-time gold medalist Olympic judoka who became its biggest star.

By 2021, the PFL had gained traction thanks to a broadcast deal with ESPN and the signing of older stars who have made a name for themselves in the UFC and California-based Bellator, including the former UFC champion Anthony Pettis. He also signed Claressa Shields, helping facilitate the decorated boxing champion’s bid to become a two-sport star.

Over the past year, the PFL has continued to progress. He renewed the ESPN deal in January, contributing to the league’s 31% increase in linear viewership this season compared to last. The PFL said its total audience per event in 2022 was 344,000. Last month, it announced plans to expand into Europe next year, and it intends to expand to India or in Latin America as part of a larger effort to create the “Champions League” of MMA, as Davis puts it, referring to the prestigious international European soccer tournament. .

That, coupled with the recent addition of more recognizable fighters, has propelled the PFL to a point where Davis believes it can co-exist alongside the UFC as an industry leader for the next few years.

“They have a very professional presentation and they’re starting to build these under-the-radar names that you might not have heard of,” Campbell said of the PFL. “They’re in a really good position at the moment, and I think they’ve started making some shrewd signings to try and continue to build on that. Because where PFL are compared to 2019, it’s like the day and the night.

These recent signings include former UFC title challenger Thiago Santos (22-11 in MMA, 38), Marlon Moraes (23-10-1, 34) and Aspen Ladd (9-3, 27 years), a skilled fighter who was cut by the UFC in September after missing three weight cuts over a five-year span. The PFL also signed Biaggio Ali Walsh, the grandson of Muhammad Ali and a former running back for UNLV looking to move into MMA.

Shane Burgos (15-3) is considered the PFL’s most impressive addition, less because he’s the only one to leave the UFC on a winning streak, and more because the 31-year-old Bronx native years, is a popular fighter in his prime.

Burgos fought his way through lesser promotions to earn his way to the UFC in 2016, where he became one of its most exciting featherweight fighters despite not winning a title. The UFC has given Burgos the biggest platform in the sport, and his aggressive style has brought wins, fans and fight bonuses to what is arguably his deepest division. Burgos said he enjoyed his time with the company, but new responsibilities shifted his priorities.

“When I started in the UFC I thought I was making a lot of money. I had a little one bedroom apartment. I had hardly any bills. I had low car payments” “, said Burgos, whose PFL contract also includes a commentary role. “Now I have real bills, dependent children and a wife. I put my life on the line, my health on the line, every time I fight, and with two kids now, I mean, it has to be worth it.

“My last couple [UFC] combined fights — with earn bonuses – would be approximately equal to what I earn for one [PFL] struggle.”

Concerns over UFC fighter pay are not new, and the departure of some of the promotion’s older stars who have found more lucrative fighting opportunities elsewhere has opened the door to further criticism. Despite these concerns, UFC fighters such as Sean O’Malley and Israel Adesanya, the promotion’s budding and established stars, seem unlikely defectors – although Pettis and Burgos have said dozens of fighters from the UFC had contacted them to ask about compensation after their PFL deals were announced.

“Everyone was wondering how much I was paid, but that wasn’t the first question,” said Burgos, who did not reveal full contract details. “They were like, ‘Why did the UFC let you go?’ It wasn’t necessarily that they let me go, it was that they couldn’t match the deal I was getting from the PFL.

PFL fighters face off in six divisions on a regular-season schedule that runs from April through November this season, with winners qualifying for a win-or-go playoff tournament that ends Friday. Each tournament winner is crowned the PFL champion for that weight class and awarded $1 million. The seasonal format deviates from the arbitrary matchmaking that determines fight cards and title opportunities in combat sports. It also gives athletes a more predictable schedule to plan their lives; but at the cost of shorter rest periods between fights and higher injury stakes with a relatively tight schedule.

Those adjustments also extend to the cage, which Pettis learned the hard way on his 2021 PFL debut.

Pettis won the UFC lightweight title in 2013, and the following year he was elected to the Wheaties cereal box cover. Despite less consistent results in the following years, Pettis ended his UFC career on a two-fight winning streak and picked up victories over some of the promotion’s best. Four months later, he suffered an upset defeat on his PFL debut and ultimately missed the playoffs.

“I got banged, man, so I couldn’t even train for the next fight,” Pettis said of the first loss. “The second season, I was more technical. Jiu jitsu is the way to go in those early fights so you don’t mess up your body.

Pettis looked ready for redemption after winning his first match of the 2022 season by first-round submission in May, but he lost his next two fights, including a playoff loss in August.

Where some might see these struggles as an indictment of Pettis or UFC roster talent, Campbell views it as a sign of quality within the ever-growing PFL roster.

“ONE Championship did the same by signing Demetrious Johnson and Eddie Alvarez,” Campbell said, referring to the Singaporean MMA promotion which signed two former UFC champions. “You bring in older, established names, but the reality is that you bring them in so people can see the young talent you’re building behind them.”

If the PFL continues to cultivate its young talent and finds a way to entice UFC fighters into their primes, Campbell sees a distant future where the PFL could battle for the top spot in the UFC. In the meantime, the fledgling league has at least caught his eye.

“I was someone who almost didn’t even want to see the PFL three years ago,” Campbell said. “I looked at the results, I looked at the highlights, but I was like, ‘Do we need more second-tier or third-tier MMA?’ But they completely blew me away.From investors, to product on screen, to rule set, to innovation, to TV deal, they have a fantastic base to get into.

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