PFL emerges as a potential MMA challenger to UFC

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From the beginning, Professional Fighters League founder Donn Davis felt his upstart mixed martial arts league could compete with the Ultimate Fighting Championship, despite the latter’s 24-year head start and a brand so entrenched that fans sometimes mistakenly call any MMA entity “UFC.”

Davis has a long-term plan to shape the PFL into a legitimate competitor, but in the meantime, in the lead-up to its championship event this week in New York City, he is enjoying PFL’s recent growth. Fueled this year by an ESPN broadcast extension and a spate of new fighter signings, the league is thought to have distinguished itself among a crowded field of mixed martial arts challengers. While it remains in the UFC’s shadow, the league’s recent moves have elevated it into a promising hopeful in the sport.

“PFL is not perfect, but all things considered, they’re going in such a fast, positive direction, that if you call them the No. 2 [promotion] at the moment, it wouldn’t necessarily be incorrect,” said Brian Campbell, a combat sports analyst for CBS Sports and Showtime.

Originally created as the World Series of Fighting in 2012, the promotion was relaunched with the backing of DC area sports and business executives as the PFL in 2017 and debuted the following year. Its inaugural roster featured several contractual holdovers including Kayla Harrison, a two-time gold medal-winning Olympic judoka who has evolved into its biggest star.

By 2021, the PFL had gained traction through a broadcast deal with ESPN and the signing of older stars who made their names in the UFC and the California-based Bellator, most notably former UFC champion Anthony Pettis. It 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 make strides. It renewed the ESPN deal in January, helping the league’s 31 percent increase in linear television viewership this season over last. The PFL said its total viewership per event in 2022 is 344,000. Last month it announced plans to expand into Europe next year, and it intends to plant roots in India or Latin America as part of a broader effort to create the “Champions League” of MMA, as Davis puts it, referencing European soccer’s esteemed international tournament .

That, plus the recent addition of more recognizable fighters, has propelled the PFL to a point where Davis believes it can coexist alongside the UFC as an industry leader within the next several years.

“They have a very professional presentation and they are starting to build those under-the-radar names that you might not have heard of,” Campbell said of the PFL. “They’re in a very good spot right now, and I think they’ve started to make shrewd signings to try to continue to build upon that. For where PFL is at compared to 2019, it feels like night and day.”

Those recent signings include former UFC title challenger Thiago Santos (22-11 in MMA, age 38), Marlon Moraes (23-10-1, age 34), and Aspen Ladd (9-3, age 27), a skilled fighter who was cut by the UFC in September after she missed three weight cuts over a five-year period. The PFL also signed Biaggio Ali Walsh, Muhammad Ali’s grandson and a former UNLV running back looking to transition to MMA.

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

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

“When I first started in UFC, I thought I was making good money. I had a little one bedroom apartment. I basically had no bills. I had low car payments,” said Burgos, whose PFL contract also includes a commentary role. “Now I have real bills, kids to take care of and a wife. I put my life on the line, my health on the line, every single time I fight, and with two kids now, I mean, it’s got to be worth it.

“My last couple [UFC] fights combined — with win bonuses — would equal around what I’m making for one [PFL] fight.”

Concerns over UFC fighter compensation aren’t new, and the departure of some of the promotion’s aged stars who have found more lucrative fighting opportunities elsewhere has opened the door for renewed criticism. Despite those 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 said dozens of UFC fighters contacted them with questions about compensation after their PFL deals were announced.

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

PFL fighters compete across six divisions in a regular season schedule that runs from April through November this season, with winners advancing to a win-or-go-home playoff tournament that concludes Friday. Each tournament winner is crowned PFL champion for that weight class and given $1 million. The seasonal format is a departure from the arbitrary matchmaking that determines fight cards and title opportunities across combat sports. It also offers athletes a more predictable schedule to plan their lives around; albeit at the expense of shorter rest periods between fights and greater stakes for injuries with a relatively tight schedule.

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

Pettis won the UFC lightweight title in 2013, and the following year he was voted onto it cover of the Wheaties cereal box. Despite being less consistent results in subsequent years, Pettis ended his UFC career on a two-fight winning streak and held victories over some of the promotion’s best. Four months later, he suffered an upset loss in his PFL debut and eventually missed the playoffs.

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

Pettis appeared poised for redemption after he won his 2022 season opener by first round submission in May, but he lost his next two fights, including an August playoff defeat.

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

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

If the PFL continues to cultivate its young talent and finds a way to entice UFC fighters in their primes, Campbell envisions a distant future where the PFL might challenge for the UFC’s top spot. In the meantime, the fledgling league has at least earned his attention.

“I was somebody who almost didn’t even want to see the PFL three years ago,” Campbell said. “I watched the results, I watched the highlights, but I’m like, ‘Do we need more second or third-rate MMA?’ But they’ve completely turned it around on me. From the investors, to the product on the screen, to the rule-set, to the innovation, to the TV deal, they have a fantastic foundation to make a run at it.”

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