The PFL is emerging as a potential MMA competitor to the UFC


From the start, PFL founder Don Davis felt his upstart mixed martial arts league could rival the Ultimate Fighting Championship, despite the latter’s 24-year start and brand so well-established that fans sometimes mistakenly call any MMA entity the “UFC”.

Davis has a long-term plan to shape the PFL into a legitimate contender, but in the meantime, in the run-up to this week’s championship event in New York City, he’s basking in the PFL’s recent growth. Fueled this year by an ESPN broadcast extension and a series of new fighter signings, the league is believed to have distinguished itself among a crowded field of mixed martial arts competitors. While he’s still in the shadow of the UFC, recent moves in the league have elevated him to a promising level in the sport.

“PFL is not perfect, but all things considered, it is moving in a fast and positive direction, if you call it #2 [promotion] “Right now, it 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 support from D.C. area sports and business executives as the PFL in 2017 and debuted the following year. The inaugural roster featured several contract awardees including Kayla Harrison, a two-time gold medalist Olympic judoka who would develop into her biggest star.

By 2021, the PFL has gained traction with a broadcast deal with ESPN and the signing of older stars who made their names in the California-based UFC and Bellator, most notably former UFC champion Anthony Pettis. Clarissa Shields also signed on, helping facilitate the bid for the decorated boxing champion to become a sports star.

Over the past year, the Popular League for the Liberation of Angola has continued to make strides. ESPN renewed the deal in January, helping to increase linear TV viewership by 31 percent this season compared to last season. The PFL said the total viewership for each event in 2022 is 344,000. Last month it announced plans to expand into Europe next year, and plans to plant roots in India or Latin America as part of a broader effort to create an MMA “Champions League,” as Davis put it, in A reference to the venerable international European football tournament. .

This, along with the recent addition of more well-known fighters, has pushed the PFL to a point where Davis believes it can coexist alongside the UFC as the industry leader for the next several years.

“They have a very professional presentation and they’re starting to build out those names that you’ve never heard of, that you might not have heard of,” Campbell said of the PFL. “They are in a very good position now, and I think they are starting to make shrewd deals to try and continue to build on that. As you compare the PFL to 2019, it feels like night and day.”

Among those recent signings are former UFC title challenger Thiago Santos (22-11 in mixed martial arts, 38 years old), Marlon Moraes (23-10-1, 34 years old), and Aspen Ladd (9-3, 27 years old), a fighter Maher was cut by the UFC in September after missing three weight cuts over five years. The PFL also signed Biaggio Ali Walsh, the grandson of Muhammad Ali and former UNLV player who was looking to move into MMA.

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

Burgos worked his way through lower promotions to earn his 2016 entry into the UFC, where he became one of the hottest featherweight fighters despite not winning a title. The UFC gave Burgos the sport’s greatest platform, and its aggressive style brought wins, fans, and fight rewards in its deepest division. Burgos said he enjoyed his time with the company, but the new responsibilities changed his priorities.

“When I first started in the UFC, I thought I was making good money. I had a little one-bedroom apartment. And children to take care of 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.

Another couple [UFC] Combined battles – with Earn Rewards – It’ll equal about what I do for one [PFL] fight.”

Concerns about UFC fighters’ compensation are nothing new, and the departure of some of the promotion’s aging stars who have found more lucrative fighting opportunities elsewhere has opened the door to renewed criticism. Despite those concerns, UFC fighters like Sean O’Malley and Israel Adesanya, both emerging and established stars of the promotion, seem unlikely defectors — although Pettis and Burgos said dozens of UFC fighters have reached out to them with questions about compensation after Announcing PFL Deals.

“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 was that they couldn’t match the deal I was getting from the PFL.”

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

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

Pettis won the UFC lightweight title in 2013, and the following year he was voted out Wheatgrass box cover. Although less consistent Results In subsequent years, Pettis ended his UFC career on a winning streak and racked up victories over some of the top promotions. Four months later, he suffered an upset loss on his PFL debut and ultimately missed the playoffs.

“I was so beat up, man, so I couldn’t even work out for the next fight,” Pettis said of the loss for the first time. “Second season, I was more artistic. Jiu-jitsu is the perfect way to fight those first fights so you don’t screw up your body.”

Betis looked poised for redemption after winning the opening game of the 2022 season with a first-round submission in May, but lost their next two battles, including a play-off defeat in August.

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

“The ONE Championship did the same thing by signing Demetrius Johnson and Eddie Alvarez,” said Campbell, referring to the Singaporean mixed martial arts promotion that signed two former UFC champions. “You bring in the oldest, established names, but the truth is, you bring them in so people can see the young talent you’re building behind them.”

If the PFL continues to grow its young talent and finds a way to entice UFC fighters in their prime, Campbell envisions a distant future where the PFL may challenge for the top spot in the UFC. Meanwhile, the fledgling league has at least caught his eye.

“I was almost someone who didn’t even want to see the NFL three years ago,” Campbell said. “I’ve seen the results, I’ve seen the highlights, but I’m like, ‘Do we need more second- or third-degree mixed martial arts?'” But they totally turned it on me. From the investors, to the onscreen product, to the rule set, to the innovation, to the TV deal, they have a great foundation to run it on.”

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