The Professional Fighters League: A breath of fresh air in MMA

Imagine this; Major League Baseball decides to pull the Houston Astros from the ALCS against the Boston Red Sox. Instead, they put the New York Yankees in only because they generate more money for the league, they get higher ratings for their broadcast partners and bring in more ad revenue.

Well, that’s sorta how most MMA promotions are now. Title matches and main events are usually dictated by whether a fighter is popular or not. Immediate rematches are booked over-and-over to artificially build up rivalries. Fighters worthy of title opportunities are passed over for fighters who have more monetary value. While many will say this is just business, it certainly isn’t what sports are about.

The Professional Fighters League (originally the World Series of Fighting) on the other hand are doing things differently; by going with a traditional sporting league format.

An old concept with a new twist.

Sean O’Connell at the PFL 9 post-fight media scrum.

“This playoff thing is for real, people. This is legit. Win and advance.” PFL commentator and Light Heavyweight playoff finalist Sean O’Connell.

On June 7, 2018, the PFL presented the first event of their inaugural season. Just like with teams in sports leagues such as the NBA, NFL, NHL, and MLB, fighters in the PFL competed throughout the regular season looking to make the playoffs in their weight classes. Standings were based on points. Throughout the season, fighters earned points for wins. Extra points were also awarded to fighters who finished their opponents. The faster a fighter finished his opponent, the more points they were awarded.

The top eight fighters in each weight class with the most points at the end of the regular season then qualified for the playoffs, which are currently underway. Throughout October, fighters have competed in quarterfinal and semifinal fights in hopes of making it to the finals on December 31st in New York City. The winners of the playoffs will be crowned the 2018 PFL Champion in their weight class. They will also walk away with a $1 Million payday.

Once the 2019 season begins, fighters will again go through a regular season and playoffs to crown a champion for the 2019 season. “Just like any sport…at the end of that season, there is a world champion,” said PFL League President Carlos Silva at the PFL 9 post-fight media scrum.

League President Carlos Silva and President of Fighting Operations Ray Sefo at the PFL 9 post-fight media scrum.

“They will always be the 2018 PFL World Champion in their weight class. Then they’ll come back in 2019, and they will try to become the champion again. By winning. But they’ve got to through a regular season, a playoffs, and a championship the same way any sports team or any individual needs to,” Silva stated.

“And I think that’s going to be very exciting to see who can defend and maybe become a two-time, two in a row or three in a row champion. It’ll be the most difficult thing probably in sport to do that. But that’s the beauty of our sport format. It’s a true sports format.”

PFL 9 in Long Beach

Four out of the six playoff final bouts have been set. The last two finals bouts are to be decided this upcoming Saturday in Washington D.C. This past Saturday, the PFL presented Lightweight and Light Heavyweight quarter and semifinal rounds at the Long Beach Arena. The event began with eight fighters in each division. By the end of the night, two fighters from each division remained.

In the Lightweight division, teammates and training partners Rashid Magomedov and Natan Schulte made their way to the finals. Now the two will face each other on New Year’s Eve. For Schulte, his victory in the semifinals over Chris Wade wasn’t without controversy, as many fans in attendance felt that Wade was the rightful winner of their encounter.

PFL Playoff Finalist Natan Schulte at the PFL 9 media scrum.

After the Schulte/Wade bout, I rushed to the bathroom. Once I was finished, I tried to make it back to hear the announcement of the judges’ decision. As I was making my way back to my seat, a loud chorus of boos broke out while I was in the concourse. An aggravated woman walked out from inside the arena loudly proclaiming “that was fucking bullshit!” I asked her what had happened. She replied, “the fucking judges gave it to the fucking wrestler guy!”

Statistically, Wade landed more strikes, while Schulte had scored more takedowns. In the end, it was the judges who scored the fighter in favor of Natan Schulte.

For Chris Wade, this was more than just a controversial loss. This was a chance for him to change the lives of his family for the better. After the fight, Wade voiced his displeasure over the decision of the judges in his post-fight interview that night. He later did so again on Twitter. The passion and emotion from Chris Wade truly showed how important winning this tournament is/was.

“In the reality of Mixed Martial Arts is most of us, even at the top level, you make it to the big show and you still don’t get that life-changing money. A million dollars is life-changing money.” Sean O’Connell.

On the Light Heavyweight side, Vinny Magalhães and Sean O’Connell qualified for the finals in two standout bouts. For PFL commentator and competitor Sean O’Connell, his road to the finals saw him get a hard-fought decision victory over Dan Spohn in the quarterfinals. Later that the night in the semifinals, O’Connell faced Smealinho Rama in a show-stealing bout that saw O’Connell score a first-round T.K.O. over Rama.

For Vinny Magalhães, his road to the finals saw him continue his streak of first-round finishes in the PFL. During the regular season, the multi-time jiu-jitsu world champion finished both his fights in the first round, giving him the most points and the top seed in the Light Heavyweight rankings. On Saturday night during the playoffs, Magalhães made his way to the finals by scoring two highlight-reel Kimura submission finishes over Rakim Cleveland in the quarterfinals, and Bozigit Ataev in the semifinals.

The Live Experience

One thing I noticed about the PFL was how fan-friendly it was. The atmosphere was also different from other MMA events I’ve been to.

As fans made their way into the Long Beach Arena, two big cardboard displays were set up featuring the playoff brackets of the fights taking place that night. Fans were also given pamphlets with playoff brackets on them along with customized pens with the PFL logo for fans to keep track of the action.

The brackets for the playoff bouts at PFL 9 on display in the lobby of the Long Beach Convention Center/Arena.

Ticket prices for the event were also more affordable than most MMA events. For amateur events, most ticket prices can start at $30-$40. Prices for most professional events start at about the same or a little more. The PFL, on the other hand, had tickets available starting at $10, which was a lot more affordable than most MMA, Boxing, and Pro Wrestling events.

One noticeable difference between the PFL and other MMA promotions was that it felt like the promotion could appeal to a younger demographic. With MMA’s audience beginning to age, it’s extremely important the sport does more to reach younger audiences in order for it to survive. At PFL 9, I noticed how the music played between fights was more modern, whereas the music at other events tend to feature a lot more nu-metal and 90’’s hip-hop.

Needless to say, it was refreshing to hear music from this decade at an event instead of outdated songs. While it isn’t a major factor, I feel like little things like that can go a long way in helping the PFL set itself apart from the UFC and Bellator.

A step in the right direction for MMA

For years, the MMA industry has tried whatever it could do to legitimize itself as a sport in the eyes of the public. From rule changes, to regulations, to drug testing, and even to uniforms. There was also the International Fight League, a defunct promotion that lasted from 2006-2008 that was billed as the world’s first MMA league that featured various teams that had fighters face fighters from other teams. Promotions have been doing all that they could to earn credibility in the eyes of the mainstream.

Despite all the attempts at making progress, things such as the recent incidents involving UFC fighters Conor McGregor and Khabib Nurmagomedov, as well as the UFC’s use of pro wrestler Phil “CM Punk” Brooks in actual fights have put a damper on those efforts.

The Professional Fighters League though is looking to legitimize MMA as a sport by instilling a traditional league format. In a time where a fighter in the UFC could lose a title fight but be given an immediate rematch, the PFL presents a true alternative for MMA fans who want to see organizations that put value into competition instead of entertainment.

“It’s about merit, not popularity,” said Sean O’Connell at the PFL 9 post-fight scrum. “It’s the only organization doing it that way right now.”

The inaugural PFL season has been an exciting one so far with plenty of fun fights. It has also shown us that a traditional sports format in MMA with regular seasons and playoffs can work well. Whether the PFL becomes successful or not as a business remains to be seen. Even if it doesn’t become a massive success business-wise, its format is one that I hope ends up becoming one that is adopted by other major organizations in the future.

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