Some fans just can’t get enough MMA in their lives. And while the UFC and its busy schedule dominate Saturdays, the end-of-the-workweek options are about to get more diverse with the return of the Professional Fighters League this Friday.
PFL, which postponed its third season a year due to the coronavirus pandemic, differs from most MMA organizations in that it doesn’t consider itself a fight promotion but, rather, a sports league. This year’s slate will consist of a regular season, followed by playoffs and a championship season finale in which each weight class’ champion earns a $1 million prize.
But that only scratches the surface for how PFL will operate this year. Here’s what you should know.
Six regular-season events, beginning Friday, all will be held within a bubble at Ocean Casino Resort in Atlantic City. Like this week’s season opener, each event (April 29, May 6, June, 10, June 17, June 25) will air on ESPN2.
The playoffs will take place over three events later this year. In each of PFL’s first two season, in 2018 and 2019, those events occurred in October, although nothing has been announced yet regarding dates or locations. And, in a change for this season, the league is doing away with two fights in one night to pare down an eight-combatant field in each weight class. Instead, only four of 10 fighters will advance to the semifinals, with each winner during the playoffs moving on to the finals.
Like the single-elimination playoffs, no details are known about the season-capping championship event. The Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden hosted each championship event thus far on New Year’s Eve, and it makes sense that this could be PFL’s goal again as long as it’s feasible.
Six divisions will compete this season: men’s heavyweight, light heavyweight, welterweight, lightweight and featherweight; and women’s lightweight. Each features one or more recognizable names those who’ve never tuned into PFL would recognize.
Former UFC heavyweight champion Fabricio Werdum is joined by UFC veteran Justin Willis. Season two winner Ali Isayev returns to seek his second consecutive million-dollar prize. Mohammed Usman, brother of UFC welterweight champ Kamaru Usman, is among several prospects that join veterans from across the globe. They’ll all be in action on May 6 and June 25.
Half of the 205-pound roster has competed previously in the octagon: Chris Camozzi, Antonio Carlos Junior, Cezar Ferreira, Tom Lawlor, Vinny Magalhaes and Dan Spohn. All begin the chase of 2019 champ Emiliano Sordi, who returns this season for events on April 29 and June 17.
While Ray Cooper III will be hunting for his second straight PFL championship at 170 pounds, his name is overshadowed by that of Rory MacDonald, the former UFC title challenger and ex-Bellator champion who debuts for the promotion this year. Others with UFC experience include Alexey Kunchenko, Curtis Millender, Gleison Tibau and Joao Zeferino. They’ll compete on April 29 and June 17.
At men’s lightweight, which will be featured on Friday’s season opener as well as June 10, the man to beat remains two-time champ Natan Schulte. But he’s not the star of the show; that would be ex-UFC champion Anthony Pettis, who jumped to PFL just days after winning the final fight of his UFC contract. They’re joined by UFC vets Clay Collard and Marcin Held, who will face Pettis and Schulte, respectively, this week.
Lance Palmer remains unbeaten in PFL competition and has won each 145-pound tournament. His is the marquee featherweight fight on Friday against Bellator veteran Bubba Jenkins. Sheymon Moraes, Chris Wade and Tyler Diamond each have at least one UFC appearance, while Brendan Loughnane was a noteworthy winner on Dana White’s Contender Series who was not offered a contract. All are slated to return to action one June 10, as well.
In the lone women’s division, at 155 pounds, two-time Olympic gold medalist in judo Kayla Harrison defends her 2019 championship and looks to stay unbeaten on both May 6 and June 25 as the global face of her weight class. While season-two runner-up Larissa Pacheco and Cindy Dandois have octagon experience and Kaitlin Young was, along with Gina Carano, part of the first women’s fight to air live on network TV (EliteXC on CBS, May 31, 2008), the most recognizable name under PFL contract won’t be participating this season. Claressa Shields, the two-time Olympic gold medalist and world pound-for-pound top boxer, will make her MMA debut for PFL on June 10 in a non-season bout with the aim of eventually being ready to compete in the next PFL season.
Reaching the playoffs
As was noted earlier, the top four fighters in the standings for each weight class qualify for the semifinals. But earning those playoff berths has to be more complicated than simple wins and losses when the fighters will only compete two times, at most, in the regular season.
Standings points are earned for both wins and finishes. A victory alone is three points, and that also applies to walkover wins in which an opponent could not compete. Finishes will earn bonus points: three points for a first-round stoppage; two for the second round; and one for the third. Thus, the best a fighter can do in a single fight is earn six points for a first-round finish.
The loser leaves with no points. If a fight is ruled a draw or a no contest, each fighter will be awarded just one point.
This year, PFL will penalize fighters in the standings when they come in over the contracted limit. If a he or she misses weight, the fighter will be docked a point in the standings and cannot earn points on fight night, regardless of the result.
Punitive measures for fighters who miss weight do not end there. If such a fighter does not compete, they will also be denied financial compensation. If the fighter does compete, 20 percent of his or her fight purse would be conveyed to the opponent. At PFL’s discretion, the fighter can also be replaced in the regular season. Seeding would determine alternates for fighters who miss weight or are injured during the playoffs or championship event.
Additionally, failed drug tests can alter the standings. Barring a successful appeal, a fighter can be disqualified from the season for the offense at PFL’s discretion. If a fighter were to lose to a fighter determined to be doping, he or she would instead receive a walkover win for standings purposes, worth three points, but would not receive win money.
What else to know
- Unique to PFL, elbows from any position are not allowed. Landing such strikes would, in essence, be treated as any foul would be in MMA. Take that for what it’s worth, given how infrequently point deductions are enforced throughout the sport; it’s all at the discretion of the referee.
- The cage is decagon-shaped and 28-feet wide from panel to opposite panel. That sits between the popular UFC Apex octagon’s 25-foot diameter and the traditional full-size, 30-foot-diameter one used for most UFC events before the pandemic.
- Other than five-round championship fights in the season finale, all bouts are scheduled for three 5-minute rounds.
- With only two fights, ties in the standings appear inevitable. PFL’s official rules and regulations detail how the myriad tiebreakers are applied.
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