The PFL announced the long-rumored acquisition of Bellator MMA on Monday, with PFL chairman Donn Davis writing on social media platform X that the purchase creates a “new MMA global powerhouse.”
What does this deal mean for Bellator, which since its founding in 2008 has grown to become the second largest MMA promotion, behind the UFC? The PFL challenged that No. 1 position. 2 in recent years, and with this huge transaction there is a clear alternative to the top-dog UFC.
Davis’ announcement stated that Bellator would not cease to exist, but would instead be relaunched in a “reimagined” form: a Bellator International Champions Series. What does it look like? How can promotions work together under a common ownership? Will Bellator fighters compete in the PFL and vice versa?
Brett Okamoto and Marc Raimondi answer the questions raised by the Bellator purchase, outline the facts they know and also speculate on what could or should happen in the future of Bellator and the PFL.
What will Bellator look like?
Okamoto: Bellator can be a bit of a shell, if we’re being honest. PFL will poach the best parts, as it obviously should. Any athlete with intrigue or promotional value is likely to move into the PFL cage. It’s basically the same thing that happened when the UFC bought Strikeforce over a decade ago.
It looks like the PFL will lean toward an international roster, with the formation of a Bellator International Champions Series. It’s a place for the PFL to satisfy various contracts and keep international talent busy, and if someone pops the fans, great. The series can still be used as a promotional tool in the bigger picture. But really, it’s a hybrid international/development league. The best and most recognizable fighters in Bellator don’t fight here. And the PFL announcement doesn’t even specify where Bellator fights will be televised, with Showtime no longer in combat sports.
What are the most compelling fights to be had today?
Okamoto: Cris Cyborg vs. Kayla Harrison is the most attractive. There is a narrative to push. Since Harrison switched to MMA after winning two Olympic gold medals in judo, this is a potential matchup. Yes, Harrison lost to Larissa Pacheco in the 2022 PFL lightweight finals, and if Pacheco wins the 2023 featherweight final this Friday, she will be eligible to fight Cyborg, the Bellator featherweight champ, when the PFL puts on the champ-vs. -champ event that Davis promised for 2024. But Cyborg vs. Kayla is the bigger fight, and I would expect the PFL to run with that.
Davis had as much to say when the PFL chairman spoke to ESPN on Monday. He said that Cyborg vs. Harrison “100% will happen.” Nothing is 100% in MMA, but this is the most marketable fight the PFL can do in this merger and the company is doing everything it can to make it happen.
On top of that, some of the most interesting bouts include Bellator heavyweight champ Ryan Bader vs. PFL newcomer Francis Ngannou, Bellator lightweight champ Usman Nurmagomedov vs. the winner of Friday’s PFL final between Olivier Aubin- Mercier and Clay Collard, and Bellator light heavyweight champ Vadim Nemkov against 2022 PFL champ Rob Wilkinson. And moving away from the champions for a moment, Bellator names like AJ McKee and Aaron Pico will be interesting to watch against the PFL featherweights and lightweights.
How will the PFL and Bellator consolidation affect the balance of power in MMA?
Raymond: This acquisition gives the PFL a broad, deep roster of highly talented fighters across weight classes. There are endless excellent fights to be had on the brand right now, which include the likes of Cyborg, McKee, Patricio “Pitbull” Freire, Johnny Eblen, Vadim Nemkov and more. The quality of talent currently available in the PFL is the greatest pool of fighters a non-UFC promotion has ever had — perhaps ever. At least since Pride’s heyday. It has more depth than Strikeforce.
There is also the Saudi Arabian element. When news broke in August that deep-pocketed Saudi Arabia had acquired a minority stake in the PFL, stock prices for Endeavor and WWE both plummeted. (This was before the official merger of the UFC and WWE into TKO.) That is demonstrative of how the Saudi Arabian market perceives the influence of a UFC competitor. So, fans may not see the combination of PFL and Bellator make it to the UFC, but Saudi Arabia involving this level of talent will certainly attract the attention of the market.
What challenge does the PFL face with this influx of talent?
Raymond: The biggest question now is whether the PFL can identify who the biggest potential stars are on this roster and build them into legitimate box-office brands. Despite the many talented athletes available, the PFL still doesn’t have a major pay-per-view draw or one that sells a ton of tickets. Bellator’s ratings aren’t exactly tearing down Showtime’s house, and the PFL isn’t the hottest live ticket in town either. Ngannou needs to move the needle, but he could be done with boxing for the foreseeable future. And then there’s Jake Paul. If he fights MMA in the PFL, it will attract a lot of eyes.
All of this means that it remains to be seen if this new, new PFL will actually make a run at the UFC. Perhaps in the future, the PFL will be in a position to sign top free agents who will leave the UFC. But those opportunities are rare.
“I think their cap table and their investors are just so smart to f—up,” a high-profile MMA agent told ESPN recently, under the condition of anonymity. “I don’t think they’ll be No. 1, but I think they’ll be competitive.”
How has the PFL season format been affected?
Okamoto: As of now, and it will always change in spring 2024 when the season launches, the plan for the regular season still consists of six weight classes. The weight classes may change from what they are in 2023, but there are no plans in place right now to expand to more weight classes. The biggest impact is the depth of classes. The PFL has done a good job in recent years of signing free agents to make their weight classes different each season, but at the same time, some of the fights have been spoiled. We’re starting to see some similarities every year. With the injection into Bellator’s roster, these weight classes will be even better.
Will it attract high-profile free agents to the PFL?
Okamoto: Money attracts free agents. Athletes go where they can make the most money, and the PFL has a proven track record that in some situations, it’s willing to be the highest bidder. Overall, the PFL has become an attractive promotion simply because it is gaining more recognition. It becomes more and more believable with each passing year. Adding this level of talent to Bellator, and so much of it at once, only continues that trend. The PFL is not on the same playing field as the UFC, no question about that, but it is a realistic, viable platform for the world’s top talent. And also, most importantly, it shows that it is willing to pay for the top talent in the world.
Does this deal have implications for the class-action antitrust lawsuit against the UFC?
Raymond: Potentially. The message that the PFL already put out there, that “our fighter roster [is] equivalent to the UFC,” UFC lawyers will almost certainly use in the case to show that the promotion is not a monopsony and does not have a stranglehold on the MMA market. UFC lawyers are asking for more discovery, especially information from other MMA promotions indicating that they have market independence, before the potential start date of April 2024 for the trial.
The court seems reluctant to extend the start date, but a development like this could change things. In any event, the UFC may look to immediately use the news of the PFL acquiring Bellator as part of its case. Don’t be surprised if UFC lawyers also mention that the Saudis have a minority stake in the PFL and now in Bellator, too. That is absolutely useful information for defendants in antitrust cases. Now, none of this will convince a court of law that the UFC is not a monopsony, but it could be a boon for the UFC’s case.