What PFL purchase of Bellator means for MMA, its fighters and fans
The PFL announced the long-rumored acquisition of Bellator MMA on Monday, with PFL chairman Donn Davis writing on the social media platform X that the purchase creates a “new MMA global powerhouse.”
What does this deal mean for Bellator, which since being founded in 2008 has grown to be the second-biggest MMA promotion, behind the UFC? The PFL has challenged that No. 2 position in recent years, and with this massive transaction there now is a clear alternative to the top-dog UFC.
Davis’ announcement noted that Bellator will not cease to exist, but instead will be relaunched in a “reimagined” form: a Bellator International Champions Series. What will that look like? How will the promotions operate side by side under a common ownership? Will Bellator fighters compete in the PFL and vice versa?
Brett Okamoto and Marc Raimondi address the questions raised by the purchase of Bellator, laying out the facts they know and also speculating what might or should happen with the future of Bellator and the PFL.
What will Bellator look like now?
Okamoto: Bellator will be a bit of a shell, if we’re just being honest. The PFL is going to poach the best parts, as it obviously should. Any athlete with intrigue or promotional value is going to likely move into the PFL cage. It’s fundamentally the same thing that happened when the UFC purchased Strikeforce over a decade ago.
It sounds like the PFL will lean on an international roster, with the formation of a Bellator International Champions Series. It’s a place for the PFL to satisfy a variety of contracts and keep international talent busy, and if someone pops with the fans, great. The series can still be used as a promotional tool in the bigger picture. But in reality, it’s something of a hybrid international/developmental league. The best and most recognizable Bellator fighters will not be fighting here. And the PFL announcement did not even specify where Bellator fights would be televised, with Showtime getting out of combat sports.
What are the most appealing fights that now can be made?
Okamoto: Cris Cyborg vs. Kayla Harrison is the most appealing. There is a narrative there to push. Ever since Harrison transitioned into MMA after winning two Olympic gold medals in judo, this has been 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 deserves 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 one.
Davis said as much when the PFL chairman spoke to ESPN on Monday. He said Cyborg vs. Harrison will “100% happen.” Nothing is ever 100% in MMA, but this is the most marketable fight the PFL can make with this merger and the company do its best to make it.
Beyond that, some of the most intriguing matchups include Bellator heavyweight champ Ryan Bader against PFL’s newly acquired 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 vs. 2022 PFL champ Rob Wilkinson. And getting away from champions for a moment, Bellator names such as AJ McKee and Aaron Pico are going to be very interesting to watch against PFL featherweights and lightweights.
How does the consolidation of the PFL and Bellator affect the balance of power in MMA?
Raimondi: This acquisition gives the PFL a broad, deep roster of extremely talented fighters across weight classes. There are endless excellent fights the brand can now make, involving the likes of Cyborg, McKee, Patricio “Pitbull” Freire, Johnny Eblen, Vadim Nemkov and more. The quality of talent the PFL now has at its disposal is the greatest assemblage of fighters a non-UFC promotion has had — maybe ever. At least since the heyday of Pride. It will have more depth than Strikeforce.
There’s also the Saudi Arabia element. When news broke in August that deep-pocketed Saudi Arabia had acquired a minority stake in PFL, the stock prices for Endeavor and WWE both went down. (This was before the official merger of the UFC and WWE into TKO.) That was demonstrative of what the market thought of Saudi Arabia having influence over a UFC competitor. So, fans might not see the combination of PFL and Bellator catching up to the UFC, but Saudi Arabia being involved with this level of talent will surely catch the market’s attention.
What challenge does the PFL face with this influx of talent?
Raimondi: The biggest question now is if the PFL can pinpoint who the biggest potential stars are on this roster and build them into legitimate box-office brands. Despite an abundance of gifted athletes at its disposal, the PFL still doesn’t have a major pay-per-view draw or someone who sells a ton of tickets. Bellator’s ratings weren’t exactly tearing the house down on Showtime, and the PFL isn’t the hottest live ticket in town, either. Ngannou should be able to move the needle, but he could end up boxing for the foreseeable future. And then there’s Jake Paul. If he does fight MMA in the PFL, it would draw a lot of eyes.
All of that means it will remain to be seen if this fresh, new PFL can really make a run at the UFC. Maybe in the future, the PFL will be in position to sign top free agents leaving the UFC. But those opportunities are scarce.
“I think their cap table and their investors are just too smart to f— up,” one high-profile MMA agent told ESPN recently, under condition of anonymity. “I don’t think they’ll ever be the No. 1, but I think they’ll be competitive.”
How is PFL’s season format impacted?
Okamoto: As for now, and this could always change by spring 2024 when the season launches, the plan is for the regular season to still consist of six weight classes. The weight classes could change from what they are in 2023, but there is not a plan in place as of now to expand into more weight classes. The biggest impact will be the depth of the classes. The PFL has done a good job in recent years of signing free agents to make their weight classes look different from season to season, but at the same time, some of the matchups had grown stale. We were starting to see some similarities from year to year. With the injection of Bellator’s roster, these weight classes are going to be exponentially better.
Will this attract high-profile free agents to the PFL?
Okamoto: Money attracts free agents. Athletes are going to go where they can make the most money, and the PFL has a proven track record that in certain situations, it is willing to be the highest bidder. In general, the PFL has become an attractive promotion simply because it’s getting more recognition. It’s becoming more credible with each passing year. Adding this level of Bellator talent, and this much of it at once, only continues that trend. The PFL is not on an equal playing ground as the UFC, there is no question about that, but it’s a realistic, viable platform for the top talent in the world. And again, most importantly, it has shown that it is willing to pay for the top talent in the world.
Will this deal have implications for the class-action antitrust lawsuit against the UFC?
Raimondi: Potentially. The messaging that PFL has already put out there, that “our fighter roster [is] equal to UFC,” will almost surely be used by UFC attorneys in the case to demonstrate that the promotion is not a monopsony and does not have a stranglehold on the MMA market. The UFC’s attorneys have asked for further discovery, specifically information from other MMA promotions showing they have market freedom, before a potential April 2024 start date for the trial.
The court doesn’t seem to be too keen on extending that beginning date, but a development like this could change things. In any event, the UFC could look to immediately use the news of PFL acquiring Bellator as part of its case. Don’t be surprised if the UFC’s attorneys also mention that the Saudis have a minority stake in PFL and now in Bellator, too. That is absolutely useful information for the defendants in the antitrust lawsuit. Now, none of this might convince a court of law that the UFC is not a monopsony, but it could be a boon for the UFC’s case.