Professional Fighters League will be as big as the UFC, says chairman Donn Davis

Founder tells The National of his grand plans ahead of marquee event in Riyadh

PFL founder Donn Davis says the company is all about pitting the best against the best. Photo: PFL
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The founder of the Professional Fighters League (PFL) says the organisation is determined to deliver “the best of the best” in its inaugural event in Saudi Arabia to kick-start its partnership with the kingdom.

Billed as the world’s fastest-growing sports league, the PFL will on Saturday stage “PFL Champions vs Bellator Champions”, a first-of-its-kind collaboration between two top-level MMA promotions, at Kingdom Arena in Riyadh.

The PFL acquired Bellator last November, three months after the former announced an investment agreement with SRJ Sports Investments, an entity owned by Saudi’s Public Investment Fund (PIF).

The deal, reported to be worth $100 million, sees SRJ take a minority equity ownership in the PFL, with a PFL Mena regional league to launch in April.

Speaking to The National in Riyadh, PFL founder and chairman Donn Davis said of Saturday’s Saudi debut: “It’s super exciting. First of all, to do something historic: the first ever MMA event in Saudi Arabia. To do something historic is so rare.

“Then, second, to have champs versus champs - PFL champions against Bellator champions - has never been done in combat. We did it because we put the fan first. Other organisations always kind of protect and there’s a lot of dogma. We said, ‘If we were a fan, what would we want?’.

“And so we're delighted to be able to stage what I think will be the best MMA event of 2024. We're really looking forward to it.”

Marking the promotion’s first show in their new “PPV Super Fights Division”, Saturday features a collection of marquee athletes from both promotional rosters.

The card includes three champion-versus-champion bouts, headlined by 2023 PFL heavyweight belt-holder Renan Ferreira taking on Bellator counterpart Ryan Bader. A fourth, pitting against one another PFL featherweight Jesus Pinedo and Bellator’s Patricio Pitbull, was called off this week after Pinedo withdrew. Pitbull will now face Gabriel Braga, the beaten finalist in the PFL’s 2023 featherweight division.

Meanwhile, Muhammad Ali’s grandson, Biaggio Ali Walsh, will make his pro debut, while pound-for-pound women’s boxing star Claressa Shields competes in the PFL for a third time, and first since 2021. The host country is represented, too, with featherweight Abdullah Al Qahtani squaring off against India’s Edukondal Rao.

“Saudi is about the best of the best, and we wanted to give them the best of the best,” Davis said. “And, to me also, doing something that's unique and never been done before.

“You can have great fighters, but also what's a unique storyline? And we hope to make this, call it the 'All-Star' game if you will, an annual event. Can we do this every February? Will the PFL Season champion and the Bellator Series champion each year be able to meet in February?

“This has been so successful so far that we think we'd like to try to bring it every year, but we'll see. But, so far, it's going that well in terms of its reception. I'm really looking forward to Saturday.”

Davis said there was a “real possibility” the event could be held in Saudi Arabia each year, adding though that those conversations would need to be had with SRJ.

On how the partnership came about, Davis said: “We reached out to PIF almost two years ago, so kind of before it was cool to reach out.

“We saw the vision and the opportunity that was going on in terms of sports, and we saw a potential partner that shared our vision of trying to be disruptive and trying to be a leader on a global basis.

“We're very fortunate to have them as partners to try to take PFL - we call it the secured No 2 position [in MMA promotion, behind the UFC] - to be a co-leader over the next five years.

“We’ve a very clear plan. We're about 40 to 50 per cent of UFC's audience today, in terms of global viewership, and the MMA market is growing very fast.

“They're a company that's doing well; it's just we’re growing very, very, very fast. It's not about us versus them; it's about how can there be a co-leader.

“Our view is why can't there be two leading MMA companies on a global basis? And this is a very young sport: 25 years old.

“What most people don't realise is this industry of MMA is just starting its evolution and high-growth period. So the next five years, at the latest the next 10 years, you'll see explosive growth and change led by PFL and MMA.

“So UFC: the current winner and the first winner. But you'll see PFL be the next and second winner.”

Davis said the PFL could take considerable pride in hosting the first major MMA event in Saudi. The UFC debuts in the kingdom in June.

“Look, it's very cool,” Davis said. “But to me, the thing that we're most proud of is how good this card is for fans. We know that the UFC brand is bigger than ours, so most people think UFC has the best fighters. Not true. Biggest brand? True.

“We're still building our brand; we're still earning the respect of fans. But we think when people watch Saturday, whether it's on ESPN pay-per-view or Dazn pay-per-view, they're going to see a fight product that's as good or better than what they've seen from UFC.

“That's all we're asking people to do. You don't have to choose either or. Check this thing out. You're going to see something more innovative, more beautifully produced, and with fighters that fight as hard and at a higher quality than you see at UFC.”

Davis revealed that Jon Jones, the celebrated UFC heavyweight champion, will be cageside, as will Francis Ngannou, Jones’ predecessor who last year signed an exclusive MMA deal with the PFL. Jones versus Ngannou has long been mooted as the No 1 heavyweight bout to make in the sport.

However, having crossed over to boxing, Ngannou takes on former two-time world heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua next month, also in Riyadh.

On Friday, the PFL confirmed Ngannou will return to MMA – the Cameroonian debuted in boxing last October, when he almost upset current heavyweight champion Tyson Fury – later this year, against the winner of Saturday’s main event.

Asked why Jones would be in attendance on Saturday, Davis remained coy, saying only: “I just think, when you think about heavyweights, all the action is at PFL. I just think that stuff's going on - and Saturday's the place to be.”

Updated: February 24, 2024, 6:53 AM