Fight twice, win twice.
It’s a marketing slogan that is short, rhythmic and simple to understand. If a mixed martial artist in the Professional Fighters League wants to reach the championship and compete for a $1 million prize on New Year's Eve, then he first must win two playoff bouts on the same night.
Again, simple to comprehend. Not so simple to accomplish in a sport such as MMA.
“It is tough. It is a game-changer,” Freeport’s Andre Harrison said. “As a person competing, we can’t make it as much of a big deal as everybody else. You put too much pressure on yourself. You have to minimize it in your brain.”
Harrison would know. He went through it last year, beating Alexandre Bezerra in the featherweight quarterfinals then losing to eventual millionaire champion Lance Palmer in the semifinals a short time later.
Harrison (21-1-1) returns to the PFL playoffs on Thursday in Las Vegas as the No. 5 seed and faces No. 4 Alex Gilpin (13-2). The winner of that fight, which airs on ESPN2, will face the Palmer-Alexandre Almeida winner in the semifinals later that night on ESPN+.
“In preparation for the fight, you have to understand that the first fight is two rounds so you don’t have the luxury of starting slow,” said Harrison, who trains at Bellmore Kickboxing MMA. “You have to get out there and secure the first round so at the very least you know it’s a draw.”
Quarterfinal bouts are two rounds and semifinal fights are three rounds. So, in a way, it’s not much different than fighting in a main event or title fight, which are scheduled for five rounds. The obvious change, of course, is the time in between bouts, which can be up to two hours, depending on where the quarterfinal bout is in the lineup.
Each fighter deals with that downtime and manages their adrenaline and medical concerns differently. The physical demands of fighting once in a night are grueling enough, but to do it twice in the same night is a significant and unique challenge in a sport that mostly has moved away from such a structure over the years.
“This format is the toughest,” said Sean O’Connell, who won the light heavyweight division last year and now is a commentator on PFL broadcasts. “Nobody in the UFC has to do this. Nobody in Bellator has to do this. Nobody in Rizin has to do this. If you want to win a million bucks and a belt in the PFL, you have to win two fights in a three-hour span.”
There is a rule change this season to determine who advances out of a draw. Last year, whoever won the first round advanced. This year — the PFL’s second season— if a fight is a scored a draw after two rounds, each judge will choose the fighter they think had the most complete body of work for the entirety of the fight.
“It’s kind of nerve-wracking because you never really know with the judges,” Harrison said. “Nobody ever really wants to leave it in the hands of the judges. But there’s nothing I can do about the rules. It is what it is. I can just hope that A) I get a finish, or B) I have a dominant enough performance that it’s not questionable.”
Harrison grew up wrestling, so competing two or more times in a short time frame isn’t a new concept for him. Nor for Islip’s Chris Wade, a former New York State high school wrestling champion.
Wade (16-5) reached the lightweight semifinals last year, where he lost a split decision to eventual winner Natan Schulte. Wade is back in the playoffs this year as the No. 3 seed. He’ll face No. 6 Nate Andrews (16-2) in the quarterfinals, with the winner advancing to face either No. 2 Islam Mamedov or No. 7 Loik Radzhabov. Both of those fights will stream on ESPN+.
“It’s a double-edged sword, in a couple ways,” said Wade, who trains at Long Island MMA. “Yes, it’s a lot, it’s physically demanding. You get that first win, you want to go just celebrate. It’d be nice if six weeks later was the semifinals. But, you don’t have to make weight again, so you only have to do one weight cut. You don’t have to do another camp because you’re already there in shape.
“Also, on top of that, is the paydays. You’re going home with a lot more money that you’re normally going home with. So although you’re fighting twice, you’re getting the benefit of only making weight once, you’re getting a lot more money for it and you don’t have to go put your body through another fight camp.”