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SportsMixed Martial Arts

How the PFL managed to grow and improve during the COVID-19 pandemic

Lance Palmer appears at the ceremonial weigh-ins for

Lance Palmer appears at the ceremonial weigh-ins for PFL 2 on Wednesday, May 22, 2019 ahead of Thursday's event at NYCB Live's Nassau Coliseum. Credit: Newsday/Ryan Gerbosi

Despite the lack of live events and fresh ancillary content last year when the Professional Fighters League postponed its third season because of the coronavirus, the start-up mixed martial arts league made its share of headlines in 2020.

"We raised $70 million, which we announced in December, in the middle of the pandemic," PFL chief executive Peter Murray said. "We signed star athletes in the middle of a pandemic. We expanded our content, production capabilities and offerings for fans in the middle of a pandemic. We created new technology that will change the game and the experience for fans, which fans will get to see come April 23, in the middle of the pandemic. So yeah, it worked."

Season 3 kicks off Friday night at the Ocean Resort Casino in Atlantic City, where the PFL will host its entire regular season in a bubble-like atmosphere similar to what the NBA did in Orlando, Florida, last year. The prelims will stream on ESPN+, and the main card will air on ESPN2. Four of the six regular-season will take place on Thursday nights.

"You get 550 million fans who are underserved, who want access to quality premium MMA they do not have today," Murray said. "And now PFL fulfills that on a different night of the week with a premium and differentiated experience. Simple as that. We're not asking the MMA fans to choose PFL over the UFC, absolutely not."

Murray said the PFL will track and report in real time the kick speed of its fights, a bit of technology that follows in the path of punch speed first used by the league in 2018. Some of the miles per hour will come from the legs of newly signed fighters Anthony Pettis and Fabricio Werdum, both former UFC champions, former Bellator champon Rory MacDonald and two-time Olympic boxing gold medalist and multiple-time world champion Claressa Shields.

Pettis, Werdum and MacDonald all have a notable presence among MMA fans from their lengthy careers and their wars inside the UFC’s octagon. Their signing with the PFL provides the growth and brand visibility boost Murray sought.

"Number one, PFL provides the global stage," Murray said. "Two, we have top talent to compete against, and three, we give them a very clear, transparent opportunity to become champion and all that comes with that."

Beyond those big names and offseason headlines that included new broadcast deals and betting partnerships, two other notable changes in the PFL’s league format will make Season 3 unlike the first two.

This season, only the top four fighters in the standings advance to the playoffs, compared with eight in the two previous seasons. If earning bonus points for finishing a fight encouraged a go-for-broke approach at times with more than half the fighters in each division advancing to the playoffs, how will it look now when it’s only a quarter?

"I don't think it changes anything," said Lance Palmer, the two-time defending featherweight champion. "Everybody already has that urgency that we have to try and get finishes and do our best out there."

A win is worth three points in the standings. Bonus points are awarded for finishes, based on the round (three points for Round 1, two for Round 2, one for Round 3).

Pettis, who faces lightweight Clay Collard in the main event on Friday, said he thinks the PFL’s point system favors his game.

"As fighters, we don’t get paid overtime. Our objective is to get in and get out," Pettis said. "So yeah, I think it does play into my game great. With the flashy moves I have and the skillsets I have, I have a lot of ways to finish the fight. Whereas other organizations, they give guys extra money or bonuses for this, this is going to be taking care of me for the playoffs. There’s a lot of incentive for finishing this fight in the first round."

The regular season is two matches, and two wins by decision would give a fighter a total of six points. In the first two seasons, any fighter who amassed six points qualified for the playoffs. If those seasons were contested under the 2021 format, eight of those fighters would have missed the playoffs based on various tiebreakers.

The lesser number of fighters also removes the two-fights-in-one-night postseason setup. In the past two, the quarterfinals and semifinals were contested on the same night, forcing a fighter to win two fights a few hours apart in order to qualify for the final and a chance at $1 million.

"If you look at every other sport that has a system in place and say, football, you win more than half your games or, you know, say you win 12 games out of 16, you're going to be in the playoffs 100% of the time," said Palmer, who faces Bubba Jenkins on Friday. "So if you win both fights and don't get in the playoffs, it doesn't really make sense for a playoff structure. But that's, I guess that's its own different conversation."

New York Sports