Thursday, April 18, 2024
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PFL vs. Bellator: What to know ahead of the merging companies’ first joint venture this weekend

When PFL first announced it was purchasing Bellator MMA and acquiring the rights to its highly respected roster of fighters, the idea of an MMA super league was born. 

Somewhat surprisingly, however, the PFL’s vision wasn’t necessarily to merge the two rosters as it boldly looks to compete head to head (and on the same network of ESPN) against industry leader UFC. 

Instead, PFL is aiming to be everything all at once by diversifying its combined roster to fuel four separate arms of its PFL Inc. fighting franchise in the forms of a PFL PPV Super Fight Division, its flagship PFL regular season and playoffs setup, the Bellator International Championship Series and a series of PFL regional leagues aimed at creating tomorrow’s superstars across the globe.

As a kick off to the new year and this new era of PFL, the first of an annual MMA All-Star game, of sorts, will take place on Saturday in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in the form of the PFL vs. Bellator: Champs pay-per-view event, including five matchups pairing current or former champions from the two brands against one another.

“This is really an unprecedented event in MMA,” PFL CEO Peter Murray said at last month’s kickoff press conference in Hollywood, Florida. “Many fans have been talking about it for years and other promotions but we put it together and I’m so proud.”

To refer to PFL’s plan as ambitious would be an understatement. And the jury is still out as to whether its plan of creating four separate revenue streams under the same brand is the right one in terms of giving the promotion the best chance to disrupt UFC’s control over the industry. 

But fueled by a large investment from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which is reportedly upwards of $100 million, the PFL Is set to go all-in on finding out how big it can become after SRJ Sports Investments, a company launched last August by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, purchased a minority stake in the promotion. And this weekend’s 2024 launch party continues PFL’s trend toward a more relatable “pro sports” concept, which began with regular season and playoff formats, and now includes the season-opening All-Star PPV card.  

If you’ve been a follower of Bellator MMA in recent years, the idea of matching two promotions’ best fighters against one another isn’t necessarily new as Bellator and Japan’s Rizin Fighting Federation combined for a pair of supercards over the last 15 months. And even though PFL tried hard to play up the promotion vs. promotion rivalry during its kickoff press conference, including having PFL announcer Sean O’Connell and Bellator’s Chael Sonnen trade shots at one another throughout, it’s hard to imagine MMA fans caring at all about the format. 

The real pull heading into this weekend’s card is just the creative nature of the fresh matchmaking. Yes, there will be ceremonial world title belts at stake for the winners on Saturday but their individual PFL and Bellator titles won’t be. This is more about the potential for unique action in many of the pairings — helped along by the one-off, All-Star game feel — where the idea of wins or losses isn’t as pressing as the desire to see fun fights. 

PFL has yet to announce which of its four franchises that each fighter under its newly combined roster will compete in. But for those chasing the $1 million prize in the already physically taxing regular season and playoff format that begins in April, they will have a short turnaround for which to be ready after the superfight card, billed with the tagline “Seize the Throne,” takes place later this week. 

PFL vs. Bellator fight card

PFL Bellator Weightclass
Renan Fereira (c) Ryan Bader (c) Heavyweight
Impa Kasanganay  Johnny Eblen Middleweight
Gabriel Braga Patricio Pitbull Featherweight
Ray Cooper III Jason Jackson Welterweight
Bruno Cappelozza Vadim Nemkov Heavyweight
Thiago Santos Yoel Romero Light heavyweight
Clay Collard AJ McKee Lightweight

Although the card recently lost one of its premier matchups in the featherweight division, when defending PFL champion Jesus Pinedo’s back injury forced him to withdraw from a bout against Bellator legend Patricio Pitbull, the rest of the main card presents an intriguing mixture of fights. 

Former two-division Bellator champion Ryan Bader, who is unbeaten in seven fights at heavyweights, will headline the event against defending PFL heavyweight champion Renan Ferreira, an athletic 6-foot-7 striker. Although PFL doesn’t currently promote a 185-pound division, the co-main event will be an interesting middleweight affair as unbeaten Bellator champion Johnny Eblen faces UFC veteran and PFL light heavyweight king Impa Kasanganay.

Two-time PFL welterweight champion and perennial action star Ray Cooper III will face Jason Jackson, fresh off the “Ass kicking Machine” pulling a monstrous upset to hand former Bellator champion Yaroslav Amosov his first defeat in 28 pro fights. Former PFL heavyweight champion Bruno Cappelozza, who was pulled from the 2023 tournament due to a failed drug test, will battle former Bellator 205-pound king Vadim Nemkov, a protege of Russian legend Fedor Emelianenko, who has moved up in weight.

But two of the more intriguing matchups will kick off the PPV portion of card as all-action UFC veterans Thiago Santos and Yoel Romero square off in a can’t-miss light heavyweight affair that promises fireworks, as does former pro boxer and Clay Collard, a 2023 PFL finalist at lightweight, who takes on Bellator star AJ McKee.  

The good news for PFL is that the interesting matchups don’t stop there as the early preliminary card, which airs on ESPN+, sees the MMA return of unbeaten boxing star Claressa Shields, who slit a pair of fights previously under the PFL banner, when she faces Kelsey DeSantis. Biaggio Ali Walsh, the grandson of Muhammad Ali, makes his pro debut and former Bellator super prospect Aaron Pico enters a rematch with Henry Corrales after Pico’s original opponent, Gabriel Braga, moves up to face Patricio Pitbull on the PPV card. 

“On the heels of the Bellator acquisition, we can now present the very best of MMA at the end of the year, each year, and will cap it off by kicking off the upcoming season, both for PFL and for Bellator,with a major tent-pole event,” Murray said. “Think of it as MMA’s all-star game. Every year. This will be long term and not just a one-off.”

PFL’s gamble is a big one. But they have made enough noise within the MMA space of late to be taken seriously as a legitimate competitor. Whether or not they produce the PPV sales to justify such an event this weekend is another story but the card is strong on paper and the expectations are mixed heading into what is undoubtedly a make or break year in the history of the promotion. 

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