For PFL founder Donn Davis, a Bellator teamup wasn’t just something he wanted to happen – it needed to happen.
The PFL and Bellator MMA are now under the same umbrella with the league officially announcing the acquisition of its former rival promotion this past Monday. Following the news, several questions immediately arose such as whether the two brands will continue to operate separately (and how), what this means for the fighters under contract to Bellator, and where Bellator boss Scott Coker fits in the new regime.
Davis appeared on The MMA Hour to break down the deal and address some of Bellator’s hanging threads.
“We called them for the same reason I’ve talked about publicly,” Davis said when asked how the idea to purchase Bellator first came up. “Athletes in any sport, whether it’s the NBA or MMA are the foundation of everything. The more quality athletes, the deeper and better the product. PFL, great vision. PFL, great capability. PFL done great so far. But we need more and better athletes, and there’s only one company that at one time could put us on equal footing with the UFC, that was Bellator.
“We were getting more than our fair share of free agents, four or five a year. We were never losing our top fighters, never lost one. But we weren’t getting there fast enough. So I called them, and that was the big once-in-a-company move that overnight, we could have a roster in quality on par and on stature with the UFC, so how can we get that done? That was the reason for making the call.”
Davis added that there were moments where it felt like a deal would fall through, but in his experience, a negotiation often looks dead in the water moments before the parties finally come to an agreement.
As outlined in Monday’s press release for the acquisition, Bellator is expected to remain separate from the PFL, but it will now be known as the Bellator International Champion Series with a continued emphasis on one-off fights as opposed to the PFL’s season format. Davis suggested that the rosters could cross over liberally, using PFL fighter Anthony Pettis as an example of someone who might be better suited competing in Bellator under a more traditional format.
“Certain fighters, I’d like to take one of our own fighters, ‘Showtime’ Pettis,” Davis said. “You know what, that season product wasn’t great for him. He’s probably better fighting twice a year on a one-off event. Just to take one of our own. Fans love him. He can get ready for that. The season’s too hard at this stage of his career. That season’s the toughest test in MMA. He’d probably be great on that [one-off] product. So whether you’re a Bellator fighter or PFL fighter, we’ll talk to managers and fighters, and say, ‘What’s the best product for you? And what’s the best product for these fans?’
“You’ll fight twice a year on the Bellator International Champion Series or you’ll fight in the PFL league season. Your choice, one or the other. The Bellator belts will still be at risk, champions remain, they’re at risk on the Bellator International Champion Series. PFL league seasons, still exactly what it was. Those products will both run during the year, so we have two big signature products.”
Davis went on to say that ideally the PFL could arrange for Bellator to have its own TV deal, similar to how other major sports leagues have broadcasting deals with multiple networks. He expects to announce a new TV deal for the PFL approximately two weeks after the promotion’s final event of the 2023 season, a pay-per-view tournament championship card in Washington, D.C.
While he acknowledged the history of other promotions (Pride, Strikeforce, World Extreme Cagefighting) that were purchased by the UFC and eventually shuttered, Davis believes fans should be pleased with the crossover potential, at least in the short term.
“This could last one year, this could last forever,” he said. “As entrepreneurs, we don’t want to be right, we want to win. We think this is a winning idea, but ultimately the fans tell us what’s a winning idea. The difference we have oftentimes with the UFC is UFC wants to be right. We want to win.
“So when the fans tell us PFL champions vs. Bellator champions, are seven Bellator people going to win, are five PFL people going to win, is it going to be 4-3? I don’t know and I don’t care. That’s a fight I want as a fan. That’s the fight they want, so of course that’s what we announced on day one of the announcement. So if we stay calling it, ‘fan-centric, fighter first,’ PFL will become a co-leader, there will be enough money for everybody.”
As early as February, fans could be treated to a PFL vs. Bellator card if everything goes according to Davis’ plan. That includes a “reimagined Bellator” launching in March, and the 2024 PFL season kicking off in April. He also hopes to see a highly anticipated Kayla Harrison vs. Cris Cyborg fight serve as a major draw for a pay-per-view event sometime next year.
“I’ve been wanting to see this Kayla Harrison-Cris Cyborg fight since I was a little baby,” Davis said. “So that might be on a pay-per-view next year, the PFL pay-per-view superfights, which are the biggest, biggest, biggest fights we do, two a year, are those pay-per-view fights. So think of it as there’s one pool of fighters, we have all this creativity now where we have 30 percent of our roster ranked in the top 25 in the world, same as UFC. That is the available creativity to give the fans. How do we put that roster together in great products?”
Regarding Harrison’s status with the PFL, Davis is confident the promotion will work out a new deal with the two-time featherweight tournament champion. He noted that Cyborg is currently under a long-term contract, and also that the status of Cyborg’s bout with No. 1 contender Leah McCourt is up in the air, though it is well within the realm of possibility given that they have plenty of fight cards to fill in the near future.
Though the PFL is at the top of the organizational hierarchy, Bellator will still need someone to head its operations, and for now, that man is Scott Coker. Davis said that he wants to continue to work with Coker, and that they will likely figure out their ongoing arrangement before Christmas.
“I would like for him to come over,” Davis said. “We have a huge meal to serve, we don’t have enough people manning the kitchen, absolutely. We are all full out.”