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Despite Bellator purchase, PFL has a long way to go to catch up with UFC

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 24: Olivier Aubin-Mercier of Canada prepares to face Clay Collard during the 2023 PFL Championships at The Anthem on November 24, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)
Olivier Aubin-Mercier faced Clay Collard (not pictured) in the main event of Friday's PFL Championships at The Anthem in Washington, DC. (Cooper Neill via Getty Images)

There are people who still ask for a Kleenex when what they really want is a tissue. And there are people who tell coworkers they’re heading to the Xerox machine when what they mean is they’re going to the copier.

In the same vein, fight fans often refer to the sport of mixed martial arts as UFC.

It’s a sign that the UFC — one of hundreds of promoters of MMA shows active today — has hit the mainstream. When fans — not media, not fighters, not promoters, not publicists, not managers — think of major league MMA, they think of the UFC.

It doesn't help that when the Professional Fighters League completed the acquisition of Bellator last week, it put out a news release that was highly misleading.

A sub-headline on the release said, “PFL + Bellator Combined Fighter Roster Equal to UFC — Both Rosters 30% Top 25 World-Ranked,” which PFL spokesman Loren Mack said the promotion used the Fight Matrix rankings when coming up with that number.

But, that just doesn’t jive with what MMA media which covers the sport religiously reports. Yahoo Sports took the Top 10 from the divisional rankings of ESPN, Sherdog and MMA Junkie in the eight men’s weight classes and noted what organization the fighters compete with.

Of the 80 spots in ESPN’s rankings, 68 were UFC fighters, one was a PFL fighter, nine were Bellator Fighters and two were from ONE Championship. In Sherdog’s rankings, 72 were UFC fighters, none were from either PFL or ONE and eight were from Bellator. And in MMA Junkie’s, 67 were UFC fighters, two each were from PFL and ONE and nine were from Bellator.

One of the PFL fighters ranked by MMA Junkie was heavyweight Francis Ngannou, who has not fought for the PFL yet and hasn’t fought an MMA bout since January 2022. The only other PFL fighter ranked in the Top 10 by any of those three outlets was Derek Brunson, the middleweight who made his PFL debut Friday.

Pound-for-pound wise, it’s the same. ESPN’s Top 10 has 10 UFC fighters. Sherdog and MMA Junkie each have nine UFC fighters in its Top 10 pound-for-pound. Those fighters are essentially the sport’s top stars.

This, though, isn’t meant to bash any UFC competitor, including Bellator, PFL or ONE. Rather, it’s to point out they’re focusing on the wrong thing if they want to somehow reach equal footing with the UFC as MMA promoters. No MMA promoter is remotely close to the UFC now, not in revenue, not in sponsorships, not in quality of fighters, not in promotion, not in marketing, not in ticket sales, not in television ratings nor in terms of television production.

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 24: Renan Ferreira of Brazil reacts after his victory against Denis Goltsov of Russia during the 2023 PFL Championships at The Anthem on November 24, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)
Heavyweight Renan Ferreira celebrates with his $1 million check after defeating Denis Goltsov at the 2023 PFL Championships. (Cooper Neill via Getty Images)

It’s good for a sport, and particularly for the athletes, to have an alternative, because it will create more opportunities. However, there is one major league in baseball, one in football and one in basketball and those athletes are doing extraordinarily well.

But in MMA, it’s good for fighters to have a choice, particularly if they somehow run afoul of UFC CEO Dana White. Brunson, for example, is a lot more significant to the PFL than he is to the UFC. ESPN and MMA Junkie have eight UFC fighters among their Top 10 middleweights, while Sherdog has nine. Until recently, Brunson was part of that UFC list.

But the UFC has so much depth that Brunson’s loss will hardly be felt. He will be an impact talent for the PFL, though. As a result, the PFL paid him more than the UFC would have given his relative value to the organizations. So having an organization like the now combined PFL and Bellator competing for talent with the UFC makes it better for the fighters who hit the market. While it’s one less bidder, the fact that the PFL now has all of those roster spots means there will be competition for available fighters.

That said, it seems unlikely any promotion is going to overtake the UFC as No. 1 in MMA in the near future.

Talent is an important part of the equation, but it’s not everything. If the UFC and the combined Bellator/PFL group swapped rosters, the UFC would still come out on top because it does so many of those other things better than any MMA promotion you’d care to name.

So talent is important, but PFL should learn a lesson from the mistakes Bellator president Scott Coker made in his run. He relied far too much on older, veteran fighters who were mostly used up, thinking they’d attract attention. Instead, the PFL needs to find a way to get the elite young talent signed before the UFC and then develop it.

That’s only one part of the equation, though. PFL needs to continue to develop new markets, and create fans not just of MMA but of the PFL itself. It needs to succeed in merchandising and sponsorships and television production.

It needs to promote and market infinitely better and not just be a place for the disaffected UFC fans. It needs to learn how to turn fighters into stars. Who was the last fighter who didn’t have a lengthy run in the UFC who was widely recognizable and became a star? Tough question to answer, isn’t it?

There will be some interesting fights that could be put together between the champions at Bellator and PFL, but are there any that will get the juices flowing from fans around the world? At this stage, probably not.

The PFL has a lot of work ahead of it and it’s not going to be easy. It’s lapped in every category imaginable now.

But it’s wise to forget about comparing rosters and getting to work on building a product that actually makes it difficult for White to sleep.

As it stands now, he’s sleeping far too easily, with way too little to worry about from any competitor.