UFC fighters, managers, and coaches weigh in on an MMA power shift from PFL getting Saudi funding

For the last 30 years, the UFC has been the top dog in the MMA game. However, the PFL, one of its top rivals, could soon challenge that hold on power, and fighters, coaches, and managers throughout the industry seem to universally be in favor of a powerful No. 2 promotion rising in the sport.

This year, the Ultimate Fighting Championship celebrated 30 years of dominance of a sport and industry they helped to build from scratch. For as long as mixed martial arts has existed, there have been many organizations that challenged the MMA world leader for its spot at the top of the cage fighting mountain.

Also Read: UFC tonight – Fight card, betting odds, and watch times for the next UFC event

Yet, as fast as promotions like Pride FC, Strikeforce, Elite XC, or Bellator grew, they were either eventually eaten up by the UFC or fell into a position as a non-threatening No. 2 company. But, a rival that seemed it wasn’t worth being worried about may soon become the greatest threat the UFC has ever faced.

In August, the Professional Fighters League (PFL) announced that SRJ Sports Investments had acquired a minority stake in the league. SRJ is a company that was just recently created by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund — a fund that is an arm of the Saudi government and manages over $800 billion.

The deal is expected to bring an influx of $100 million in the short term, and reportedly could be worth substantially more as the pact plays out in the coming years. That second part is key because if the PFL continues to have the endless funding of the SRJ-Saudi PIF, it means that for the first time ever there would be a company that has the funding to outspend the UFC.

It is a potential powershift similar to when billionaire Ted Turner purchased WCW to compete with the then-WWF (now WWE), or when the Saudi PIF formed LIV Golf and used their immense wealth to force the PGA into a shocking merger despite LIV reportedly losing “hundreds of millions” in its first season.

With all of that in mind, UFC and Bellator fighters as well as a few coaches and MMA managers talked to Sportsnaut about how Saudi funding could affect the MMA landscape.

Saudi PIF investment in the Professional Fighters League will boost stagnant MMA free-agent market

pfl, ufc
Credit: Cooper Neill/PFL

LIV Golf became a serious threat to the PGA by giving unprecedented signing bonuses to star golfers and offering record tournament winnings. That level of money won’t be necessary for MMA since cage fighters make less, but that is also why a massive influx of cash could be far more influential.

The millions that will soon be tossed around the industry is something David Arvelo of Upper Sports Management is in favor of.

“When I initially saw the announcement of the Saudi PIF purchasing a minority stake in the PFL, I thought that it was ultimately a positive development for the sport,” Arvelo told Sportsnaut. “And anything that brings more money into the sport is absolutely a good thing.

“What the PFL has been doing in terms of their growth and providing more opportunities at a high level is great. Pay scales in different sports, without a drastic amount of competition, stagnate. Which we’ve seen in other sports.”

ESPN analyst, long-time coach, and former UFC fighter Din Thomas agrees with that notion and is in favor of any and all promotions giving competitors better paydays.

“We need more organizations to pay more money,” Thomas said. “We can’t just put the blame on the UFC. Everybody likes to blame the UFC because they are a successful organization. I want more organizations to give opportunities to fighters. If the PFL can provide a livelihood for fighters, I am 100% for that.”

While there are some UFC fighters that make a few million per fight, they are few and far between. Last year, the minimum NFL salary was $705,000. In comparison, the UFC’s minimum salary is believed to be only $12,000 per fight. It can double if the fighter is victorious. There is also the chance of earning a $50,000 performance bonus for standout showings, however, only three of those are given out at each event.

The UFC reportedly earned a record $1.1 billion in 2022.

Fighters won’t hesitate to take Saudi Arabia-backed paychecks

pfl, ufc
Credit: Cooper Neill/PFL

For some golf players, like Rory McIlroy, as well as many sponsors and advertisers, LIV Golf’s link to a government with a troubled human rights history was a non-starter. Nevertheless, many other players accepted the money without issue, and the same goes for several soccer stars who took record-shattering salaries to compete in the Saudi Professional League.

Considering how difficult for large paydays in MMA, it’s not surprising that the fighters Sportsnaut spoke to would have little hesitation in accepting a pay raise in the PFL — even if they were paid in Saudi money.

“If my contract was up and I was guaranteed to make double what I’m making now it would be a bad business decision not to accept,” a veteran UFC middleweight said on the condition of anonymity. “As far as concern about where the money is coming from that would not really bother me. I can use it to provide for my family and donate to whatever charity I please. You can’t control anything but yourself, be the change you want to see in the world.”

One up-and-coming fighter who prefers to stay in the UFC did admit concerns about the Saudi links from a “moral standpoint.” However, if they were offered a substantial pay increase, providing a better life for their family would still trump those worries.

“When it comes to the money, I’d be trying to find the place where I’d make the most,” the young star said. “If that’s in the UFC, I’d stay, but if not, I’d leave.”

Both competitors and Din Thomas admitted greater competition for the UFC helps all fighters and the industry. Especially since the window to maximize money-making opportunities in the sport is so limited.

“If you can make money in this game you take it because it doesn’t come around often. “I’ve been around this game a long time. I’ve watched guys struggle, watched guys not be able to make it, watched good fighters not be able to survive by making a living off this. I’m all for it, I don’t care where you get the [money] from.

“… You need to go where the money is. If you can make more money in the PFL [or] Bellator that’s where you need to go. And if the Saudis are coming and giving fighters money for PFL, I’m happy for all the fighters to get all the money they can.”

– Din Thomas

PFL could consolidate MMA power by purchasing Bellator

While the Professional Fighters League has a television partnership with ESPN, offers a unique format compared to other MMA promotions, and visually looks different than the UFC, its roster has always been its biggest weakness.

The UFC has the biggest and best roster in the world, and the rest of the elite talents in the sport are spread out across rival promotions like the PFL, Bellator, and ONE Championship. That could change if rumors that PFL is interested in purchasing Bellator are true and the league is able to finalize a deal with this new investment.

Consolidating the rosters of two of the best companies in the sport would give the PFL the undisputed No. 2 roster in the world. It would come just in time for a strategic move into a new pay-per-view business strategy that will have events featuring former UFC heavyweight king Francis Ngannou and combat sports disruptor Jake Paul.

On paper, the move would be a paradigm shift in the industry, however, Thomas is not in favor of a merger of the two MMA powerhouses.

“I think it’s absolutely terrible,” he said. “If they purchased Bellator and left Bellator as is — kept the entire roster — and added to it I would love it. But if they buy Bellator and they have to cut half the roster and only bring certain fighters over to the PFL; we’re talking about hundreds of fighters that are gonna lose jobs because of a sale, and we don’t think about those guys because all we think about is, ‘Oh, guess what matchup we’ll get to see.'”

Still, a ranked Bellator heavyweight told Sportsnaut they would welcome a merger due to his belief his current employer isn’t strong at promoting their talent.

“I actually think they will buy Bellator and it will be one big promotion under the PFL banner,” he said. “I think it makes sense, especially as Bellator doesn’t promote their fighters. It would be big for business and people will definitely start jumping ship.”

See exclusive Sportsnaut videos on Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok.

The PFL is set to finish their fifth season in November when they have their 2023 championships at The Anthem in Washington, DC.

Mentioned in this article:

More About: