Professional Fighters League (PFL) has been in the spotlight lately, notably since Francis Ngannou, a former UFC heavyweight champion, joined their heavyweight roster. This rise in media attention has increased MMA fans’ curiosity about their unique league format and how it works. Here’s a PFL in a nutshell.
PFL, launched in 2018, is the first major MMA promotion to use a sport-season format where fighters compete in regular-season events to earn points. After the regular season, fighters with the most points compete in the playoffs, where the final two winners face off in the championship.
There you have a quick summary of how PFL MMA promotions work, but keep reading on for a complete guide to understanding PFL MMA.
History of PFL
PFL actually arose from the World Series of Fighting (WSOF) promotion. It all started when McLean, Virginia investors, acquired the WSOF promotion in 2017. WSOF had a TV deal with NBC Sports Network, and its events were broadcasted worldwide.
They hosted events in Canada, Japan, China, and of course, the US. Shortly after the acquisition, they re-branded the business to the “Professional Fighters League (PFL).” And the inaugural event took place in 2018, and they introduced the league model the same year.
Throughout the next few years, PFL primarily focused on finding new investors, putting the system together, getting through COVID restrictions, and boosting their funding. Apart from investment groups such as Ares Capital, celebrities like Marshawn Lynch and Wiz Khalifa also joined PFL as partners, with Lynch getting into the ownership group while Khalifa became an advisor.
The promotion also invested a lot in marketing. They did a good job of following the trends and using strategies to penetrate the market. But above all, they wanted to differentiate their product from other similar ones.
In 2020, PFL became the first sports league to launch a non-fungible token (NFT). Next, it partnered with DraftKings, that, apart from being an official sportsbook partner, also sponsors the pre-fight shows. Next, the “SmartCage” concept relies on real-time data technology, and it is the first of its kind in MMA.
Viewers can enjoy real-time data such as the speed of the strikes, heart rate, and other information. PFL also partnered with the game publisher “Rival Games” to create a gaming community before landing a deal with “millions.co” to promote group streaming of the events.
The “Super Fight” division was created in 2023 and will be aired on pay-per-view. The biggest news, however, is that fighters competing in the “Super Fight” division will receive 50% of the pay-per-view (PPV) revenue, significantly more than what other MMA organizations offer.
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PFL Fighting Rules
Each PFL season includes 72 fighters who compete in 5 weight classes for men and one for women. First, they compete in the regular season, then the post-season, and final championship, where a weight class winner wins a $1 million prize.
- Ruleset: Unified Rules of MMA. The only major difference is the prohibition of elbow strikes.
- Fighting area: the matches take place in a 10-sided cage called the “SmartCage” because of its technological features.
- Match duration: Each match in the regular and playoffs has 3–3 minute rounds, while the championship is 5–5 minute rounds.
- Weight classes: heavyweight (limit up to 265 lb), light heavyweight (limit up to 205 lb), welterweight (limit up to 170 lb), lightweight (limit up to 155 lb), featherweight (limit up to 145 lb). Women compete only in the lightweight (limit up to 155 lb) division.
What Is the Season Format of the PFL?
Regular season—includes between six and seven events where 72 fighters compete two times each. The regular season follows a point-based scoring system in which fighters receive points for every win, knockout, and submission.
The winner of the match is awarded 3 points, whether it’s a decision or a finish. On top of that, fighters receive 3 bonus points if they finish the match in round 1, 2 points in round 2, or 1 point in round 3. If the match ends in a draw, both fighters receive 1 point. At the end of the regular season, 4 fighters with the most points in their weight class advance to the playoffs.
Post-season (playoffs)—is where the four best fighters in each weight class compete in an elimination format. The playoffs usually consist of three events. A fighter with the most points is ranked #1, and they fight against the #4-ranked fighter in their division. This means that a #2-ranked fighter will fight a #3-ranked fighter in a three-round match. The winners of these two matchups advance to the championship.
Championship — is the season final where the two best fighters in each weight class compete against each other in a five-round fight. The season winner receives a $1 million prize.
The Key Difference between PFL and UFC
The key difference is the event format. PFL is a league where fighters compete multiple times in a sport-season format, while UFC organizes conventional single events. These two promotions might also visually look the same at first glance. However, there are also many differences; the following is a detailed explanation.
PFL season is very structured. First, fighters compete in a regular season against opponents in their weight class. PFL employs a point system rather than a ranking system for fighters to advance to the playoff events. For example, after two regular season fights, the athletes with the most points advance to the semi-finals and later the finals. Each event is organized separately, meaning that fighters only compete once in each event.
UFC is different because it includes a ranking system. To climb the rankings, fighters who join the UFC roster must win one fight at a time. Their goal is to enter the official top 15 rankings, earn a title shot, and win the world title. How quickly a fighter is going to rise is based on many factors. The most important ones are the record, finishing rate, and popularity. Back in the 90s, the UFC used to be a tournament, but this is no longer the case.
Both the UFC and PFL have adopted the Unified Rules of MMA. This means that the majority of the rules are the same across both promotions. However, PFL slightly differs as it prohibits elbow strikes to the head and body. This is not new, as other promotions in the past, such as the Japanese PRIDE FC, also didn’t allow elbows.
Elbow strikes are no more dangerous than punches and kicks. However, elbows can easily tear the skin off and cause deep cuts and severe bleeding. These bad cuts often result in premature doctor stoppages. Even if a fighter was winning before the doctor stoppage, bad cuts can force doctors to end a fight early, which can have an impact on the outcome and future careers of the fighters.
Strength of the roster
The UFC roster is much stronger and deeper, as there are more than 700 fighters under contract. Plus, the UFC is regarded as the absolute leader in the industry and is home to the best fighters in the world. Every MMA athlete begins their journey with the dream of winning the UFC title because that means you are a legitimate world champion.
At some point, the majority of talented fighters end up signing with the UFC because they want to test themselves against the toughest opponent. Each of the 12 weight classes has around 50 fighters, much more than PFL.
In contrast, each PFL weight class has 12 fighters. So in total, there are 72 fighters across six divisions and another 12 in the female weight class. PFL fighters are also very talented. However, their roster primarily involves:
- Up-and-coming potentials.
- MMA veterans.
- Former UFC fighters that have passed their prime.
The only major exception is Francis Ngannou, who end up signing with PFL at the peak of his fame.
UFC fighters compete in an 8-sided steel cage called an “Octagon.” In modern days, the promotion uses two different variations. The original octagon is 30ft (9.1 m) in diameter, has 746 square feet of fighting space, 6 feet-high fence, and is primarily used for big PPV events. The smaller version is 25ft (7.62 m) in diameter with 518 ft of fighting area. It is used for low-profile shows such as “Fight Nights,” hosted in the UFC apex center.
PFL fighters compete in a 10-sided cage. In 2019, a partnership was formed with an SMT company to provide real-time data to viewers. Biometric sensors were installed around the cage to measure various data such as the speed of kicks and punches, heart rate tracking, energy exerted, and more.
Former UFC Fighters Who Joined the PFL
Following is a list of notable UFC fighters who left the UFC to sign with PFL.
Pettis is among the most exciting fighters in MMA history. He is the former UFC lightweight champion and global superstar. After fighting under the UFC banner for nine years and completing his last contract, he decided to move to PFL and try to win a $1 million prize. Although he failed to mimic the same success, Pettis is still a big draw. PFL gained many new fans thanks to his presence.
After losing a bantamweight title fight to Henry Cejudo in 2019, Moraes’s UFC career took a steep dive, and he never recovered from it. He suffered four hard losses in a row and decided to leave the UFC for good. Just as everyone thought he would retire, the news came out that he was signing with PFL. But unfortunately, Moraes would suffer another two back-to-back losses in his first two appearances.
Burgos joined the PFL at the peak of his prime. After fighting for the UFC for 6 years, where he put together a record of 8-3, Burgos completed his contract and decided to test free agency. At the time, he was on a two-fight winning streak, and everyone was surprised to see that the UFC let him go, especially considering that he was among the most exciting featherweights. Even Dana White himself stated that letting Burgos go was a big mistake on their part.
Despite nearly two years of negotiations, the UFC and their heavyweight champion, Francis Ngannou, could not agree on a new contract. The champion became a free agent, and after months of silence, the news finally broke that Ngannou was joining the PFL roster. It was the first case in MMA history that an active UFC champion was moving over to rival organizations. After Burgos, Ngannou was the second high-profile UFC fighter to sign with PFL.
How Many Times Do PFL Fighters Compete In a Season?
PFL fighters compete a minimum of 2 times in a season, or 4 times if they reach the finals. So the correct answer is based on their performance. During the regular season, all fighters from all weight classes compete two times. If they do well and advance to the semi-finals, or “playoffs,” they fight one more time before the finals.
Bear in mind that each part of the season includes multiple events. The regular season has between six and seven events, and the playoffs have three and the final (championships). Unlike in the early days of MMA, fighters are no longer competing multiple times in a single night.
Do PFL Athletes Get Tested for PEDs?
This comes in light of a PED scandal that has implicated some of its fighters. The PFL has made necessary changes to its PED testing procedures to ensure the safety and integrity of its athletes.