The weekend was filled with fights, though it tended more towards boxing than MMA. Nonetheless, Professional Fighters League 10 went down in Washington, D.C., and on paper was theoretically the major MMA card to put under the microscope. However, despite firming up the promotion’s six separate million-dollar tournament finals for New Year’s Eve, PFL 10 left us with more questions than answers, more misgivings than motivation and was nowhere near the best show in a 48-hour span.
Although this column is titled “Five Lessons Learned,” I will admit that often a more apt title might be “Five Issues Illustrated” or occasionally and more incisively “Five Things We Might Have Already Known but Were Unfortunately Reminded Of.” A case study of PFL 10, unfortunately, tends toward the latter. The event was not without its bright spots, but they were far overshadowed and marred by a constellation of issues that annoyed and aggrieved fight fans. Aren’t tournaments supposed to be fun? Aren’t they supposed to be the ultimate, entertaining delicacy for fight fans? Well, not this time around.
Where do I even start? We’ve got structural rules issues, lukewarm talent, highly questionable political maneuvering, poor commentary and the fact PFL was outdone by Fight Nights Global, Cage Warriors Fighting Championship and arguably Bare Knuckle Fighting Championships on Friday and Saturday; and at the end of fight night, even cloistered MMA fans who don’t give a damn about basketball seemed to care more about the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Lakers getting into in on-court mini-brawl more than they cared about PFL 10. Honestly, headed into Saturday, I worried about whether or not I would be able to extract enough from this card to find five topics about which to write. Now, I struggle to even narrow it down given all the ridiculousness I witnessed.
Well, at least we’ve got Ray Cooper III, I suppose. Here are five things we learned -- or were brutally reminded of -- during the PFL’s outing in the nation’s capital:
The PFL Tourney System is Trash
I know the PFL was seeking a unique format for its promotion that would invigorate fans and investors. To some extent, it has done so, even if its cable ratings continue to dwindle. The promotion’s first event on the NBC Sports Network in June 2017, drew 291,000 viewers. When it debuted its tournament format a year later, it was only able to draw 138,000 on cable. Its last two events prior to PFL 10? While PFL 8 drew 136,000, you’d think that fans would increase their interest as the company’s tournaments rolled along and advanced toward the finals, yet PFL 9 was only able to garner 88,000 viewers on Oct. 13. You can make the excuses that several major college football games, the Red Sox-Astros American League Championship Series and even the Terence Crawford-Jose Benavidez Jr. fight all cut into its share, but consider that a show called “My Cat from Hell” on Animal Planet did 476,000 viewers from 8 to 9 p.m. ET on the same night.
Yes, it’s true that PFL doesn’t have the brand recognition that the Ultimate Fighting Championship or Bellator MMA enjoy and that NBCSN is the black sheep little brother of cable sports entities, but I honestly think that’s beyond the point. As I illustrated, even if its competing with the baseball playoffs and the newly lit basketball and hockey seasons, the PFL is losing the eyeballs of fans who initially cared about its product in spite of the fact that the entire promotion is designed around a tournament format that MMA lovers are alleged to fundamentally crave. There are a lot of reasons why, but the main culprit is that its very tournament structure is alienating anathema to fight fans.
Tournaments are theoretically supposed to determine the best fighters. However, the PFL’s combination of so-so talent and, more importantly, its insistence on two-round fights for its quarterfinal outings, have created a quasi-disaster. There have been nine draws in these tournaments so far, with the advancing fighter being determined by which athlete wins the first round, according to the judges. Even as a writer guilty of often using too many adjectives, I cannot think of enough of them to describe how insanely wrongheaded this is. Never mind the fact that a two-round fight has an enormous capacity to undermine a legitimately superior fighter and that fighting twice in one night always presents the risk of a fighter pulling out after winning their first fight, as Abubakar Nurmagomedov did on after beating Bojan Velickovic. This format has simply created bad fights and unsatisfactory outcomes.
I could choose any of those nine instances, but the most flagrant so far in this PFL tournament experiment happened at PFL 10. In the quarterfinal rematch between Sadibou Sy and Bruno Santos -- constant rematches in a constrained league-tourney format is another issue itself worthy of a column -- the first round was a no-offense period in which Santos tried for repeated single-leg takedowns, while Sy simply landed a front kick late in the frame. In the second stanza, Santos completely dominated his foe, getting him to the mat, passing guard and achieving full mount. Ultimately, Sy advanced with scores of 20-18, 19-19 and 19-19, with judges giving him the first frame. Never mind that 20-18 Sy is an insane scorecard since he got handled for the last five minutes of the fight, even if every judge had it 19-19, Sy still would’ve won under the PFL’s rule prescription, despite the fact that the opening round should’ve realistically been 10-10 since nothing happened. Yet, Santos created 99 percent of the fight’s offense and activity in the last round and would’ve lost anyway. I’ve always hated Pride Fighting Championships-style judging, which evaluates a fight on the whole, but I never wanted it more than I did on Saturday while watching this atrocity. You thought Steven Siler milking a weak upkick foul to the final would be as bad as it got for PFL this season? Think again.
On every level, PFL’s tournament format has confused, disappointed and enraged exactly the sort of fans that would, on paper, be predisposed to loving it. That’s a problem. The company just got $28 million in capital investment, so we’re going to get a second season of this product, no doubt. However, the promotion needs to figure out a smarter way to conduct its bracketing business, because “PFL tournament” has already become a nasty MMA meme and punchline.
A New Season Needs to Bring New Talent
As I mentioned, the PFL’s flawed tournament structure is not the only reason that fans have become jaded about its product. Frankly, the talent has a lot to do with it. No doubt, the company has some studs on its roster. Lance Palmer and Andre Harrison are both elite featherweights; Rashid Magomedov is extremely underrated; Cooper III has been a joy to watch break out this year; Vinny Magalhaes, a true world-class grappler, looks refreshed at 34 years old; and that’s not to mention the PFL’s female promotional face in Kayla Harrison. However, the PFL’s format necessitates running a ton of cards with a ton of fights on them, and there’s simply not enough quality or intriguing depth. Given that a second season of PFL tournaments is a surety, the promotion needs to already be considering how to restock its pantry for its next go-around.
Obviously, tournament winners should be brought back for another chance to win another cool million. I’m more than OK with runners-up coming back, as well, even if some of them aren’t exactly the creme de la creme. However, there has been an unseemly reliance on UFC and Bellator veterans -- and not exactly the kind of retreads that anyone would want to see. I just lamented the injustice that was done to Santos, but why on Earth would any promoter trying to make an impact with fans sign Santos, let alone put him on repeated televised portions of its events? “Carioca” hasn’t been involved in a fight finish in over 10 years. Now, I’m not the kind of person who simply complains about non-finishing fighters; you can be entertaining in or out of the cage while not being a natural fight finisher. However, in my 19 years of watching MMA, I can safely say that the brutally one-dimensional Santos is one of the most tedious fighters I’ve ever watched. It would be one thing if he was boring and unstoppable, but he’s not. He’s simply a show killer.
Go rewatch Jumabieke Tuerxun’s aimless, out-of-depth efforts against Harrison, Palmer and Alexandre Almeida and tell me you’d ever want to see him fight again. Who was clamoring to watch Jared Rosholt after his UFC run? Efrain Escudero’s ship sailed as a serious prospect seven or eight years ago, and he has an established history of weight issues. Yet the PFL snapped him up, only to have him miss weight for his bout with Jason High before blowing it on the scales again, canceling his fight with Islam Mamedov. Paul Bradley, despite being a well-traveled vet, had the nickname “Stall Bradley” going back to his days as an Iowa wrestler. Eddie Gordon is among the very worst “Ultimate Fighter” winners ever. Alex Nicholson is most famous for racial epithets and a domestic-abuse incident in a 7-11.
No doubt, there’s a place for veterans. Creating a well-rounded MMA product takes all kinds. You need some fighters that people know, even if they flunked in major promotions, like Will Brooks or Nazareno Malegarie, or are long in the tooth, like Jake Shields or Thiago Tavares. I’ve got no problem signing solid journeymen like Francimar Barroso or Louis Taylor. If they succeed, they can create feel-good narratives that compel you. However, if the PFL is going to run out another set of six 12-man tournaments next season, a majority of those 72 athletes need to be culled and replaced. Legendary football coach Bill Parcells spent most of his time not worrying about his stars but the bottom 10 guys on his roster, his philosophy being that you’ve always got to be “churning” and finding the best talent possible. The PFL needs to realize that just signing every Ali Abdel-Aziz fighter not on the UFC roster isn’t going to make butter.
PFL Has a Serious Abdel-Aziz Problem
After UFC 229, there has been a scrutinizing focus on Abdel-Aziz, his background and managerial conduct, which is completely justified. However, the PFL has a more specific, personalized problem with Abdel-Aziz than whether he has a checkered past and hangs out with genocidal warlords like Ramzan Kadyrov. Abdel-Aziz’s influence is not only unduly shaping the PFL’s roster, but it is introducing the promotion to massive conflicts of interest.
Keep in mind, the PFL rose from the ashes of World Series of Fighting -- a promotion with which Abdel-Aziz parted ways in December 2015 after serving as a company executive. State regulators raised concerns about his dual role as an incredibly powerful manager while serving as WSOF matchmaker, with many of his fighters on the company roster. Formally, Abdel-Aziz has no internal ties to the PFL, yet the roster is bloated with his fighters due to the sway he holds with PFL decision makers with whom he remains friendly.
I am fully aware that Russia, Dagestan and Chechnya are explosively emerging as fertile grounds for prizefighters and that Abdel-Aziz’s Dominance MMA has a direct pipeline to that talent, but he’s not the only person in the world representing talent from Russia and the Caucasus. Going back to my point about churning the roster, doing so and finding potential future stars might require more than simply acquiescing to Abdel-Aziz’s every demand.
The problem is more severe than that, though. On several occasions during this season, the PFL staged fights between two athletes represented by Dominance MMA, which is as clear of a conflict of interest as you get. In fact, one of the promotion’s tournament finals -- which, may I remind you, is worth $1 million to the winner -- is between featherweights Siler and Palmer, both of whom share the same management. Inherent to this is a failing on a regulatory level, as most commissions simply overlook this or don’t care when it comes to MMA, for whatever sad reason, despite the fact that most jurisdictions take these protocols quite seriously when it comes to boxing. The potential for managers to influence illegitimate outcomes is obvious if they control the majority of a talent of pool, or worse, both parties in a specific fight. Go google “Don King Tim Witherspoon” if you want an illustration of what I mean.
It doesn’t matter whether or not anything nefarious actually happens in reality, either; even the appearance of impropriety is a major issue. For instance, at PFL 10, Nurmagomedov soundly defeated Velickovic to advance to the welterweight semifinals against fellow Dagestani Magomed Magomedkerimov, only to then pull out of his second fight of the night, citing a hand injury. Not only are Nurmagomedov and Magomedkerimov acquainted and friendly, but they’re both Dominance MMA clients. Was Nurmagomedov really hurt, or did some shady managerial finessing happen? We’ll never know, but we’re forced to consider the very real option simply because of the relationships in play. It’s insane for the PFL to continue allowing Abdel-Aziz to puppeteer the promotion when doing so exposes it to cynical but justifiable doubt and, potentially, legitimate risk to its business.
Zen and the Art of Watching Fights with the Sound Off
Sports fans love to moan and groan about commentary, so this is not fundamentally unique to MMA. As someone who has done live commentary, I’m fully aware that it’s not an easy job and the slightest screw-up to get you absolutely roasted by your audience. Whether it’s play-by-play, color commentary or in-ring, sideline or backstage interviewing, it takes a special sort of broadcaster to be able to deliver information, generate interesting insights, transform them verbally and captivate the audience. All this to say, I might be fussy on the subject, but I’m understanding and often sympathetic to poor sports broadcasting. With that said, help us out here, PFL; or at least help yourself.
Let me first say, I’ve been critical of Bas Rutten in the booth for years. He’s long removed from his glory era on the stick working with Stephen Quadros and Mauro Ranallo -- sorry Damon Perry. While his status as an MMA pioneer and legend is never in question, when it comes to commentary, his lack of research, frequent disinterest and wacky uncle-style humor tend to undermine his legitimate ability to offer real technical insights, which only comes out in infrequent bursts. However, Rutten is not the real problem with PFL broadcasts, not by a long shot. It’s Todd Harris. It’s always Todd Harris.
Obviously, the PFL airs on NBCSN, so the network wants to use one of its in-house broadcasters. Fine, just don’t let it be this guy. One only needs to do a cursory google search for “Todd Harris MMA” to find a decade’s worth of fight fans screaming about the extent to which he ruins broadcasts and, by extension, their enjoyment of the actual product. I get that he looks and sounds like what people -- especially suit-and-tie types -- think a sportscaster is supposed to look and sound like, but anyone who knows the first thing about fights is almost immediately annoyed and then promptly driven to near insanity by listening to the kind of inane things that come out of his mouth. He actively makes his color commentators worse. What’s crazier is that he has been calling MMA for a decade now, yet he’s learned nothing. He’s still the exact same guy who, at WEC 53 -- one of the 10 best MMA cards ever -- suggested that Donald Cerrone should be stood up while he had a triangle on Chris Horodecki. If anything, he has gotten worse.
During the PFL 10 main event between Sy and Abusupiyan Magomedov, with the latter in full mount, Harris asked commentator Randy Couture, “What does he do from here? Does he move to side control? Does he go to full mount?” Couture, clearly taken aback by Harris’ incompetence, could only offer a pregnant pause before saying “He is in mount” in a confused and stupefied tone. Earlier in the night, Harris confused half guard with a triangle somehow. Keep in mind, the PFL is a product largely consumed by hardcore MMA fans who are (a) familiar with Harris and aware of his track record of idiocy and (b) have absolutely no patience for this kind of blathering. Broadcasters are supposed to enhance the viewing experience, not cheapen and contaminate it. If your play-by-play person is driving fans to the mute button as a matter of rule, you have a problem to fix.
Know what makes it all worse? The PFL has the pieces to fix it. One of its light heavyweight tournament finalists, Sean O'Connell, did play-by-play for the first three fights before getting sent to do desk duty for the rest of the night. O’Connell, an experienced and smart MMA veteran, formerly hosted an all-purpose sports show for ESPN 700 out of Utah and presently does a brilliant job hosting SiriusXM’s Fight Nation. He has a great broadcasting voice and engages his analysts. He has the sort of clever, dry humor that works seamlessly on the air and is able to make you laugh without ever distracting from the broadcast. Getting to hear “The Real OC” call three fights and then having to deal with Harris for the next nine bouts is like being served a gourmet meal and getting a few bites before having it yanked away from you, only to be served a plate of anthrax.
The PFL has all the pieces to put together a fantastic broadcast crew. It would behoove the promotion to treat this sort of thing as a serious issue and plead with NBCSN to put O’Connell in the booth permanently and send Harris back to calling snowboarding, strongman, keelhauling or whatever other sports at which he may excel.
Mahalo For ‘Bradda Boy,’ At Least
PFL 10 wasn’t all dismal, though, and the biggest reason for that was the continued and thrilling emergence of Cooper III, who replicated his July win over veteran Jake Shields by knocking out the former Strikeforce champion twice as fast in their rematch. He then avenged his loss from 11 months ago to Handesson Ferreira, smoking the Brazilian in less than three minutes. The 25-year-old Hawaiian is now 17-4 as a pro, having finished all 17 of his victims. That includes a dozen knockouts.
Quite simply, “Bradda Boy” is fun to watch. He continues to improve with every fight, especially as it relates to his takedown defense, as evidenced in his thrashing of Ferreira, who handed him a sound decision loss in November. Come New Year’s Eve, Cooper III will take on rugged Dagestani Magomedkerimov in the welterweight tournament final. If he wins, not only will he be a million dollars richer, but he’ll be a frontrunner for “Breakthrough Fighter of the Year,” alongside fighters like Tatiana Suarez and Dominick Reyes. The PFL has a handful of talented prospects still sharpening their games, like the aforementioned Palmer, Harris, Mamedov and Nurmagomedov, as well as the likes of Shamil Gamzatov and Robert Watley. However, Cooper might just be the best of the bunch, given his natural gifts, what he’s already accomplished and the fact that he’s only started scratching the surface of his potential. If he’s not the best prospect on the PFL roster, he’s most certainly the most entertaining and that is still supremely significant.
Frankly, I might be a little biased here. It’s not just that I dig Cooper’s Hawaiian throwback, power-punching style; it’s that I’m taken by the fact that the second-generation fighter is a charming evolution of his father and original “Bradda,” Ray Cooper. The elder Cooper was never the best fighter. He certainly lacked in the submission defense department, which is still perhaps the weakest part of his son’s game, though Cooper III has made major strides in that department. However, I always had a soft spot for Cooper as an always-entertaining journeyman who just had this natural, effortless punching power, no matter if he was standing up or on the ground.
That’s what I dig most about “Bradda Boy.” Above and beyond Cooper III’s potential and entertainment value, it fascinates and heartens me see how, even though he is a more evolved, well-rounded version of his father, the apple still doesn’t fall from the tree. He throws his punches the same way. When he drops a fighter or whips an opponent to the floor with an underhook, he has the same measured-yet-relentless ground-and-pound, swarming his foe while smartly picking his shots. He finished off Shields and Ferreira in virtually the same fashion, and in those moments, it was like I was watching his dad do exactly the same thing in SuperBrawl or Shooto 15 years ago. That sort of connection to the sport’s past is one of the things that always drives my interest in the future of the MMA and in this case the PFL itself.