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FREE ENTRY: https://t.co/byQeRGitZJ pic.twitter.com/hH8qkJEQkm — #PFLmma (@ProFightLeague) December 21, 2018
As the Professional Fighters League’s inaugural season comes to a close, PFL League President Carlos Silva and his staff already have grand designs for the future. Before the company prepares for what is to come, all eyes are on the 2018 PFL Championships on New Year’s Eve inside the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York -- an event that will see the start of the league’s partnership with gambling powerhouse Draft Kings.
“I think everyone was in a wait-and-see [mindset],” Silva said, “and as each event progressed, from June into the playoffs, you could see that they knew [fighters] had gotten an opportunity that they [haven’t had] before. I think we all looked at this new season sort of as a journey together.”
After 10 events -- which included three one-night tournaments -- Silva believes the league as a whole produced better-than-expected results, and the fighters were appreciative to be a part of the process.
“I know they all really appreciated what [PFL Fighter Ops President] Ray [Sefo], the team and our management did for them,” he said.
The 11th event will be the most significant yet for the PFL, as the promotion finally delivers on its season-long promise to crown champions in six weight classes and turn them into millionaires.
“I have to tell you,” Silva said, “every single matchup you look at, you sort of forget that there’s another matchup that is just as exciting.”
The mixed martial arts fan inside the PFL executive is thrilled for a couple of bouts in particular, with the welterweight championship clash between Hawaiian Ray Cooper III and Russian Magomed Magomedkerimov leading the way. The matchup also serves as the main event for the card.
“What Ray Cooper’s done this year, it’s phenomenal,” Silva said. “The speed and the power that he has shown has been pretty breathtaking. Even veterans like Jake Shields, backstage after that second fight [between them] just said, ‘Man, those hands were really heavy.’ I’m certainly excited to see how Ray responds in the championship against a really tough Magomedkerimov, who’s slippery, smart [and] really a good tactical fighter; but we’ll see if Ray’s got too much power for him.”
The league president is also intrigued by the light heavyweight final between Ultimate Fighting Championship veterans Vinny Magalhaes and Sean O’Connell.
“[Magalhaes has] been fit, he looks great, [and] he’s already a world champion in a discipline,” Silva said, “[and] now in MMA, he’s really put his head and his body around how he becomes the PFL champion this year.”
Silva expects fireworks because he is fully away that O’Connell has done nothing but surprise during the 2018 season and has shown himself to be a man who cannot be underestimated. While those two bouts stand out, he loves them all equally.
“Those are just two,” Silva said, “but all six fights … I’m excited for each one of them.”
The league’s first championship event marks the beginning of an added feature that will be a mainstay for the foreseeable future: a new working relationship with online gambling site Draft Kings. The partnership started on Dec. 21, with the open of registration for a game based around the league championship that has a $25,000 prize pool. Users of the site will be able to bet on all six championship fights or individual bouts. Along with picking a winning fighter, users can bet on the specific result of the fight, as well as the time in which it ends.
“I do think it’s unique,” Silva said, “[and] I think it’s going to be a lot of fun for the users.”
During the NBC Sports Network broadcast of the 2018 PFL Championships -- and future events -- viewers will be made aware of the exclusive game on Draft Kings and when betting for bouts closes.
“Randy [Couture], Todd [Harris], Bas [Rutten], Yves [Edwards] and Caroline [Pearce] will all be talking about the matchups, what it looks like and make sure they remind everyone to go to DraftKings.com/PFLMMA,” Silva said. “I think it’s the beginning of a great partnership with Draft Kings. We’re super excited about it.”
While the PFL season will draw to a close, the work will not end for Silva and his staff. After a week of rest to reflect on the campaign that was, the team will continue work on the in-progress plans for 2019. A priority in coming months will be to round out the roster for all six men’s divisions and the newly created women’s lightweight division, anchored by two-time Olympic judo gold medalist Kayla Harrison. She will also be competing for the third time under the PFL banner on New Year’s Eve.
“All of our fighters in 2018 were under multi-year contracts, so there are no issues in terms of renewing and moving forward with those folks that made it deep into the playoffs,” Silva said. “Those things, from a contract perspective, are already set for 2019.”
As of now, every single semifinalist is guaranteed a spot on the Season 2 roster. This includes Abubakar Nurmagomedov, who reached the semis at welterweight but was unable to compete in them due to a hand injury. Silva already has a working roster of 25 fighters.
“We’ll start in January, getting to 50 fighters,” he said, “and in February, [we will work on] getting to a full roster.”
Over the next three months, announcements will be made regarding new additions to the roster and the possible return of fighters -- heavyweight Kevin Tiller and welterweight Joao Zeferino are prime examples -- who had impressive seasons but fell short of reaching the semifinals for various reasons. One fighter whose future remains in question is Shields, who admitted as much in an interview with Sherdog in October: “I can look back and say I had a good career, so I don’t feel too bummed about [possibly retiring].”
Silva appreciates what Shields has given to the sport in over 19 years as a competitor, and he plans to check in with the fighter and his management about another run for $1 million in 2019.
“We said it throughout as we entered into 2018, Jake’s a big name,” he said. “He’s fought everyone. He’s beaten so many great fighters. I think he has been a great fighter for the World Series of Fighting and the Professional Fighters League. I think he came up against a young superstar in Ray Cooper, and that happens to anyone in any sport. We’ll be looking to talk to Jake and his management as we get into January about his plans for 2019.”
Since November, rumors have circulated about the UFC’s flyweight division being dissolved, meaning many talented 125-pound fighters could be available to the highest bidders. Silva plans to keep a close eye on the situation as it unfolds. However, with the UFC souring on flyweights and Bellator MMA yet to officially create the weight class, he realizes the North American market has been a difficult place to be a flyweight fighter.
“There’s definitely been a North American reluctance to jump on some undoubtedly amazing fighters that can do things some of the big guys can’t,” Silva said. “We won’t be adding any additional weight classes for 2019, but there are always opportunities; and like any smart, growing sports league, we’ll keep an eye on the developments in 2019 and see if there should be some changes in 2020.”
As the league grows, international expansion seems inevitable. A group of representatives from the company recently took a trip to the nation state of Monaco to talk with international broadcast outlets about having PFL events shown on major networks outside of the United States.
“We had some great meetings over there. Things are progressing nicely in some big regions, and we’ll be making announcements after the championship, as well,” Silva said. “I think after Season 2 we’ll look at some international opportunities [to host events outside America].”
Silva feels positive about the current state of the league, its roster, its future and the product being offered to fans.
“Everyone [among fighters and staff] does seem happy,” he said. “Everyone is working hard, and I think the fans are getting the results and getting to see a great product.”