Plowing Ahead With Optimism into an Unknown Future

By Josh Gross Oct 23, 2020
“For Eddie?” A nod of the head from the man in the doorway confirmed to Sheymon Moraes that he was in the right spot.

Many professional mixed martial artists are fighting during the COVID-19 pandemic. Sports organizations around the globe, including just about every MMA show, managed to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on their athletes. The 30-year-old Brazilian, a five-fight Ultimate Fighting Championship veteran at 145 pounds who signed with the Professional Fighters League in the spring, is not in that group. Moraes has been forced to scratch together an income away from the cage after the PFL opted not to find a way for its athletes to safely compete this year. Postponing the PFL season to salvage the integrity of the young league’s eight-month-long regular season, playoff and championship format while allaying health and safety concerns for its fighters and staff meant fighters would be impacted in a variety of ways.

After tapping out on its 2020 campaign, PFL CEO Peter Murray believes, despite some discontent in the group, the correct decision was made.

“We don’t live in a world of ‘what could have been,’” Murray said in late September. “Are we disappointed and also empathize with the fighters? Absolutely, but the decision was the right one. At this point in time, it didn’t make sense to have a truncated season or one-offs. That’s really the decision making.”

An abundance of caution is not the default setting among MMA stakeholders. The UFC, of course, aggressively pushed to promote fights while the pandemic washed over the United States in the spring. It was rewarded with Justin Gaethje’s merciless performance in Jacksonville, Florida, where he plastered Tony Ferguson on May 9 and earned the right to fight unbeaten lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov in a bout that will attract the world’s attention this Saturday at UFC 254. More than 20 UFC cards have been promoted and distributed via ESPN since fighters returned to the Octagon. Churning out many of the biggest events of the year, the UFC is rightly credited with getting MMA back in circulation during difficult times.

While local events struggled with the economics of promoting during a pandemic, a wide assortment of mid- and elite-level MMA promotions were able to follow the UFC’s lead, proving nimble enough to fulfill their media rights agreements and produce fights. Bellator MMA fighters got back to work in July, and the ViacomCBS property will reach 12 events in four months when a pair of the promotion’s champions, Gegard Mousasi and Douglas Lima, meet on the Oct. 29 for the middleweight title. Five events apiece from the UFC and Bellator this month exemplify the heavy MMA schedule.

Being forced to the sidelines for a year because of a decision from a promoter has stoked tensions between the PFL and fighters on its roster. Two-time defending PFL featherweight champion Lance Palmer boiled over in July and went from publicly posturing over his inability to compete or earn a living to threatening lawsuits. New Jersey-based trial attorney Harley Breite, longtime legal counsel for Renzo Gracie and other members of the Gracie family, told Sherdog.com that Palmer will attempt to free himself from his contract. Palmer is “done with PFL,” Breite said.

The league declined to address the threat of a civil suit. Breite noted that the PFL has not responded to a letter he sent seeking a dialogue over Palmer’s concerns.

“That leaves me to draw the reasonable inference that not only don’t they care about their fighters, they don’t intend to act in a professional manner with regard to the pending litigation,” he said.

Breite called Palmer’s 26-page contract “oppressive” and claimed he would take action against the PFL before the end of October.

Prior to winning his second straight million-dollar featherweight tournament in 2019, Palmer agreed to re-sign with the PFL rather than venture off into free agency. He stayed out of what he called loyalty. Now tensions have risen to the point that Palmer will not consider taking the league’s offer of a $1,000 stipend—or the release that comes with it—and the PFL opted against referencing the 33-year-old in Tuesday’s press release touting its 2021 regular season schedule.

Palmer told Sherdog.com in July that the PFL used the pandemic to extend contracts, claiming unhappy fighters “are afraid to say something and that’s kind of why I wanted to make my voice be heard.”

Others, though, have expressed their displeasure. Malki Kawa, the manager for Brendan Loughnane and Justin Willis, posted on social media in July that he was seeking the fighters’ release from the PFL due to their inability to get paid for fighting; and Croatian heavyweight Ante Delija was pulled from UFC Fight Night 180 on Oct. 17 after the PFL laid claim to his promotional rights.

“Unfortunately, the PFL ignored all legal letters and deliberately put obstacles in my way and took away my chance to fight in the UFC on Saturday,” Delija told ESPN. “My management team has already instructed our lawyer to take the next legal steps, and we will be looking into what future steps we will be making.”

However, the PFL made concessions for some fighters. Clay Collard upped his profile by winning three bouts on Top Rank’s ESPN boxing cards over the summer. He was scheduled to box a fourth time on Oct. 17, but he tested positive for COVID-19. Heavyweight Mohammed Usman was allowed an MMA bout with Titan Fighting Championship, which he won, and he could fight again over the next six months if he wanted. Tom Lawlor participated in pro wrestling events after his manager, Daniel Rubenstein, told Murray and a lawyer for the PFL that the light heavyweight could not feed his family off of the promotion’s $1,000 a month stipend.

“As a business decision for them, I don’t think it was a bad decision,” said Rubenstein, who represents Lawlor, alongside PFL fighters Johnny Cage and Chris Camozzi. “What I do think is it showed that they’re not really in the business of fighting, if that makes sense. They’re not in the business of doing fights. They’re in the business of getting a TV deal and sponsors and all the other s--- that comes with it. The fact that [Legacy Fighting Alliance] is doing fights and the PFL isn’t really shows you where the different promotions heads are at.”

Speaking with Yahoo! Finance earlier this month, PFL co-founder Donn Davis said the lost year will not hurt the league because it spent the hiatus building muscle on the distribution side and engaging its audience with in-house produced content for various distribution platforms. Those efforts and the early launch of PFL’s OTT app doubled audience engagement, according to the league.

“We have momentum and a scalable business,” Murray said, referencing an estimated 450 million MMA fans worldwide that the PFL regards as potential fight watchers. “All that other product, that regional product around the world, is great for the sport. It helps develop fighters that we recruit from, but it’s not scalable. We’re focused on growing the sport and driving scale behind the PFL league. I will tell you, never put the PFL in a bucket that we’re just a league because you’ll start to see us further establish our league format. We will be staging superfights. We will be staging pay-per-view events. It’s all part of our game plan.”

The PFL culled portions of its roster in the spring, and roughly a third of its 68 spots across six weight divisions remain open for “star athletes and new signings who will be coming into the mix next year,” said Murray, who brings years of sports and marketing experience with him to the CEO position after reporting to the likes of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for 13 years.

When the “pandemic stopped the world,” Moraes kept his spot, but he transitioned from thinking about rebuilding his MMA career to making sure that rent and other bills were covered. Moraes joined the league hoping to fight more in one season than he did in three years with the UFC—a relationship that left him financially exposed. “I made no money with the UFC,” Moraes said. Upset as he was with the PFL’s postponement, Moraes regarded the virus as a clear and present danger, and he accepted that the league was doing the best it could under the circumstances.

News of PFL’s return on Tuesday lifted Moraes’ spirits. Determined to step back in the gym, Moraes said that between trips to Black House, where he trained since arriving in the U.S., he plans to continue deliveries for Uber Eats and Amazon.

“I make more money delivering food than fighting,” he said without sarcasm.

A half-day’s worth of pickups and drop-offs can pay $500, so Moraes does not expect to stop until after the season resumes. When that happens, the muay Thai fighter hopes to run into Palmer as he eyes a three-peat with the PFL.

“We were supposed to fight a long time ago, and he broke his hand,” Moraes said. “This is the guy I would love to face.”

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