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When MMA on television was more of a novelty, promotions could build their brands slowly by putting on quality cards and rising in popularity gradually. That model has become increasingly difficult. With so much competition, only the biggest events really captivate the masses. The Ultimate Fighting Championship’s biggest cards are as big—if not bigger—than ever, but its non-marquee pay-per-views barely register. Triller has been a supernova in the combat sports landscape with costly gambles, while more cautious companies have spent years going nowhere.
For years, the Professional Fighters League has raised plenty of capital without that translating into something that that has truly captured the complete attention of the broad combat sports fan base. The reason for that investment has become increasingly clear as sports owners like Ted Leonsis heavily invested in sports gambling have turned the PFL into a vehicle for gambling on the fights. However, those opportunities to monetize on interest in gambling will go all the further if there are fights that attract broad public interest.
Luckily for the PFL, it has a fight that has the potential to be orders of magnitude bigger than any fight the promotion has ever put on in the past. The dominant and charismatic two-time Olympic gold medalist Kayla Harrison has taken to MMA about as well as could have been imagined, running through opponent after opponent. Her violent destruction of Mariana Morais on May 6 was an ominous warning for anyone who would challenge her in MMA.
Meanwhile, the PFL has also signed the premier female boxer in Claressa Shields. Shields went pro after winning Olympic gold in 2012 and 2016, immediately setting her sights on collecting championships. Sound familiar? Eleven fights in, she has already beaten almost all the top fighters near her weight class and is a three-weight-class world champion. She went pro in boxing only three months before Edmen Shahbazyan went pro in MMA and already she does not have any real challenges left. That lack of a challenge led Shields to explore MMA, and she will make her PFL debut in a month.
The fight all involved are targeting is obvious: the Olympic judoka against the Olympic boxer, the MMA fighter against the boxer, Harrison vs. Shields. It has a similar dynamic to the Ronda Rousey-Cris Cyborg fight that never got made and would be the biggest fight by a wide margin in the history of the PFL. If the fight happens, it won’t even matter if the fight is uncompetitive because it will attract such curiosity. The PFL can take its choice between running a pay-per-view to make more short-term money or negotiating with ESPN to put it on in an attractive time slot that will maximize the number of new viewers.
Harrison-Shields once Shields has a chance to acclimate herself to MMA feels like a no-brainer. There’s only one problem, and it’s a pretty big one: these Harrison fights are being televised. There was a time when many boxers underestimated grapplers because boxers were so celebrated as the toughest fighters around. That time is gone. Shields is entering MMA with open eyes and has been upfront about how she is going to measure her progress in MMA each step of the way. The problem for Shields and for a Shields-Harrison fight is that she would be crazy to accept the fight under MMA rules any time in the near- to medium-term future.
Shields is a great athlete with a useful tool set for MMA. However, Harrison has been grappling for nearly as long as Shields has been alive. Shields will need to devote years just to defensive wrestling to even have a chance, and even then, she won’t have a great chance. This would be an understandable pursuit if there was no money to be made boxing, but Shields has established enough of a name in boxing that she can do well there even if it isn’t commensurate with her level of dominance.
There’s certainly still a chance that Shields eventually agrees to fight Harrison. After all, she’s trying out MMA in the first place and seems clear-eyed about the endeavor. Perhaps she views a fight with Harrison as a worthy challenge or perhaps she just views it as a chance for a nice payday. It will likely come down to pride, whether it pulls Shields away from the fight because she doesn’t want to lose under different rules or whether it drives her to take on a low-probability challenge that would represent a unique bullet point on her resume.
Shields’ decision will be colored by how her MMA performances compare to Harrison’s, and looking at the way Harrison is mauling opponents left and right, it’s hard to imagine Shields won’t have second thoughts at the very least about the wisdom of fighting Harrison under Harrison’s rules. The PFL is surely crossing its fingers that it can get to the big fight. Ironically, Harrison—specifically her dominance—may be the biggest obstacle.
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