Cancelling a season is no easy decision for any sports league. Case in point: Just about everyone from the NFL and MLB on down the list to more obscure sports organizations determined to press ahead, albeit with safety protocols and, in some cases, isolated “bubbles” to protect athletes from COVID-19.
That’s what made Professional Fighters League’s determination in late April to postpone its 2020 campaign stand out. The move only looked more unusual after the UFC, the top promotion in MMA, and Bellator, PFL’s top competition for the No. 2 name in the fight game, returned to hosting live events in May and July, respectively. PFL, meanwhile, did not host another event last year.
But PFL CEO Peter Murray stands by the “difficult” decision to err on the side of caution when it came to COVID-19 as the league gears up to return to its regular-season format — unique in the MMA world — beginning April 23 at a location yet to be announced and airing on ESPN platforms. In speaking with The Post recently via Zoom, he cited fighter safety and a desire to maintain the league’s season-based format as factors in remaining out of the cage all year.
“We were fortunate in that COVID hit before the start of our season, unlike other major sports leagues,” Murray said. “… And with fighters from 25 countries, safety was most important.
“… And then No. 2, maintaining the integrity of our sports season format, where over a roughly seven- to eight-month period we stage a regular season, a playoff, and a championship format where fighters are fighting four or five times. That was very important to us given the success that we had with 2018 and 2019. We felt a truncated season didn’t make sense. One-off events absolutely did not make sense.”
Even with PFL, which was rebranded from World Series of Fighting in 2017, creating content in the form of original programming available on ESPN platforms, sacrifices were made without the in-arena and television revenue from live events. Some were let go, with Murray saying in most cases these cuts “were tied to essential live-event personnel.” All who remained with the company took a 20-percent pay cut. Murray says that included him and other executives.
Although some fighters were let go, Bronx native Murray said those that remained with the promotion received guarantees that they would be granted the opportunity to participate in the 2021 season. Fighters were provided “a minimum of a $1,000” monthly stipend that ran through the end of the year, he said. Murray adds all were granted the opportunity to fight for “other regional competitions” if they chose, which 2019 women’s lightweight champion Kayla Harrison, among others, took advantage of in November by competing for midwest-based, women-only Invicta FC.
Not all were pleased with the way things were handled. Two-time PFL featherweight season winner Lance Palmer expressed frustration on social media and mentioned planned litigation, which reportedly did not actually move forward. From Murray’s perspective, “there is no animosity” with one of PFL’s top homegrown stars, for whom his organization has “nothing but the utmost respect as a two-time champion.”
With six regular-season events scheduled between April 23 and June 25, followed by playoffs and a year-end championship, Murray said PFL intends to hire back some personnel who were cut, in addition to hiring new staff.
Additionally, PFL will utilize a bubble format as a means to enact virus protocols. Murray said theirs would be “no different [from] the NBA or NHL, other leagues who have successfully executed that.” He added that they would “absolutely” go above and beyond what the athletic commission would require, although his organization was not yet ready to go into specifics.
“We‘ll be leveraging those best practices of other major leagues and also looking at what’s working in the fight game, in other promotions,” Murray said. “So that’s our model: Keep the athletes insulated and safe, get ‘em through, and it’ll be a great season.”
While confident that PFL’s protocols for testing and safety will protect athletes and keep them from missing out on opportunities to earn standings points toward qualifying for the postseason, Murray said there are contingencies for if things don’t go as planned. He added that rescheduling fights is “in the mix.”
Although no season was held, PFL added some star power to its stable with the additions of former UFC champions Anthony Pettis and Fabricio Werdum for the 2021 season, as well as inking the top pound-for-pound woman in boxing, Claressa Shields, for a future season. Adding more household names to the league emboldens Murray with confidence in the quality of shows PFL will put on this upcoming season.
“The ‘21 [season], as it relates to roster quality and mega-matchups that, in our view, are pay-per-view [quality] cards throughout the regular season, it’s off the hook,” Murray said.