Q&A: PFL boss on Ngannou, UFC expansion and adoption

Doha, Qatar Last week, former UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou shook up the world of mixed martial arts (MMA) by signing with the Professional Fighters League (PFL).

The Cameroonian became the latest and biggest name added to the roster of the PFL, which claims to be the second MMA company in the world after the UFC. US Olympic judo gold medalist Kayla Harrison and former UFC champion Anthony Pettis, as well as Biaggio Ali Walsh, grandson of Muhammad Ali, are also fighting in the promotion.

In an exclusive interview with Al Jazeera, PFL founder and chairman Donn Davis has revealed lofty ambitions that include the formation of regional leagues and a league of champions where the best regional fighters will compete for the top spot. The interview below has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Al Jazeera: What are your plans for expansion into the Middle East? Why is the region an attractive prospect for MMA and PFL?

Don Davis: PFL is global. We have fighters from 30 countries and our fighters are sent to 150 countries. But now we want to bring PFL to the fans. If you watch football, there are 10 major leagues around the world because the fans want their own heroes, their own athletes and to see them at their best prime time.

PFL Africa will be the first major company to do so.

We would also like to launch in the Middle East with the best local fighters all events in the region, in local prime time, on streaming and broadcast.

This whole initiative is supposed to be the Champions League of MMA. Local heroes, local pride. The winners of each of these regional leagues get to compete against each other and the very best move up to the PFL Global.

It will create the first global mixed martial arts system. So the PFL wants eight such regional leagues and wants the Middle East to be the second or third league in the network because this region loves martial arts and has a lot of financial support for it.

Al Jazeera: Are you planning to hold events only in the Gulf countries or in other places in the region as well?

Davis: We’re not sure yet, but like most growing companies, we’re testing and refining. The Gulf region can support its own powerful Middle Eastern league.

Al Jazeera: What is your plan for PFL Africa and how will Ngannou fit into it?

Davis: He will play multiple roles. He will fight on our pay-per-view division; be part of our global athlete advisory board to ensure we are the best place for fighters; and as chairman of PFL Africa, play a very hands-on role in building that company and recruiting fighters. He knows what it takes [to be a fighter].

In addition, he will bring media companies and sponsors to the table because he is also a dynamic leader, not just a great fighter.

As for our plans for Africa, we will move up our launch in Africa by a full year. We are scheduled for 2027 but we will announce it for 2025, with four events and a full season.

It will be the format of the sports season win and advance, lose and go home.

Francis Ngannou, in action against Stipe Miocic during a heavyweight mixed martial arts championship at UFC 220 [File: Gregory Payan/AP]

Al Jazeera: Which countries are you thinking of?

Davis: It is still too early to say but what we have learned from Europe that we can recruit the best fighters because of not only the opportunity but the control. They know that if they win, there is a real way. They will go global.

Al Jazeera: What do you think? [UFC boss] Dana Whites comments that Ngannou’s PFL contract doesn’t make sense and that Ngannou is risk averse and won’t face any tough opponents in the PFL?

Davis: I think Francis answered them pretty well. I think if there’s anyone on the planet who has taken the risk, it’s Francis. It took him two years to cross the desert to establish his life. That man has taken some risks.

As for the UFC, what we did made no sense to him [White]. Leaders have their way of doing business.

New companies are being built all the time. They are creative, innovative and tend to think differently about market opportunities. If all big companies were smart, agile, no new companies would ever be built. So naturally, big companies think a new small business isn’t doing things right.

Al Jazeera: Former UFC champion Conor McGregor also said, who is he [Ngannou] going to fight? Who will he fight that will capture the public? There is no one. There is no matchup that I can even think of that I can even tell myself is going to make it big. How would you respond to his comments?

Davis: People have to wait and see they will be surprised. They need to retract their comments.

As for Francis’ legacy, in 10 years, no one will remember who Francis fought next.

But they remember that he was the one who changed MMA for every single fighter because he showed them that they had an alternative, that he made more money in MMA than any other fighter, he opened up the entire continent of Africa to other fighters.

They remember that he did much more than any of them, and not who he fought next.

Al Jazeera: Who would you like his first fight to be against?

Davis: It’s not something Francis is worried about.

We have a year to go [to decide]. Great fighters and great matchups pop up all the time.

Al Jazeera: Many would love to see Ngannou against current UFC heavyweight champion Jon Jones. Is there any ambition to sign Jones and make it happen?

Davis: We think like a fan first so we’re willing to do anything that’s good for the fans because it’s good for business eventually.

We would promote any fight.

If Jon Jones and the UFC want to fight Francis, we would promote that fight. If there’s a fight the fans want to see, well do it.

Al Jazeera: Regarding the rest of the list and in the interest of transparency, what kind of percentage of the PFL’s revenue do your fighters make?

Davis: As a private company, we haven’t disclosed it, but what we have disclosed is that our pay-per-view division will split the revenue 50-50. Not just profits, revenue and we’ve been very public about that.

When you pay as a consumer for pay-per-view, you pay to watch these fighters.

The UFC or PFL brands are secondary to the two main fighters. We think it’s a fair model in pay-per-view, and it’s a model we invested in our pay-per-view super division.

Al Jazeera: Is there any truth to the reports that you would like to buy MMA promotion Bellator?

Davis: I can’t comment on anything that we may or may not be working on.

Al Jazeera: You say the PFL is the second MMA production in the world, but ONE Championship is arguably the second biggest martial arts organization after the UFC and recently held its first event in the US. ONE also intends to build its presence in the Middle East. How concerned are you about its growth and ambitions?

Davis: There are only four metrics you would measure all sports by: The percentage of athletes in terms of their ranking, viewership, revenue or the amount of paid distribution.

On all four of these metrics, PFL is number two in the world.

I can’t comment on other people’s claims, but those are the facts that make the PFL the number two MMA company in the world.

Our goal is to exceed our business plan and we have no worries about where other people are.

In just five years we have gained this market position and this fan following and have become the preferred destination for top fighters in the world. I think we’ve proven what we can do to our media partners and our fans, and most importantly, to fighters.

Francis chose the PFL. Jake Paul chose PFL. Most fighters who left the UFC chose the PFL.

PFL Chairman Donn Davis speaks at the Qatar Economic Forum 2023 in Doha, Qatar [Courtesy of Professional Fighters League]

Al Jazeera: What is the ultimate goal of the PFL is it to challenge the supremacy of the UFC? Is it possible, especially in light of their level of dominance, their revenue, their status in the US and their recent merger with WWE? How does PFL achieve that? What can the PFL do that the UFC can’t?

Davis: UFC is clearly the number one company. But the MMA market is very large and the fans are underserved.

There are 600 million MMA fans and the UFC only offers 40 events a year. There will be a second very large company globally. This market is big enough for at least two large companies. PFL is number two today and we like to be co-leaders.

Five years ago we had zero fighters, zero employees and zero viewers. In the next five years, we would like to become a co-leader because this market is big enough for more than one [leader].

Al Jazeera: How do you plan to recruit fighters in Africa and the Middle East?

Davis: We have a database of about 30,000 fighters. We’ve hired some of the best people who made Moneyball out of baseball and created a system for identifying talent, including the human scouting we use for top-level athletes.

But for people in Africa, India and Asia in general, we need to identify fighters early and we have a database that does that. We have approximately 50 prospects in Africa who were interested. Its for a league that is a year and a half away.

Our advantage is that we use technology more than others and borrow systems from other sports.

A PFL 3 fight in 2023 at The Theater at Virgin Hotels in Las Vegas, Nevada [Cooper Neill/PFL]

Al Jazeera: What kind of support do fighters in the Middle East and Africa need and how do you plan to provide it to develop successful leagues?

Davis: We think the biggest thing we can do is to create the leagues in Africa and the Middle East because it will create a real path.

In addition, develop and promote local fighters. They can be broadcast in prime time with the premium partners regionally. They can get paid more, which allows them to get better training, better coaches, and maybe give up a second job for a while.

The only way to do that is to be persistent and structural. If you export a big fight, like the UFC does to the region once a year, it’s like coming in and leaving. You create awareness, but you do not develop structurally.

Muhammad Ali’s grandson Biaggio Ali Walsh beat Isaiah Figueroa at 2023 PFL 2 at The Theater at Virgin Hotels in Las Vegas, April 7, 2023 [Cooper Neill/PFL]

Al Jazeera: With the high cost of mobile broadband in Africa and the sport’s reliance on social media, how do you overcome the challenges these regions present in building a successful brand?

Davis: In emerging countries, consumption of sports is improving as bandwidth costs become more accessible to more people. The biggest problem is that most premium sports are behind a double paywall, you pay for a subscription, then you pay more for a premium subscription.

Today, the UFC can be seen by less than 5 percent of people in Africa or India. It’s a real barrier. So our goal with PFL Africa is to create more free to watch.

Fans will incur bandwidth costs but will not incur additional costs.

Our goal is for 50 percent of Africa to be able to watch PFL Africa.

Al Jazeera: As for streaming, will it be free to watch?

Davis: That is the plan we are working on.

Al Jazeera: You’ve mentioned India as a potential market, but how do you tap into a cricket-crazy market and make it work?

Davis: All countries need more than one sport. Europe is football crazy and yet MMA is the fastest growing in Europe.

Everyone has something they love.

What I think is so promising about MMA in India is cricket and what else? Cricket is long and MMA is 15 minutes. What’s better on your cell phone in 15 minutes?

So if you ask me, in 20 years, I think India will be the biggest market for MMA in the world.

If you look at delivery on mobile, if you look at the installed fan base now, it will take 20 years but it will be the number one sport.

The only country that can challenge it is China.

So in 20 years one of India or China will be the number one MMA consuming nation.

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