New Years Eve 2018 concluded the first season of the Professional Fighters League (PFL). That night was a celebration, not only of the first ever champions and earners of the life-changing million-dollar checks, but, the celebration of a concept that not many people would make it that long. Now with a second season starting on May 9, there are less questions looming about the feasibility of the promotion and more excitement about what the next season will bring.
Ray Sefo, President and head of Talent Relations at PFL says he was very satisfied with how the first season went and that they proved the naysayers wrong.
“I thought the season went great, I thought everything, the fighters showed up every time. The feedback from the fans, from the managers and from the fighters has been nothing but positive. I think the 2018 season; our first season was actually a great success. For people who doubted whether we were going to be around or not, we proved we have a good product, we proved that the format works, we proved that everyone got paid and now we’re proving again that we’re going to be on ESPN. So all I’m saying to those who doubted, just tune in and enjoy the show. We’re doing big things in the sport and we’re going to do that and we’re going to continue to move forward.”
As Sefo mentioned, PFL’s second season will air on ESPN and their family of networks. The organization signed a two-year deal with the worldwide leader in sports which they announced on the Ariel Helwani MMA Show. Sefo said they were in talks with all major networks, CBS, Fox, NBC and Amazon as early as July before coming to a deal with ESPN, which he didn’t believe was possible when ESPN inked a deal with the UFC.
“We thought once the deal with the UFC was done, we thought we’d probably go with one of the other ones, one of the other networks. We were really close to doing the Fox deal and ESPN reached out again. They (ESPN) wanted to build their combat world on sports and they wanted us to be part of it as well. It really worked really well for us as well. They are the leader of sports as well, the fact that they have UFC and us as well, I think it really sets the tone of where they want to be and where they want to go with the combat world but also it validates who we are, PFL and our fighters get to fight on the premier sports network.”
He also said there was no hesitancy in signing a deal with ESPN even though they signed the UFC as well.
“Not at all, there was no hesitance at all, the fact that ESPN wanted to build their combat sports network, it just felt right, it felt good. Like I said, we didn’t know this opportunity was possible so when it came to light it was possible, a deal was worked out and here we are.”
The biggest to change to the PFL is obviously the network in which it will be showcased on, but the second most important aspect and the one that matters the most is the roster. As the head of talent operations, Sefo has control over who represents the PFL in the cage. In their first season, the PFL featured around 80 fighters and Sefo says less than half are returning this year (around 30) and that over 90 percent of the new fighters added to the roster, reached out to him for a chance to win a million dollars.
“Last year we took guys that were experienced but, someone might’ve come off of a loss, we kinda allowed for that to happen just because it was the first season so we needed a few good fighters. I was willing to overlook if the guy had one loss and not like crazy, crazy, like six losses or something like that, you know what I mean? This year, the majority, I wanted like 99 percent guys coming off a winning record and experience is a factor. We watched a lot of video on fighters…out of 80 fighters from last year, I think we released 50, so the other 50 we’re getting this year…they’re definitely in a higher level of the game if you will.”
In terms of who was brought back, Sefo said that it was determined by how they performed in the regular season and post season, citing Alex “The Spartan” Nicholson as the prime example of someone they are bringing back.
“Obviously, the guys that made the semifinals are coming back, at most anyway as well as the guys who made the finals. We thought it was fair and they deserved to come back. And then there were guys who didn’t make the semi-finals but, had a really good season, their character was strong. I’ll use Alex Nicholson for example, his first regular season fight he made the ESPN (top ten) because he won by flying knee knockout and I thought he fought really well through out the season and I thought he fought well in the quarter finals in the playoffs. Guys like that, I thought deserved to come back and there were a few other guys.”
As far as the fighters brought in from outside the organization, Sefo said that the reactions he received from the fighters and managers were tremendous and that they reached out to him.
“They were very excited, I want to say at least 95 percent of the people we signed this year all reached out to us. Once we made the connection, they were super excited and couldn’t wait to be a part of it. So, the reactions were very positive, the majority of the guys were like “man, we watched the last season and we’re really grateful for the opportunity.” Even managers were saying the same thing.”
And as mentioned earlier, he believes the level of competition will be much higher this year.
“I think I’ve signed three or four world champions, it’s going to be good.”
There will also be well-recognized names from the world of kickboxing who have proven themselves in MMA and need a step up in competition.
“Some world kickboxing champions that have an 8-0 or 9-0 MMA records but they have 80 kickboxing fights.”
The biggest roster change this season will be replacing the middleweight division with a women’s lightweight division. Sefo said the team felt the middleweight division wasn’t as deep as their other divisions and that they are committed to brining in the women’s division which his headlined by Olympic gold-medalist Kayla Harrison. There isn’t another major organization with a women’s lightweight division, so many were skeptical of who PFL would be bringing in but Sefo said it was easier than he thought it would be and he is very happy with whom he was able to sign.
“To be honest, I thought it was going to be but it turned out to be easier than I thought.”
“I’m very happy with some of the women that we’ve got. Some of them are 45ers that moved up to 55.”
He also believes he has signed Harrison’s toughest test yet.
“I think so, that’s for sure.”
More news will be breaking in the upcoming weeks as the roster is unveiled in a series on ESPN and its family of networks. The season officially starts on May 9 at the Coliseum in Long Island, NY.