The Professional Fighters League, the world’s No 2-ranked mixed martial arts company, has identified the UAE as potentially the next destination in its expansion, with the promotion looking to base a regional league in the Emirates – and perhaps even this year’s money-spinning world championship finale.
The Professional Fighters League (PFL), which in June announced the launch of an offshoot European league, is currently assessing several opportunities to both stage year-round events and develop Middle Eastern talent in the UAE, with Dubai of particular interest.
PFL CEO Peter Murray visited the emirate last month to sound out a number of potential opportunities, including establishing a league that could feed athletes into the company’s global competition.
“There’s an incredible amount of interest to grow the sport of MMA throughout the UAE, including Dubai,” Murray told The National. “We were meeting with stakeholders to collaborate on how to advance Dubai in becoming a real force and at the forefront of the next phase of growth of MMA.
“No 1, there is an underserved consumer base throughout the UAE for fans who want access to more quality MMA and events. And, with respect to athletes, there’s a growing fighter base at the grassroots level, amateur level, and pro level who are looking for outlets and opportunities to compete on a major stage.
“We believe now is the time, based on the consumer market and the talent supply, to put more resource into developing the sport, including developing fighters.
“What does that mean? Firstly, staging major, global events in the region, in Dubai, throughout the year, combined with regional events and competition.
“We just announced PFL Europe and, as we see it, the UAE is absolutely a top region, a top priority, and a market where we will have a regional league, so PFL UAE. That’s a priority and we intend to roll that out. We’re in the process of assessing a multitude of options to do that as well as partnerships.
“There’s interest throughout UAE and other parts of the region. We’re assessing the right path and the right partner, and we’re very excited. Again, as a whole, it’s really good for the Middle East and the UAE that the PFL will invest in growing the sport of MMA, signing athletes from grassroots, providing pro athletes regional opportunities, staging major events. And Dubai is absolutely in the consideration set, among others.”
Beginning next year, PFL Europe will stage events across the continent with the aim to provide a direct avenue for European fighters to graduate to the PFL global roster.
Asked if a regional league could be inaugurated in the UAE as soon as 2023, Murray replied: “Absolutely.”
The PFL returns to action this week with its play-offs, where the four competitors in each of its six divisions who earned the most points in the regular season compete for a place in the $6 million PFL World Championship – labelled the “biggest night in MMA”. The play-offs, which comprise three events, take place this year in New York, Cardiff and London.
The final 12 fighters progress to the PFL World Championship, with the winner of each division taking home $1m. Although set for late November, the PFL is yet to confirm where the finale will be staged.
As to whether that could land in the UAE, Murray said: “More to come on those questions. We’re working through it. We’ve a number of options and are in decision-making mode right now. We’ll be making those announcements after our play-offs.”
Murray said the interest in MMA in the UAE, and the infrastructure already in place, makes the Emirates an obvious next destination in the PFL evolution. The PFL has live event coverage in 160 countries, with MMA estimated to have more than 600 million fans worldwide.
“MMA is the growth sport of this decade globally and no different regionally in the UAE,” Murray said. “In the UAE, because MMA is a sport still very much in its infancy relative to other major sports, it’s an opportunity now for all key stakeholders in the region to advance the sport there for its athletes, for Emiratis as well as expat residents. And it’s exciting, because they have an opportunity now to cement their position in this sport.
“It’s a dynamic part of the world to stage major, premium events. And in my view, in the UAE it shouldn’t be a one-and-done event. This is about commitment, to have continuity of content, consistently year-round. At the global level staging events, and regional competition.”
Murray added that the infrastructure in Dubai in particular – the recently opened Coca-Cola Arena has already staged combat sports – makes the emirate an attractive option.
“Dubai is an incredibly dynamic city and part of the world, so unique,” Murray said. “World-class facilities, such as Coca-Cola Arena, as well as committed stakeholders, from Dubai Sports Council, Dubai Holding, Dubai Economy and Tourism.
“Just the level of commitment to grow sport and to continue to grow Dubai into what I would call a Mecca of sports and entertainment. There’s been great strides to today and more to come, and PFL look forward to being a part of that.”
Last month, the PFL announced the signing of two Middle Eastern athletes: Lebanese light heavyweight Mohammad Fakhreddine and Syrian middleweight Tarek Suleiman. The promotion has already contracted Jordan's Jarrah Al Silawi, who debuted in this year's PFL Challenger Series.
Murray said, given the PFL’s commitment to investing in the UAE, that a future Emirati world champion was not unimaginable.
“It could be a year away on our platform,” he said. “There are incredible Emirati athletes, and their skills can translate to fighting, but there’s also amazing fighters who are, candidly, untapped and looking for an opportunity.
“The way we see the system working is we have a platform and a capability to identify and develop the talent at different stages: so grassroots level, regional leagues and then the global league.
“So there is a clear path and competition for the fighters as well as access for the fans to engage at each of those levels. That’s what we’re excited about. And I’m excited for the UAE and potentially Dubai to potentially have its own home league.
“This is the next phase of growth, and our vision is to be essentially the Champions League of MMA, where we have multiple regional PFL leagues around the world with in-regional competition, pan-regional competition, and then some of that top talent has a path to compete on our global league events.
“That’s what will advance the sport, that’s what will grow the sport, and that’s what will continue to fuel PFL’s growth.”2