The PFL appears poised to put Kayla Harrison to a test in 2022, in order to see what kind of star it has on its hands.
Harrison first faces tests this summer and fall in the 2021 playoffs, of course, but it would be a shocker if those hurdles slow her roll. Anything can happen in a fight, it's true, but nothing good has happened for those who have fought the two-time Olympic judo gold medalist to this point in her 10-0 MMA career. Harrison faces Genah Fabian, author of knockouts in two of her last three bouts, in the PFL women's lightweight semifinals on Aug. 19.
But next season, especially if Harrison ends this playoff run as a two-time PFL champ, she will likely face a test of a different sort -- one that takes place beyond the cage, in the sports marketplace. According to Peter Murray, CEO of the PFL, the fight promotion plans to venture into the pay-per-view business in 2022. Murray would not specify any fights or fighters his matchmakers are planning around, but if anyone in the PFL might attract paying customers, it's Harrison.
"We have pay-per-view talent today in the PFL," Murray told ESPN. He was speaking generally, but practically in the next breath he called Harrison "a PFL superstar in a class of her own."
One event the PFL might move to PPV in 2022, Murray acknowledged, is its season-closing championship event, with six $1 million winners crowned in one night. These fights, like the season and playoffs that lead up to them, currently air on ESPN2. "Our championships are pay-per-view-caliber events, with the six world title fights," he said.
Beyond that, Murray said the PFL plans to schedule stand-alone pay events outside its season format, with hopes of attracting "game-changing talent, needle movers, who want to come fight under the PFL banner on our pay-per-view platform."
One name that could figure in those plans is Claressa Shields, the three-division world boxing champion who made her MMA debut last month in a showcase fight at PFL 4. Shields is a neophyte in her new sport but a star in her old one, No. 2 in the ESPN women's boxing pound-for-pound rankings. Murray said the PFL will decide "by the end of the year" if Shields will be part of the 2022 women's lightweight season. If she's not, putting her fight on PPV would add value.
Murray offered a few other insights on the future of the PFL.
In its first two seasons, the PFL has presented its season-ending championship event as a high-profile spectacle, holding the event at Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York on New Year's Eve. This year will be different.
Murray would not specify a date or venue for the finale, but he did say it will not be held on the night when the ball drops in Times Square.
"We are not going to have fans wait that long for what will be an epic event," he said.
The two 2021 signees with "former UFC champion" on their resumes, Anthony Pettis and Fabricio Werdum, did not fare well in their first PFL season. Pettis, the former UFC and WEC lightweight champion, lost both of his fights, dropping decisions to playoff-bound Clay Collard and Raush Manfio. Werdum, who reigned as UFC heavyweight champ, was knocked out controversially in his debut by Renan Ferreira, who appeared to tap out to a triangle choke prior to the KO. The result later was overturned to a no contest, but Werdum did not return to finish the PFL season.
But Murray said both Pettis and Werdum will be back in 2022.
"That's the beauty of the season format," Murray said. "How do they respond to the adversity they faced in their first season in the PFL? Well, next year we'll see. ... Earning one's way in sports or any venture is inspiring. That's where the drama is."
Murray said the PFL is planning on "elevating our [women's lightweight] roster with a couple of major signings." That sounds like welcome news for those who've been waiting for Harrison to get an upgrade in competition. Problem is, honestly, are there any 155-pound "major signings" available? There does not appear to be a deep pool of talent at that weight class for the PFL to draw upon.
The PFL is launching a Challenger Series in 2022 in order to generate new talent. This would appear to be somewhat modeled after Dana White's Contender Series, during which fighters can earn UFC contracts, or the old ShoMMA: Strikeforce Challengers, which highlighted up-and-coming fighters.
"We're excited about the next generation of future stars," Murray said. "We're going to give them a global stage."
These events are being planned for prior to the start of the 2022 season, he said, in the hope that some fighters could end up with roster spots for the season.