PFL officials speak of Kayla Harrison with reverence, as though watching her perform is the most exhilarating experience in all of MMA. Who can blame them? Harrison is 12-0 and has mauled everyone in her path to becoming a two-time champion in the PFL women's lightweight division. She is by far the fight company's biggest star.
And yet it could not have been easy for the PFL folks to see Harrison at the fights in November and December.
That's because PFL season had ended in October, and with that, Harrison's contract had expired. And as soon as she hit free agency, she was being hosted -- and courted -- at fight nights by the sport's biggest promotions.
On Nov. 12, Harrison was cageside at Bellator 271 watching Cris Cyborg defend her featherweight title. On Dec. 11, Harrison was at UFC 269 watching Amanda Nunes, her now-former teammate, put her bantamweight belt on the line. Would one of these women be the big-name opponent in Harrison's future?
"She was the most coveted free agent out there," Peter Murray, CEO of the PFL, told ESPN last week. "Multiple MMA organizations wanted to sign Kayla."
Bellator even came to an agreement with Harrison on a deal. But the PFL had a contractual right to match, and the company quickly did so to keep its star performer in the fold.
Murray did not seem at all jilted by Harrison having embraced the advances of another suitor. He characterized the whole episode in purely business terms. "Based on the constructs of our deal, she checked her value in the market and we matched," Murray said. "We got to a good place in the end. This is a great deal for Kayla, and it's a great deal for the PFL."
Harrison begins her quest for a third straight championship on May 6 at PFL 3. But the season begins this Wednesday with light heavyweight and men's lightweight competition, featuring a pair of defending champions -- Antonio Carlos Junior at 205 pounds, Raush Manfio at 155 -- plus the PFL debut of longtime UFC lightweight Jeremy Stephens.
As the season kicks off, here is one big question looming over each of the PFL's six weight classes.
Women's lightweight: Will Harrison finally break a sweat?
Her first two seasons have produced eight victories and not a whole lot of adversity or drama. Harrison has finished all but one opponent. Five of them have not made it out of the first round. But now there's a higher level of competition lurking, with the PFL having signed Julia Budd. The 38-year-old Budd is a former Bellator featherweight champion. She is 16-3, with the losses coming against the Mount Rushmore of women's MMA: Cyborg, Nunes and Ronda Rousey. Harrison hopes to etch her likeness into that distinguished mountainside, and she now has a foe against whom she can show how good she truly is. Can Budd stop the Kayla express? Can she even slow it down?
Featherweight: What must the unbeaten Khaybulaev do for an encore?
On his way to capturing last season's championship, Movlid Khaybulaev defeated two-time-defending champion Lance Palmer, then edged highly touted Brendan Loughnane before winning the final against Chris Wade, a UFC veteran who in the two previous PFL seasons had been a lightweight semifinalist. For Khaybulaev, this provided a degree of vindication after a difficult 2019 season that featured a draw and a no contest. Through it all, the Dagestani fighter remains unbeaten. And yet, having won all four of last season's fights by decision, he doesn't seem insurmountable. Is this the season Khaybulaev shows even more?
Men's lightweight: Watch TV highlights much, Jeremy?
Stephens no doubt has high hopes as he arrives in the PFL. After all, he spent 15 years in the UFC, competing at the highest level of MMA. He owns victories in the Octagon over former champions Renan Barao, Gilbert Melendez and Rafael dos Anjos. Winning a PFL championship should be a piece of cake, right? Well, it didn't work out quite like that for a couple of other high-profile imports, former UFC champ Anthony Pettis and ex-Bellator welterweight belt holder Rory MacDonald. If Stephens watched any of last season, he saw Pettis and MacDonald struggle in their first PFL action. So let's just say the new guy at 155 could wreck this division or he could fall flat on his face. Who knows? But one thing we can say for sure is that big-swinging Stephens will make it exciting to watch. And this is a division that can use some jazzing up.
Welterweight: Whose serve is it now, Ray's or Magomed's?
Ray Cooper III and Magomed Magomedkerimov. Magomedkerimov and Cooper. Back and forth the 170-pound division goes. It's their show. They each won $1 million championships at the end of one of the PFL's first two seasons, and they went into last season sizing each other up. Finally, on Oct. 27, they met for the 2021 championship. The PFL could not have scripted the season and playoffs any better. And the fight turned out to be a good one, with Magomedkerimov looking strong early, Cooper seizing control, Magomedkerimov landing a big punch to turn things around again, then Cooper becoming champ with a vicious right hand, ending his rival's 13-fight winning streak. Whose turn is it now? And will we have to wait until the playoffs to see them renew their acquaintance?
Light heavyweight: Will Carlos Junior put everyone to sleep?
Antonio Carlos Junior has had submissions in 10 of his 13 victories, most recently in last season's finale. On his way to earning the big check in his first PFL season, Carlos Junior had a pair of choke-outs. His one fight that went the distance was a playoff semifinal against 2019 champion Emiliano Sordi, and the Brazilian earned a decision on the strength of his grappling control. It has become clear that the way to fight Carlos Junior is from distance, but can anyone keep this guy's hands off of them?
Heavyweight: Can anyone remain standing in Cappelozza's presence?
Bruno Cappelozza started last season with a couple of first-round knockouts, then floored his semifinal opponent with a jab -- a jab! -- before finishing with some ground-and-pound. He was taken the distance in the final by Ante Delija, who when they met in the season opener had fallen in less than a minute. Cappelozza has won seven of his past eight fights, with all but one of the wins coming by knockout. His lone loss during that run was in Rizin to Jiri Prochazka, who soon will challenge for the UFC belt. Cappelozza, 14-3 since dropping the first two fights of his career over a decade ago, is going to be a big problem for everyone the PFL stands in front of him.
PFL 1 fight card (Wednesday, Esports Stadium Arlington in Arlington, Texas)
Main card: 9 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN+
Men's lightweight: Clay Collard vs. Jeremy Stephens
Men's lightweight: Raush Manfio vs. Don Madge
Light heavyweight: Antonio Carlos Junior vs. Delan Monte
Men's lightweight: Natan Schulte vs. Olivier Aubin-Mercier
Preliminary card: 6 p.m. ET, ESPN+
Light heavyweight: Emiliano Sordi vs. Cory Hendricks
Men's lightweight: Alexander Martinez vs. Stevie Ray
Light heavyweight: Marthin Hamlet vs. Teodoras Aukstuolis
Light heavyweight: Omari Akhmedov vs. Viktor Pesta
Light heavyweight: Robert Wilkinson vs. Bruce Souto
Light heavyweight: Simeon Powell vs. Clinton Williams