The PFL has a lot going on in its fourth year of operations, including Challenger Series and PFL Europe, but make no mistake: Its biggest night is still its season finals.
The 2022 World Championship will take place on Friday inside Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York. Two-time lightweight champion Kayla Harrison (15-0) will headline the event against Larissa Pacheco (18-4), in what Harrison says will be her final "season" appearance for the PFL. She intends to move on to more of a "superfight" schedule in 2023.
In addition to marking the conclusion of the PFL's fourth season, with $1 million championships awarded in six weight classes, the event will also be the fight promotion's first foray into the pay-per-view model. The PFL Championship airs on ESPN+ (main card on PPV at 8 p.m. ET, prelims at 6 p.m.).
There is a lot to look forward to on this card, a lot of questions to be answered. Here are a few key storylines.
Resist the urge to sleep on Larissa Pacheco
Let's be honest, it's difficult not to. It's impossible not to. I didn't make it two paragraphs into this story before I mentioned that her lightweight finals opponent, Harrison, is eyeing superfights in 2023. The expectation is that Harrison will win this fight because that's all she's done her entire MMA career, and she's already beaten Pacheco twice. Just cut her the $1 million check, give her the belt and move on.
But mixed martial arts loves to ruin future plans. You cannot look too far ahead in this sport. It's no secret the PFL wants to strike a deal for Harrison to face Bellator MMA's Cris Cyborg next year, and the promotion deserves credit for efforting that, as it's a fight that should happen. But when something feels too obvious or almost predetermined, MMA has a way of humbling us.
Pacheco is only right now hitting her prime. She's 28. She was 25 the last time she fought Harrison. And although Pacheco has lost every round in which she's ever competed against her, she's never been finished by Harrison. She's only one of two Harrison opponents who can say that. And Pacheco's power is very real. She's riding five consecutive first-round knockouts.
Harrison is every bit as good as we've all made her out to be, but she also has not faced much adversity. At all. That's a credit to her skill and her preparation, but until we see her face adversity, until we see her lose a round or get hurt by a shot, we really can't say for certain how she'll handle it. Adversity in a fight is a different animal. There are ingredients here for an upset, and we shouldn't ignore them.
Stevie Ray is MMA's Comeback of the Year and one of 2022's best stories
Ray essentially retired from MMA two years ago. He'd just signed a four-fight deal with the UFC, but physicians with the promotion told him he'd likely never fight again due to a knee injury. He was 30 years old, and he'd lost his career and his ability to make money for his family. Not to mention, his identity as a professional fighter, which he'd been since 2010.
So, the UFC contract gets terminated. But Ray decides that, despite the knee problems, MMA is what he knows and he looks to sign elsewhere. Then COVID-19 hits, which eliminates opportunities for Ray to book a fight. He catches a break when he lands a PFL contract, returns from a three-year layoff to a regular-season format and loses to Alex Martinez in April.
Ray went into his second and final regular-season matchup this year needing a finish by the 2:42 mark of the third round or he was out. No playoffs. No guarantee of another fight in 2022. And that finish had to come against one of the greatest lightweights of all time in former UFC champ Anthony Pettis. When you take all of Ray's story into account, his back could not have been more up against the wall.
And then he goes out in June and finishes Pettis in the second round with one of the top submissions of the year to make the playoffs, and beats him again just six weeks later in a rematch to advance to the finals. Ray was done fighting professionally, and now he's in a spot to claim $1 million and a PFL championship against Olivier Aubin-Mercier. Win or lose, he's my Comeback Fighter of the Year in 2022, easily.
A few quick hitters on some other storylines:
Fighter under the most pressure: The answer is always Harrison, because expectations are so high and because of what she's hoping to be involved in next year. In order to maintain this "Queen of MMA" narrative she's built, she has to be perfect. So, there's always pressure in that.
I will add another name, however: Sadibou Sy. He's been in the PFL from the very beginning. Four years, without a finals win. He's facing a confident opponent at welterweight in Dilano Taylor, who doesn't have much to lose. Taylor started the year on Challenger Series and was a late addition to this season. If Sy is going to win it all, this feels like the year.
Best opportunity to set up a 2023 run: Aspen Ladd. It's all right there for you now, Aspen. Three years ago, it looked like Ladd's career was about to skyrocket. The UFC booked her a main event slot against Germaine de Randamie, in her backyard of Northern California. And nothing has gone well for her since.
Ladd, 27, struggled to make weight for that main event and lost to de Randamie via knockout in just 16 seconds. That was her first professional loss. She is 1-3 in her last four fights and was released by the UFC earlier this year after repeatedly failing to make weight as a 135-pound bantamweight. Now with PFL, she'll be fighting at 145 pounds, starting with Friday's feature (non-playoffs) meeting with former Bellator featherweight champ Julia Budd.
With Harrison saying she won't compete in the season next year, the women's lightweight division will be replaced by featherweight, and the division will need a new face and a new identity. Ladd is capable of being that, but things have to start to click now. This can actually still be a good year for her, if she wins this PFL debut.
Best fight of the finals: Brendan Loughnane vs. Bubba Jenkins. These featherweights are two of the most entertaining fighters on the card, both in and out of the cage. It's a competitive fight that's likely to see momentum swings and could possibly go all five rounds. The PFL clearly agrees with this assessment, as this fight is the co-main event, behind only the star power of Harrison in the headliner.
Biggest question: "How does the PPV perform?" Of course, there are a million questions surrounding the company's best card of the year, but the biggest question surrounds the business of it. The PFL surprised a lot of people by electing to take this card to PPV. It's been a goal of the company for some time, but whenever that change in business model came, it was going to be met with uncertainty.
Asking an audience to pay for what they normally consume for "free" is, historically, a challenge. This is a big, big night for the PFL brand. It's a test that obviously means a great deal to its ownership and investors. Founder Donn Davis and CEO Peter Murray have shown they are in this business for the long haul. They've spent the last four years steadily building PFL's roster, exposure and broadcast quality. This PPV doesn't need to break records, but it needs to show that those efforts have resulted in progress and viewer demand. How this event performs will be of great interest to the industry.
2022 PFL Championship fight card
ESPN+ PPV, 8 p.m. ET
Women's lightweight: Kayla Harrison vs. Larissa Pacheco
Men's featherweight: Brendan Loughnane vs. Bubba Jenkins
Heavyweight: Ante Delija vs. Matheus Scheffel
Women's featherweight: Aspen Ladd vs. Julia Budd
Men's lightweight: Olivier Aubin-Mercier vs. Stevie Ray
Welterweight: Sadibou Sy vs. Dilano Taylor
Light heavyweight: Robert Wilkinson vs. Omari Akhmedov
ESPN+, 6 p.m. ET
Men's featherweight: Marlon Moraes vs. Sheymon Moraes
Men's lightweight: Natan Schulte vs. Jeremy Stephens
Catchweight: Magomed Magomedkerimov vs. Gleison Tibau
Women's flyweight: Dakota Ditcheva vs. Katherine Corogenes
Lightweight (amateur): Biaggio Ali Walsh vs. Tom Graesser