One after another, the shiny brass-and-leather belts and oversized $1 million checks had been handed out. The 2022 PFL's season-ending night of glory last November in New York had seen five fighters earn championships in as many weight classes. All that was left of this jamboree was the evening's sixth and final title bout.
The women's lightweight championship fight had been chosen for the main event spotlight because it featured the company's shiniest star. Kayla Harrison had won the 155-pound title in both previous PFL seasons. Every time she had stepped into the SmartCage, she'd shown herself to be an unstoppable force. Her opponent on this night knew that all too well. Harrison had handled Larissa Pacheco twice before with relative ease, including in the 2019 final. It surprised absolutely no one that Harrison was going into this championship fight as a better than 7-1 betting favorite.
For the self-proclaimed "queen of women's MMA," the season's culmination appeared destined to be a coronation mixed with anti-climax.
But then, shockingly, the crown got knocked off Harrison's head. With a gritty, determined performance, Pacheco won a unanimous decision to rearrange the regal power structure among PFL women.
"Kayla used to call herself the queen of MMA," Pacheco said that night after producing the biggest stunner of a result in the PFL's short history. "I think we can agree that there's a new queen."
And now the new queen is back to extend her reign -- or, more precisely, start a new one. Pacheco opens the 2023 season on Friday with a main event fight against Julia Budd -- at featherweight, which is replacing the PFL lightweight women's division. This fight will be an immediate gauge of how well Pacheco will adjust to a weight class 10 pounds lighter, a division that Budd once ruled in Bellator MMA.
Much will be different at PFL 2 inside The Theater at Virgin Hotels in Las Vegas (10 p.m. ET on ESPN2/ESPN+, with prelims at 6:30 ET on ESPN+). It will be a night of heavyweight and women's featherweight fights, but with some absentees.
The reigning champ at heavyweight, Ante Delija, won't be on the card because of an unspecified injury. The PFL hopes Delija will be healed in time to compete in the second round of regular-season fights in June.
The women will be feeling a far bigger absence, at least in terms of celebrity status. Harrison, the deposed queen, has moved on from season competition, with the PFL now working on booking her for a fight to launch a pay-per-view venture in the fall. Harrison, for her part, went on "The MMA Hour" show earlier this week and expressed disappointment at not being included in the featherweight season. She also said she has just two fights remaining on a PFL contract that expires in November. So there's apparently a time crunch for squeezing in a pair of PPV appearances.
Among the women who are set to begin the season, a notable new name on the roster is not falling in line with the order of succession that Pacheco announced last November from her new throne. On that same night in November, former UFC contender Aspen Ladd made her PFL debut in a non-season feature bout against Budd. And after winning a split decision, Ladd addressed the title fight that was set to close out the evening and its prevailing narrative -- that Harrison and Pacheco were the creme de la creme among women in the PFL.
"If you look at either one of their resumes, it's absolutely nothing compared to people that I have fought," Ladd said. "You have different levels of experience with different levels of opponents."
It is common for UFC fighters to be compared favorably to fighters from other organizations. Fans, pundits and fighters alike typically view the UFC as the top of the sport. But the question going into the 2023 PFL women's featherweight season: Is it accurate in this instance?
Ladd's best UFC win was a 2019 TKO of Yana Santos, then known as Kunitskaya. She arrived in the PFL not as an athlete who fought out of a UFC contract and was a sought-after free agent. Rather, she was released after missing weight multiple times and struggling to a 1-3 record in her last four bantamweight appearances in the Octagon. Ladd's first test as a PFL featherweight comes Friday, when she opens her season against Olena Kolesnyk.
Pacheco has fought Kolesnyk twice and knocked her out in the first round both times. Pacheco has lost to no one but Harrison since 2015. She competed briefly in the UFC and went 0-2 -- but both losses came against champions (Germaine de Randamie, Jessica Andrade). Pacheco owns a win over Sarah Kaufman, a former champ in Strikeforce and Invicta. That resume stands up to Ladd's.
And so begins the chase for the crowning of a new queen.
Friday's full PFL 2 fight card
ESPN/ESPN+, 10 p.m. ET
Women's featherweight: Larissa Pacheco vs. Julia Budd
Heavyweight: Bruno Cappelozza vs. Matheus Scheffel
Women's featherweight: Olena Kolesnyk vs. Aspen Ladd
Heavyweight: Renan Ferreira vs. Rizvan Kuniev
ESPN+, 6:30 p.m.
Lightweight (amateur): Biaggio Ali Walsh vs. Isaiah Figueroa
Heavyweight: Marcelo Nunes vs. Maurice Greene
Heavyweight: Danilo Marques vs. Yorgan De Castro
Women's featherweight: Martina Jindrova vs. Amber Leibrock
Heavyweight: Patrick Brady vs. Michal Andryszak
Women's featherweight: Evelyn Martins vs. Karolina Sobek
Women's featherweight: Marina Mokhnatkina vs. Yoko Higashi