Skip to content

Reviewing PFL vs. Bellator: Pros and cons, biggest takeaways

The PFL vs. Bellator: Champs event kicked off a new era in MMA on Saturday in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, with five reigning champions and several top names in action.

PFL heavyweight champ Renan Ferreira made quick work of Bellator titleholder Ryan Bader in the main event, scoring a blistering 21-second TKO finish.

Here's what worked and what didn't, as well as some other takeaways from the card.


Ferreira's TKO of Bader was an ideal setup for Ngannou showdown

Cooper Neill / Getty Images Sport / Getty

The PFL couldn't have written the script much better for the main event. The promotion announced last week that former UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou would make his debut against the winner between Ferreira and Bader, and, if we're being honest, the more intriguing option of the two was Ferreira. The 35-year-old Brazilian - who seems to be just now entering his prime - is taller than Ngannou at 6-foot-8 and appears to match him in power. Bader, on the other hand, is a career light heavyweight who found a second wind as an undersized heavyweight.

Finding a fighter that the PFL could sell as a legitimate opponent for Ngannou - the lineal MMA heavyweight champ - has been the biggest issue ever since the promotion signed him last year. Ngannou's steepest competition - Jones, Tom Aspinall, etcetera - are in the UFC. But that problem was solved as soon as Ferreira destroyed Bader.

Of course, Ngannou-Ferreira might not be the mainstream matchup the PFL was hoping for. Ferreira, 13-3 as a pro, doesn't have a big name and is only now emerging as a real threat at heavyweight. But the hardcore fans know this is a great matchup, and Ferreira's physical threats will give the PFL marketing machine a lot to work with.

Overall, the fights were entertaining

Cooper Neill / Getty Images Sport / Getty

It's hard to have any real complaints about the action that went down Saturday in Riyadh, at least if you're talking about the main card. The preliminary card was a tough watch, but almost all of the fights that mattered delivered.

Bellator middleweight champion Johnny Eblen and PFL light heavyweight champ Impa Kasanganay put on a show in a back-and-forth fight, Vadim Nemkov impressed in his heavyweight debut, and Bellator welterweight titleholder Jason Jackson dominated Ray Cooper III en route to a second-round TKO. And of course, Ferreira's ferocious stoppage of Bader capped things off in a big way.

The only real snoozer - again, on the main card - was Yoel Romero's grueling split-decision win over Thiago Santos. Let's not speak of that fight any more than we are now.

Pacing was on point

One of the biggest criticisms the PFL gets is poor pacing on its broadcasts. They often move at a snail's pace, with a lot of unnecessary filler and commentators rambling on and on about the fights people have already tuned in to watch.

But this main card moved along at a very good pace (after a bit of a slower preliminary card), usually no more than 15 minutes between each fight.

MMA events already eat up most of an afternoon or evening as is, so not having to wait too long between fights was a welcomed change. Hopefully this is a sign for what's to come as the PFL gets ready to launch its 2024 season in April.


Production could use some work

The UFC nails its production each and every time.

The same cannot be said for the PFL, at least at this particular event in Riyadh. Some aspects of Saturday's production made the broadcast look very cheap and B-league.

The DAZN feed - both the pay-per-view and preliminary card - had a purple tint, with poor lighting and a lot of shadows. Here's a look at it compared to a typical UFC or Bellator feed:

PFL broadcasts are generally better than this, so perhaps there were some issues because this was the first event in Saudi Arabia and it took place at a makeshift outdoor arena. If that's the case, the PFL deserves a pass. But only time will tell.

Additionally, some aspects of the commentary weren't great, such as play-by-play man Sean O'Connell calling PFL vs. Bellator: Champs the biggest event in both promotions' histories. Yes, you have to sell the event, but let's not be too over the top.

This stuff won't make or break the PFL as a business, but the promotion should be looking to make some improvements to its production moving forward.

No Ngannou-Ferreira staredown

As soon as Ferreira defeated Bader, the PFL's top priority should've been to have Ngannou, who was at the event, enter the cage and do a faceoff with Ferreira, seemingly his next MMA opponent.

Sure, Ferreira's highlight-reel victory was a great precursor to the potential Ngannou fight on its own, but a staredown with "The Predator" would've created even more buzz - you know what social media is like. With Ngannou set to fight Anthony Joshua in a lucrative boxing match March 8, the PFL not only has to sell this fight to the fans, but also to Ngannou himself. Make it feel big.

Instead, Ngannou left his seat after Ferreira's win - he didn't even speak on the broadcast at any point in the event - and that was that. Big miss by the PFL.

Meaningless belts need to go

The PFL gave out the so-called "Super Belt" to four winners Saturday: Ferreira, Eblen, Jackson, and Nemkov. These were supposed to go to the winners of the champ-versus-champ fights, but two of those matchups fell apart, so it seems the PFL changed course a bit.

Do these belts - held by a PFL champ, two Bellator champs, and a former Bellator champ - have any real meaning or purpose? Do they represent a significant accomplishment (aside from a single victory)? Will they be defended? No, no, and no.

Frankly, these belts are tacky hardware that the PFL thought would make the event feel bigger. But all they do is diminish the importance of the real PFL and Bellator titles that represent the best in a division and that fighters work hard to earn.

Biggest takeaways

Bellator's roster is superior to PFL's

Cooper Neill / Getty Images Sport / Getty

One thing is clear after the event: Bellator has better fighters than the PFL - at least at the top of most divisions.

Bellator cruised past the PFL in their head-to-head series, winning five of six fights on the main card. Ferreira stopped Bellator from sweeping the event with his win over Bader.

But it wasn't just that Bellator's fighters came out victorious. In many cases, they were dominant. Cooper was no match for Jackson. Nemkov bullied Cappelozza until he put him to sleep with an arm-triangle choke. McKee tapped out Collard before the fight even got going.

Generally speaking, there's no question now that Bellator's best is better than the PFL's best.

And that's why the PFL should merge the two rosters following its acquisition of Bellator in late 2023. Instead, the promotion plans to run its traditional season format in addition to the Bellator Champions Series this year, the latter of which will feature some of the reigning Bellator champions defending their titles. But didn't the PFL purchase Bellator for its talent? Why not take full advantage?

By moving forward with the current plan, the PFL will essentially have an inferior roster of fighters competing on its premium product (the season format). That would be a big mistake. Have every PFL and Bellator fighter compete under one umbrella, have your best fighters fight each other, and that's how you'll create the best product to rival the UFC.

McKee, Pico emerged as potential faces of PFL

Cooper Neill / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Several fighters had standout performances at the PFL vs. Bellator: Champs event, but perhaps none were bigger - with their futures in mind - than AJ McKee's and Aaron Pico's.

McKee and Pico both debuted with Bellator as homegrown talents at the age of 20 and were considered the future of that promotion for the better part of a decade. And in some ways, they did break through. McKee won the Bellator featherweight title in 2021 and Pico has been on tear since 2020, putting together a 9-1 record in his last 10 fights. But all signs point to there being a lot more McKee and Pico can, and will, accomplish in MMA - after all, they are still just 28 and 27 years old, respectively.

It will have to be under a different brand now that the PFL has acquired Bellator, but that doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things. Pico closed the preliminary card by finishing Henry Corrales in Round 1 to avenge a previous loss, and McKee opened the main card by submitting Clay Collard in a mere 70 seconds. After these performances, it is evident that McKee and Pico are two fighters who could potentially steer the PFL ship for years to come.

The champ-versus-champ fights should've been five rounds

Many people wanted to see two more rounds when the final horn sounded in the narrow co-main event between Eblen and Kasanganay. And they should've gotten those 10 extra minutes.

Both champ-versus-champ fights on Saturday's card - Ferreira-Bader and Eblen-Kasanganay - deserved to be scheduled for five rounds. As three-round fights, they felt less important than they should've. There's a reason MMA title fights are five rounds: to separate them from non-title bouts, to make them feel big.

Hopefully the champ-versus-champ fights are five rounds at the next PFL vs. Bellator card.

Daily Newsletter

Get the latest trending sports news daily in your inbox