PFL chairman Donn Davis on buying Bellator and beating UFC to the punch in Saudi Arabia

Donn Davis has lifted the lid on the Professional Fighters League’s dealings with Saudi Arabia, where the promotion will stage a card for the first time this month.

The Professional Fighters League (PFL) received Saudi investment last summer before acquiring rival promotion Bellator in November. On 24 February in Riyadh, the PFL will stage a champions vs champions card featuring athletes from its own roster and Bellator’s.

On Thursday (15 February), PFL founder and chairman Donn Davis spoke to The Independent about those developments.

“We reached out Paramount, which owned Bellator, in January 2023,” said the American, 61. “We suggested that they sell Bellator to us, and that’s how the conversation started. All deals like this are never smooth sailing, and there’s always hiccups along the way, but as Shakespeare said: ‘All’s well that end’s well.’”

Discussing the PFL’s debut in Saudi, which comes five years after the promotion’s inception, Davis continued: “Their mandate to us was to deliver an A-plus fight card, and they left it to us to put that together. They’re relatively new to MMA, very experienced in boxing, and the difference is: In boxing, there’s six, seven, eight promoters – very dispersed, very hard to pull together.

“So in boxing, [the Saudis] are really doing the job of PFL or the UFC; they have to organise, they have to create the cards. But in MMA, there are only two organisations worldwide where all the talent is – it’s either in the UFC or PFL. So, they can rely on us to do all that work for them, we just have to deliver the mandate of: ‘Give us the best of the best, put it all on one card.’

“Back in the fall of 2023, our plan was for our first event with Bellator and our first event with our Saudi partners to be the ‘All-Star game’ – champs versus champs. We hope to make it an annual event, there’s nothing like it in combat sports.”

PFL founder and chairman Donn Davis (PFL)
PFL founder and chairman Donn Davis (PFL)

The UFC was due to make its Saudi debut on 2 March, but that event has been delayed until 22 June. Reports suggested that the relevant figures in Saudi deemed the UFC card to be of inadequate quality – reports that UFC president Dana White dismissed.

Davis, however, told The Independent: “We were very proud that Saudi – which demands the best of the best, whether it’s in soccer or MMA or luxury goods – saw that our card was the best of the best, and the UFC’s card was not good.”

When asked about how the PFL would react to a hypothetical Saudi demand for a PFL/Bellator vs UFC event, Davis added: “At PFL, we’ve been very clear in the market for years: We want what fans want. We’re very innovative, we’re very fan-focused, and we’re very fighter-first. What does that mean? Put the biggest fights together! That’s the most money, the most attention.”

Davis elaborated while mentioning a prospective super-fight between UFC champion Jon Jones and the heavyweight’s predecessor, Francis Ngannou, who vacated the UFC title and signed for the PFL in 2023. “Francis Ngannou and PFL have said on record: ‘We’ll do the Jon Jones fight,’” said Davis. “That’s the biggest fight in the world of combat, period. And Dana White and Jon Jones have said: ‘No.’ Just ‘no’. Not for any reason.

Francis Ngannou in January, at the press conference for his fight with Anthony Joshua (Mark Robinson Matchroom Boxing)
Francis Ngannou in January, at the press conference for his fight with Anthony Joshua (Mark Robinson Matchroom Boxing)

“It’s not necessarily Saudi-driven; it’s PFL-driven, it’s fan-driven. Everybody wants it except for the UFC. We’re always a ‘yes’, we’re ‘yes’ to any single thing that the fans or fighters want.”

Since signing for the PFL, Ngannou is yet to fight in the promotion but has made his boxing debut, narrowly losing to heavyweight champion Tyson Fury in October. Ngannou, 37, knocked down the unbeaten Briton and lost a controversial decision in Riyadh.

The Cameroonian is due to box former champion Anthony Joshua in Riyadh on 8 March, but Davis told The Independent that Ngannou will “100 per cent” fight for the PFL “several times”.