PFL will start the new year with the most talented and deepest roster outside the UFC, perhaps ever.
After acquiring Bellator MMA officially last week, there is an exponential jump in the number of potential matchups the PFL can make with all of its champions and contenders and their counterparts in Bellator under the same roof.
The league has made it known that in 2024, there will be a major card with champions from PFL taking on champions from Bellator. The promotion was already setting up those matchups Friday during the 2023 PFL World Championship in Washington, D.C. Bellator featherweight champion Patricio "Pitbull" Freire was brought into the cage to face off with Jesus Pinedo after Pinedo won the 2023 PFL featherweight title. The same was done with Jason Jackson, the recently crowned Bellator welterweight champ, after Magomed Magomedkerimov won $1 million in that division.
We know what the immediate plans are for the champions. But what about the rest of the exciting, gifted fighters from both promotions who will now become one super roster? Marc Raimondi, Brett Okamoto and Jeff Wagenheim highlight five intriguing matchups the PFL could book with Bellator fighters now at its disposal, starting with the promotion's biggest star, Francis Ngannou.
Okamoto: PFL's Francis Ngannou vs. Bellator's Ryan Bader
When Ngannou went to the PFL earlier this year, there wasn't an obvious first opponent for him. Even PFL executives admitted as much. Now, following the Bellator acquisition, there are a couple of possibilities.
The first appears to be facing professional boxer Deontay Wilder in a mixed-rules fight, which I find a little silly, but it would give us something to talk about. Second is 2023 PFL heavyweight champion Renan Ferreira, which I believe will happen at some point. The third option is Bader, the Bellator titleholder.
Bader was always more of a light heavyweight than a heavyweight, but he has found plenty of success within the division. He'd be similar, matchup-wise, to Stipe Miocic -- a boxer and wrestler, with good enough hand speed to potentially hold his own with Ngannou's athleticism. He'd be undersized, but Bader is a fantastic wrestler, and he has surprised bigger men with his power and grappling ability before.
Wagenheim: PFL's Derek Brunson vs. Bellator's Johnny Eblen
Sometimes planets align and the world experiences an unexpected convergence. How else to explain Brunson's fortuitously timed arrival in the PFL?
He walked away from more than a decade as a UFC middleweight contender to sign last month with the PFL, which doesn't have a 185-pound division. But before he could step into his new home for his debut against Ray Cooper III on Saturday, the PFL purchased Bellator, which has a middleweight class headlined by one of the best in the sport. Bellator's champion, Johnny Eblen, is undefeated and in his prime. He would have no counterpart on a Bellator vs. PFL champions fight card, so let's see how his strong wrestling base fares against Brunson's. But there's no time to waste. Brunson is 39 years old, so the time is now to put him and his blond dome in the cage with the best that Bellator can offer.
Raimondi: Bellator's AJ McKee vs. PFL's Shane Burgos
On paper, this is one of the most exciting matchups the PFL can put together. Burgos is instant action. He comes forward, puts together punching combinations and throws caution to the wind. He is willing to take some shots to give some shots. That's a perfect opponent for McKee, who isn't as technical on the feet as Burgos but makes up for it with wrestling and innovative Brazilian jiu-jitsu. McKee has power in the striking department if it stays there, so Burgos could be in danger if he gets too aggressive.
McKee against Clay Collard would be another fun matchup. But Burgos still has a lot of room to grow in the PFL. It wasn't the best year for him in 2023, and he could have benefited from better matchmaking. Burgos against McKee would be an action fight, and a battle of two of the most talented lightweight fighters outside the UFC.
Both fighters also have experience at featherweight, so there wouldn't be a big weight gap. McKee is in a similar spot as Burgos. After getting some hype after beating Patricio "Pitbull" to win the Bellator featherweight title in 2021, his momentum has kind of halted. A fight like this is exactly what both need.
Okamoto: PFL's Kayla Harrison vs. Bellator's Cris Cyborg
This is obvious, but I cannot in good conscience go with any other option. PFL chairman Donn Davis surprised me when he said Friday that the company will go with Cyborg vs. two-division PFL champ Larissa Pacheco first.
The PFL has wanted a fight between Cyborg and Harrison for over a year, and has tried (unsuccessfully) to book it before. Now that it has the ability to push that fight through, I'm surprised the promotion is willing to go another route. But even if it's not next, Harrison vs. Cyborg is clearly the fight to make. It's one of the biggest fights anyone can make in women's MMA. Who else in Bellator would you want to see Harrison face? Cat Zingano, who is 41 years old? Leah McCourt, whose record is an unremarkable 8-3?
At this point, the only opponents for Cyborg, Pacheco and Harrison are each other.
Wagenheim: PFL's Brendan Loughnane vs. Bellator's Aaron Pico
The champ vs. champ fight at men's featherweight will feature Bellator's all-time greatest, Patricio "Pitbull." But that's not the end of the talent in these two promotions' loaded 145-pound divisions. One of the best remaining matchups that could be made would focus on potential.
Loughnane won the PFL lightweight title in 2022, but long before he took home last year's $1 million check he was considered a fighter to watch. His dominant win on "Dana White's Contender Series" in 2019 somehow didn't land him a UFC deal, but the Octagon's loss was a gain for the PFL's smart cage. And then there's Pico, the former amateur wrestling world champion who signed with Bellator way back in 2014 while still a teen. Pico didn't compete for the promotion until 2017 and had a rough start, and there were more difficulties ahead. But he has righted the ship, winning eight of his past nine fights. Let's see where his ceiling is, and Loughnane's too.