Kayla Harrison's UFC jump, Conor McGregor's BKFC stake highlight PFL's core challenge of competing with an MMA giant

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - APRIL 13: Kayla Harrison reacts to the end of the round in a bantamweight fight during the UFC 300 event at T-Mobile Arena on April 13, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Kayla Harrison is all smiles after her bantamweight fight at UFC 300 at T-Mobile Arena on April 13, 2024, in Las Vegas. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Seems like maybe PFL CEO Donn Davis felt a little more stung by the recent departure of Kayla Harrison than we realized at first. Talking to the “Weighing In” podcast this week, Davis put the former champ and two-time Olympic gold medalist’s defection to the UFC into the context of an NBA analogy that raised a few eyebrows.

“Some people at the very, very, very top of their career are LeBron James and some at the very, very top are Kevin Durant,” Davis told John McCarthy and Josh Thomson. “They’re both otherworldly basketball players, but who they are is very different as people. One wants to lead and change their sport and wherever they are is the best in the world. The other is a follower who needs validation, and we couldn’t do anything about that.”

Did you catch that? Harrison didn’t go to the UFC after nearly six years with the PFL for more money or career opportunities, according to Davis. She went for validation. Because she’s a follower. And try as the PFL might, it can’t fix who she is as a person.

That’s an ungenerous reading of Harrison’s move, to say the least. It also gives off a strong jilted lover vibe, which is maybe not the best way to court public opinion in the MMA space, especially during the same week in which we heard a whole new round of complaints from Gegard Mousasi about the alleged difficulties of getting the PFL to honor his Bellator contract.

But say, for the sake of argument, that this analysis is at least somewhat accurate. Say that a part of Harrison’s motivation for signing with the UFC was the sheer clout of it all. Would that make her wrong?

I found myself thinking about this more after some of Conor McGregor’s recent comments about why he chose to become a part owner of Bare Knuckle FC recently. Telling The Mac Life that the rise of BKFC had “popped the UFC’s competition like a balloon,” as McGregor explained why he thought the bare-knuckle boxing promotion constituted a more compelling combat sports alternative to the UFC than any other actual MMA organization.

“We’ve got the UFC as the premier mixed martial arts organization and the rest of them aren’t really anything, right?” McGregor said. “Let’s be real. The rest of them, their best events are past fighters of the UFC maybe fighting each other or maybe fighting someone in the mid-level. It doesn’t really generate mega buzz for me, or for the fans, judging by the numbers. Let’s take Justin Gaethje, who’s a UFC veteran, former BMF holder… interim belt (holder). Take him, let’s put him in bareknuckle. That’s exciting. That is really, really exciting. Now let’s take him and put him in another MMA organization. Not so much.”

McGregor is not exactly wrong about this. BKFC, while it might be a niche within a niche, not to mention one that’s too extreme or intense even for ardent MMA fans, does offer an alternative to the UFC that asks and answers different questions about the fighters we already know. How excited would we get seeing someone like Gaethje go to the PFL, an organization that he essentially already fought for, though in a slightly different form? Gaethje to BKFC, on the other hand, feels like it carries such a potential for blood and violence that it ought to be illegal.

Still, competition within the MMA space is a good thing. It drives up pay for fighters and gives promoters more incentive to offer fans a better product. The issue many MMA promoters have struggled with is how to offer something that feels like it’s filling a need that the UFC doesn’t.

That’s why, over the years, we’ve seen so many attempts at changing everything from the format (teams, tournaments) to the fighting surface (don’t tell me I’m the only one who remembers the YAMMA pit). The UFC has so thoroughly cornered the market on regular MMA content, rolled out on a visually consistent conveyor belt almost every single weekend of the year, that you really have to get creative to draw the attention of fans elsewhere.

For fighters, contract decisions should only ever boil down to two things. The first and most important consideration is money. Who’s going to pay you the most for your next fight(s)? And don’t make the mistake of thinking too far ahead on that question, since longevity is never, ever guaranteed in this sport. The second consideration is opportunity for career advancement. Who can give you a valuable though perhaps intangible career boost that you don’t already have?

Harrison went about as far as she could with the PFL. She won titles. She decimated the competition. She was the face of the organization for a solid few years there. What does she gain out of more of the same? And, knowing how MMA fans think whenever a conversation about legacy comes up, who could blame her for wanting to add UFC champion to her résumé before it’s too late?

That’s not desperate validation-seeking behavior — that’s sound reasoning. If we’re making sports analogies, that’s playing it as it lies. Davis doesn’t necessarily have to like the end result, but he might want to think twice about how he tries to frame it. It might get headlines, but it also brings a certain level of scrutiny. Plus, this sport already has one bombastic promoter prone to verbal jabs. There, also, you might want to find a way to offer an alternative rather than a copycat.