It’s the question being murmured throughout the mixed martial arts world, even if few want to come right out and bluntly state it in public: Is the Professional Fighters League really going to hand out million-dollar checks at the end of the season?
The PFL has an ambitious plan to stage tournaments at several weight classes this year, with advertised seven-figure payouts to the winners at the end. But PFL, the rebranded World Series of Fighting, is coming along during a tough period for upstart MMA ventures.
Jake Shields, who will compete in PFL’s welterweight tournament, has been around the block a few times. His career began in 1999, and his fight ledger reads like a history of the sport, as he’s appeared in every promotion from Gladiator Challenge to Shooto to Pancrase to Rumble on the Rock to Bodog Fight to Elite XC to Strikeforce to the UFC to the WSOF.
And as someone who has seen all the highs and lows the business has to offer, he admits to an initial skepticism about whether PFL will actually pay up.
“I’m not going to lie, I was definitely starting to have some doubts,” Shields said on a recent edition of The MMA Hour.
But after Shields pursued a free-agency window earlier this year, the company’s actions in making a push to re-sign him have convinced Shields they’re in position to make a legitimate go of things.
“I was very frustrated,” Shields said. “Fortunately I had some money put away, I’ve invested, so that’s not really an issue on the financial situation. But I was supposed to fight in January and they moved it back. I was really frustrated at the time, then a couple months ago, I became a free agent. Then PFL was coming back together and I’m like, alright, it looks like it’s really going to happen.
“We just had some meetings last week,” Shields continued. “The show seems, they treated us really good and seemed enthusiastic. It’s most of the same people from the World Series of Fighting. They definitely rebranded, have more money, they’re pushing it a lot more. They have $15 million in payoffs, that’s not bad. Especially since a lot of these are guys weren’t getting paid good. It’s exciting to have a new show that has some serious money.”
If nothing else, the PFL’s new backers are going out of their way to make a big splash at the outset.
“I think there’s legitimate big-money backers. They’ve got $30 million in the first season with production, advertising, fighters’ pay, and I’m pretty sure they’re already planning out the second season. Regardless of if the first first season does good or not, they’re already planning the second season. ... They’re throwing money around at this point.”
With financial concerns out of the way, Shields can return his focus to fighting. Shields, whose last fight was a decision win over Danny Davis for his 32nd career win last July, will meet Ray Cooper III on July 5 in Washington, D.C.
If that name rings a bell, it should: Shields defeated Cooper’s father, Ray Cooper Jr., back in 2004 to win the Shooto welterweight title.
That underscores that even a fighter as resilient and smart as Shields will have his career come to a close someday. The 39-year-old Shields admits he’s pondered the idea that winning this year’s PFL welterweight tournament would be a way to exit the sport on a high note.
“I probably thought I was going to retire at 35, but, originally when I started, I didn’t really know, I didn’t think I was going to make a career out of it, but it’s turned into a career,” Shields said. “At this point I take it one fight at a time, my body feels good, I still enjoy the sport, I just took a year off and got to do some grappling. So at this point I’m just trying to get through the tournament. ... If I win the tournament, it might be a good time to step away and call it, but I’m still not going to make any promises, because you know how that goes as well.”