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PFL Looks to Saudi to Grow MMA in MENA

Inc. Arabia speaks to Donn Davis, founder of the Professional Fighters League (PFL), about how a regional MMA league can change the sport for fighters and fans.

By Inc.Arabia Staff

When UFC sold for $4 billion in 2016, Donn Davis, then a venture fund manager, dropped everything and decided to start a business in mixed martial arts or MMA--a sport that he knew little about. What he did know was enough to get him excited though.

MMA, a fight sport that combines Muay Thai, boxing, jiu-jitsu, wrestling, taekwondo, and judo, is just 25 years old but has quickly become one of the fastest-growing sports in the world, with a fan base that averages 35 years old. According to the IMMAF, MMA has 449 million fans globally, though Davis puts the number closer to 600 million.

Davis did the math: Promotions like UFC were holding 50 fights per year compared to basketball’s 5,000 games and soccer’s 4,000 matches, making MMA not just the fastest-growing sport, but also the most underserved and under-monetized.

“MMA is so much more interesting than other fight sports because it’s a combination of them, so fighters have to master offense and defense. That means that most fighters come into the sport in their late 20s or early 30s because it takes a long time to get cage smart,” Davis tells Inc. Arabia in an interview.

Add to that its small footprint which doesn’t require a lot of stadiums to be built, and the opportunity was ripe for the taking.

“I said: There’ll be room for another number two,” he tells us.

Donn Davis, founder of the Professional Fighters League.
Courtesy of Donn Davis. PFL Looks to Saudi to Grow MMA in MENA

So Davis founded the US-based MMA promotion The Professional Fighters League or PFL. To differentiate itself, the league adopted a fighter-first, season format, and brought moneyball and analytics to the game.

It borrowed video production from basketball, a WWE-inspired video board, entrances from pro wrestling, and soccer's season format to present a more polished product.

It also brought veteran fighters on board, signing UFC Heavyweight champion, French-Cameroonian Francis Ngannou and YouTuber, actor, and boxer Jake Paul, last year.

In 2023, it acquired Bellator, another leading MMA promotion, maintaining the brand for some events while integrating its roster into PFL for others.

It also launched PFL Europe and plans to develop five more international regional leagues by 2024, starting with PFL Middle East. Winners of each league will advance to PFL Global, allowing it to build the “Champions League of MMA.”

“I think, as these league champions get into PFL global, you’re going to see a lot of real-world Rocky stories and a lot more international fighters in MMA,” Davis tells us. 


Last year, Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund-owned Surge Sports Investment (SRJ) invested more than $100 million for a minority stake in PFL to advance the company’s global expansion and help develop its Middle East League.

The deal made SRJ an investor in PFL MENA, a regional league that launched in Riyadh on May 10 with a fight card that included Saudis, Moroccans, Egyptians, Jordanians, and Palestinians, as well as Europeans and North Americans of Middle Eastern descent.

It also included a fight pitting Saudi Arabia’s first female MMA fighter, Hattan Alsaif, against Egyptian Nada Faheem. 

“The key requirements for the growth of any sport are capital and desire, which Saudi Arabia currently has for MMA. It’s similar to Las Vegas for boxing in the 1980s. This will drive attention, development of talent, and fanbase over the next decade,” Davis tells us.

PFL is also setting up an MMA training academy in conjunction with PIF in Saudi Arabia, which is set to launch early next year.

“50% of MMA fans are 18-35 years old, which is a great match for the young Saudi and MENA demographic,” he tells us.

The investment lines up with Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, which aims to diversify the kingdom’s economy and invest in entertainment, sports, and leisure, among other things.

It also pits Saudi against neighboring UAE, which has risen to become a hub for combat sports owing largely to the personal interest of Abu Dhabi’s deputy ruler, Sheikh Tahnoun Bin Zayed al Nahyan, whose passion for combat sports has led to Brazilian jiu-jitsu becoming the UAE’s national sport.

In February, PFL organized its first Super Fight in Riyadh, PFL vs. Bellator, in association with the General Entertainment Authority of Saudi Arabia. The event was held at a 5,500-seat venue that was built in one week, which Davis says is a testament to what can be done in Saudi Arabia.

“It was the best event that we’ve ever done in the history of the company. It was also the most expensive. But it had great fights and a great fan experience,” he laughs, adding that the league will bring another big fight to Riyadh in the fall.

Starting in 2025, the league will host eight regional events in Africa and the Middle East, as well as two global events in Saudi.

“What we’re seeing in 2023 and 2024 are just the beginning of what will play out in the next decade,” says Davis.


CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that the IMMAF estimates that MMA has a global fan base of 449,000, with Davis putting the number closer to 600,000. The IMMAF estimates that MMA has a fan base of 449 million, with Davis putting the number closer to 600 million.  

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