The MMA landscape is already a full load around the world. Led by the UFC, there’s Bellator, OneFC in Asia, KSW in Poland and Cage Warriors in the United Kingdom all vying to cement their place in the sport.
But an old concept is returning starting Saturday when MMA Pro League holds its first-event from the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City (9 p.m. ET, FloCombat.com). MMA Pro League will feature teams of fighters from different regions of the country, all leading up to the first full regular season and playoffs that will begin in 2019. Saturday’s matchup is between Team New Jersey, coached by former UFC fighter Dan Miller, and Team Pennsylvania, with Brazilian jiu-jitsu champion Daniel Gracie of the renowned Gracie family as the head coach.
The company is led by president Mark Taffet, the former HBO Sports executive, and longtime MMA promoter Hani Darwish, who will serve as the CEO.
A lot of questions surround MMA Pro League heading into the inaugural event. Taffet sat down with Sporting News to answer them.
What is the difference between MMA Pro League and the IFL?
The International Fight League started in 2006 and folded in 2008. Initially, IFL was a team format in which each show was a battle between two camps representing a city, and each fighter would fight one match against another in the opposing camps.
Sound familiar? Taffet explains what MMA Pro League is going to be and what the IFL really was.
“When I worked at HBO, I worked very closely with a guy who ran the Showtime Boxing division by the name of Jay Larkin,” Taffet told SN. “After he left Showtime, he became the president of the IFL. I had many conversations with him about the IFL. There are very similarities between the IFL and MMA Pro League. IFL was teams in name only. The fighters didn’t practice together that much. They didn’t have much association with the local community. They fought under a given night under a team banner. But our league when we launch fully next spring will train together for the 12-14 week regular season and the four-six week playoff run.
“They will be involved with the local communities where the teams are, work out a local training facility, a common home venue and local connections with fans as a result that did not exist in any previous structures. In addition, when you watched IFL, there was a heavy focus on sensationalism in the form of violence, ambulances and things that which we don’t find to be appropriate for the presentation of MMA. MMA fighters among the best conditioned athletes in the world, the most passionate athletes, highly skilled and the sport stands for tremendous value and self-worth. That and the tremendous level of athletic performance and the great connection with the fans are what we intend to present in our live events.”
How will MMA Pro League recruit fighters?
The biggest challenge for MMA Pro League will be acquiring talent. A good chunk of the top fighters in the world are locked up in different organizations and finding suitable fighters is going to be difficult. A unique plan is in place to find those diamond in the roughs like you have seen on a famous reality show.
“When we launch our full season next year, we will have eight teams and 96 athletes with six weight classes per team that consist of five males and one female and two fighters per weight class,” Taffet explained. “We will sign fighters. There will be a draft with the eight coaches and have an “American Idol-like” tryout in each of the eight team cities, in which local athletes can come and tryout.”
Why should people watch?
In this day of mixed martial arts, companies have to give the consumer a reason to watch. There’s so much of the product, fans are cherry picking the events to watch and numbers are down across the board. But Taffet feels a new tide is taking place in the sport and his organization help usher it in.
“MMA Pro League is the launch of a new era for MMA,” Taffet said. “Fighters grow up training on teams. It creates camaraderie between athletes, that’s palpable for the fans live in the arena and the viewers at home. While there’s always going to be individual achievement in a team sport, when an athlete in the ring, male or female is carrying the state of their teammates on their shoulders, wait until you see the performance they give. It will be memorable and will lead to a new foundation of growth for mixed martial arts.”