If you’ve ever watched an evening of PFL fights, you know the company runs its show differently from other mixed martial arts promotions. In a sport fueled by star power and talking a good game, the PFL’s season format shifts the focus to the nitty-gritty of fight results. Viral tweets and trashy bombast earn a fighter not a single point for the season standings, but a first-round finish is practically an automatic ticket to the playoffs.
And when those playoffs conclude with a fighter winning a season championship, is that the beginning of a title reign — as it would be in other fight organizations — or simply the end point of a glorious road paved in gold? Maybe a little of both.
Back in November, the PFL ended its 2022 season by crowning champions in six weight classes. But when the 2023 season kicks off Saturday (ESPN+ at 5:30 p.m. ET), two champs fighting on the card, featherweight Brendan Loughnane and light heavyweight Rob Wilkinson, will not exactly be defending belts. How is that possible? Well, should one of them lose this weekend, their opponent would not be the new champ, right? But make no mistake: Every PFL titlist from last season is going into this season with an attitude of ownership.
Go ahead and try to take away what’s mine.
Of course, in the PFL and every other fight promotion, it’s practically inevitable that championships will change hands. Of the six PFL champs from the 2022 season, guess how many were also 2021 champs. Zero. Over the promotion’s four completed seasons, just four fighters have won a championship in consecutive seasons. For the most part, every season begins as a clean slate in which a new champion’s name will be etched.
Here’s a look at the 2022 champs, all of whom are back for more, arranged in a ranking from the most likely to repeat to the least likely:
Light heavyweight: Robert Wilkinson
Season opener: Saturday vs. Thiago Santos
Toughest obstacle: Krzysztof Jotko
If Robert Wilkinson, above, wants to repeat as PFL light heavyweight champion, first he needs to pass a big test against former UFC contender Thiago Santos on Saturday. Cooper Neill/PFL
Wilkinson does not have a smooth path ahead in his division after the PFL imported two former UFC fighters to stand across from him. Santos, his opponent Saturday, once took Jon Jones to a split decision, but now he is 39 years old. So it’s likely that the other fighter, Jotko, will present more problems, if his move up from middleweight doesn’t slow him down.
But no matter who is facing him, Wilkinson is going to be hard to beat. He earned this top ranking with a formidable run to the 2022 championship: 4-0, all knockouts. The Aussie hasn’t lost a fight since 2017, back to his UFC days when he ran up against a guy making his Octagon debut by the name of Israel Adesanya.
Featherweight: Brendan Loughnane
Season opener: Saturday vs. Marlon Moraes
Toughest obstacle: Movlid Khaybulaev
Loughnane faces some challenging tests this season — but he has seen them all before. His final two wins on the way to last year’s championship were dominating performances against Chris Wade and Bubba Jenkins, and both are back to take another shot at him. And then there’s Khaybulaev, the undefeated 2021 champ who handed Loughnane his only PFL loss that year. An injury sidelined Khaybulaev for all of last season, so Loughnane did not get a chance for payback — until perhaps this season.
Women’s featherweight: Larissa Pacheco
Season opener: April 7 vs. Julia Budd
Toughest obstacle: Aspen Ladd
Pacheco isn’t technically a defending champion because she won her 2022 title at lightweight, a division that has been replaced by one 10 pounds lighter. Pacheco proved herself strong enough at 155 pounds to pull off a stunning upset of Kayla Harrison in last year’s final. How will 145 suit her? We should get an indication right off the bat, as Pacheco opens the season against Budd, a former Bellator featherweight champ.
And while Pacheco is moving down in weight, she also needs to watch out for someone who’s moving up. Ladd competed at bantamweight during her UFC run, but considering that she missed weight several times, this shift to featherweight is overdue. Can Ladd handle Pacheco and the other top fighters in the new division?
Lightweight: Olivier Aubin-Mercier
Season opener: April 14 vs. Shane Burgos
Toughest obstacle: Burgos
The PFL is wasting no time in booking what could be the fight of the season. Aubin-Mercier looked outstanding in winning all four of his fights last year. Two of those victories came against past champions — 2021 titlist Raush Manfio and 2018 and 2019 champ Natan Schulte. But Burgos poses a different level of challenge. He competed at featherweight in the UFC, beating everyone in front of him other than the upper crust of contenders (Edson Barboza, Josh Emmett and Calvin Kattar). OAM has his work cut out for him, but that could just push his game to new heights.
Welterweight: Sadibou Sy
Season opener: April 14 vs. Jarrah Al-Silawi
Toughest obstacle: Magomed Magomedkerimov
Sadibou Sy, right, defeated Dilano Taylor by unanimous decision in the final to become the 2022 PFL welterweight champion. Cooper Neill/PFL
Sy has been around from the beginning of the PFL, which had its inaugural season in 2018 after being rebranded from the World Series of Fighting. He has had his ups and downs — except last season, which was all up, up, up. But even in going 4-0 on his way to winning the championship, Sy did not devastate the competition. And at some point he’s going to have to deal with Magomedkerimov, who handed Sy his most recent defeat in a 2021 fight that was not particularly close. Magomedkerimov has had a hard time making it to the cage since winning the championship in 2018, with five bouts canceled during his PFL run. But when he does fight, Magomedkerimov has been tough to beat.
Heavyweight: Ante Delija
Season opener: TBD
Toughest obstacle: Bruno Cappelozza
The real toughest obstacle for Delija is the calendar. He withdrew from his scheduled season opener because of an unspecified injury, and although the PFL has given no indication that he is out for the season, it’s a tough task to earn playoff-clinching points in just one fight. Then again, Delija has the explosiveness to be up to the task — his two playoff wins last year were first-round knockouts, which earn the maximum points in the standings. Still, he’s in a field with Cappelozza, who has defeated him twice, including in the 2021 championship final. Even if Delija weren’t starting the season a step behind, he’d still have some catching up to do.