PFl Founder Donn Davis

PFL Chairman Donn Davis: ‘It’s About the Fans. It’s About the Fighters.’

PFL founder and Chairman Donn Davis is a disruptor. He is looking to change industries. Since founding the Professional Fighters League he has built an expansive international fight empire, that continues to grow.

2024 is set to be a busy year for him as the PFL has booked events in the USA, Europe, the Middle East, Australia, and Latin America. Since purchasing rival Bellator, they are looking to work with RIZIN in Japan in the future and expand PFL Asia.

But despite all this, Davis is not yet satisfied with what he’s accomplished or his success. Ahead of the PFL vs. Bellator event, on Feb. 24 in Saudi Arabia, Davis sits down for an exclusive interview with Tim Wheaton of Combat Press to discuss a litany of topics. The two discuss things such as the PFL, Scott Coker, the UFC, Kayla Harrison, RIZIN, and much more.


PFL Chairman and Founder Donn Davis

Tim Wheaton: We have a term in Canada. We’re such a small market, but here we are next to the United States, sleeping next to a giant. When that behemoth moves, you feel it. What’s it like working in that space when there’s a behemoth right next to you?

Donn Davis: Really interesting question. For 30 years I built disruptive, innovative companies. So I’m always the attacker. I’m never the defender. And so you have to have a mindset of, of innovation, and you have to have a mindset of fan first, and, and, and fighter focused.  You can’t be focused on the competition.

What we’re doing at PFL is something different. So it’s not about us versus them, it’s about the fans, it’s about the fighters.  ’cause if we get it right for them,  we’ll be a co-leader. It’s not about taking share, it’s not about winning and losing. It’s about how do we go from nothing to number two and, how do we go from number two to co-leader and how do we serve the fans and do something better for the fighters to do that. It’s that simple. 

And I try to spend all day with business partners and with other people to get them in our boat. Remember that line from Jaws? We need a bigger boat.  I try to get everybody in our boat. So how do we be easy to, we work with, how do we do things differently and better? How do we smarter, and more innovative?  How do we sometimes copy what they’re doing if it’s good,  and keep the fans and the fighters in mind? And the day I thought of the idea, we had nothing. No fighters, no viewers, no employees. So our first goal was, how am I gonna be number two?  And then our next goal is how do we be co-leader? And let’s just try to do that every day. Not throw our phones and not get too upset and stay calm.  


TW: I was talking to Cung Le, he’s in trial with a UFC right now.  It seems like the PFL is positioned best to benefit from whatever happens there because they might have fighter contracts limited. Is this something that the PFL has talked about that they’re aware of?  

DD: We don’t talk about it at all. Their business, not our business. And whatever happens, will happen, and then it’ll either impact us in way A or way Z.  But most of what we do, once again, is we try to be fair. With our fighters and what we do is different and really we, we really try to be focused on our own game. 

Free Agents

TW: If there’s a free agent out there. Somebody who’s coming up, maybe looking at a UFC contract, or someone who’s in the UFC, maybe at the end of their contract elsewhere, what is your message to these fighters?

DD: Anybody you talk to in the market. That they’ll even tell you this. We never talk to people unless they’re out of their contract. We get calls all the time and people know this is not what we do.  Number two we will always be direct and honest with people and give them an offer and we never change it.

Some people take it, some people don’t.  And so we behave much more.  Like I would if I were hiring you to be a director of social media. We treat everybody like we would in business. I would treat everybody the way I would want to get an offer.  

And so if you have a comment on the contract, then that’s fine. We all have comments. If you have, you know, want to ask something about a number, but we don’t play any games. We don’t do any weird hoopla. Everything is very direct and very transparent, very direct, very transparent. 

Kayla Harrison

TW: What happened with Kayla Harrison?

DD: Good and bad. I appreciate that there there is a way to talk about this and that it validates what we did. We discovered her, we developed her from nothing to, I think, the biggest female star in UFC now. Absolutely no question. And they were desperate to add to the 300 card, no question. 

The other side is I hate to lose any fighter.  Dana never says this. He was happy to lose Francis if you hear him. I’m always very honest. I’m the anti-promoter Promoter. People say, what’s my style? I tell you whatever is what I think is the authentic answer.

So I do believe, as I often say, two things can be true. So I think it shows that UFC has trouble developing their own stars and that their women are much weaker than PFL. A hundred percent. We have the best women in the world right now.  No question.  Do I also think it shows that Kayla was not mentally up to the two toughest fights in the world than Larissa Pacheco and Cyborg? It sure does. ’cause they were both in front of her and she didn’t take ’em.  But am I also disappointed to lose a great fighter? I am. I don’t want anybody. We’ve never lost a fighter in six years. Not one. She’s the first.  In this case, three things can be true.

I thought she was LeBron James. She’s Kevin Durant.  Kevin Durant joins other teams to validate himself. LeBron James joins teams and then builds around him. Because wherever he is is the best.  


TW: Looking back, when did the moment hit you that you were successful and that you had made it?  

DD: It’s very interesting, I don’t think that way really. Today I’m sixty-two and I am successful and I have made it, and I don’t think that way. I have a huge chip on my shoulder.  My wife even says, well, chip, please get outta the room. As a way of kidding me sometimes I wanna do more. I wanna prove more to myself, not to anybody else, or else you wouldn’t do this. This is hard. This is painful. People tell you, you suck and know every day.

You know, it’s just why? I love building and I love creating things that wouldn’t otherwise exist. I love new innovative companies and I love building new things within industries. So, I don’t think about what has happened or what has been done. I think about what I’m going to do and what’s next.

TW: it’s not just money. Clearly, there’s something else that. You’re working towards, how do you measure success.

DD: Impact. I go, I did that. We did that. Look what we’ve done. So, and you have to take I always say declare victory and you have to take ’em along the way because, you know, PFL, we have a long way to go.

So the glass is half empty. But this Saturday, I think we’ll be the best MMA event in 2024. Glass half full. So we have to say declare victory about Champs v Champs. PFL Super Fight February 24th. 

Nobody’s doing a better MMA event than us. We’re doing great as a company, but we got a long way to go. We got a lot more fans to make a lot more media distribution to improve the Champion series to go. Africa to launch Australia, to launch social media, to monetize. 

Rizin and Co-Promotion

TW: Will you be working with Rizin in the future?

DD:  We have said to Rizin, we would be glad to do the December thirty-first event. The way that was done with Bellator was not economic for Bellator. Many things that Bellator did were not economic for Bellator. So we’re glad to do that, but it would have to be done in a different way.

We’ve given ’em a proposal on how that would be done, and we would love to do it. And, we’re waiting for their response. 

A ton of respect for them. Really what they do in terms of their events is spectacular. So ton of respect. But just in terms of what, what we’re building at the PFL company. We have to have the economics different for that effect to continue.  

TW: Going into Latin America, and other places, you were talking about potentially co-promoting. Are you folks open to potentially co-promoting? For example, if Combate phoned you tomorrow or something like that?

DD: It would have to be a compelling product. Given where our roster is right now, what would be the compelling product We say yes to everything if it’s compelling.  So, unlike the UFC, we would say yes to a fight, yes to an event, yes to this collaboration. Anything that is compelling. 

We’re not dogmatic about working with anybody on anything. But it’s gotta be a big idea. And then we’d say yes. 


TW: Congratulations on the deal with U-NEXT, broadcaster in Japan. Are we seeing a PFL Asia in the future?  

DD: We would like PFL Asia. That’s a little bit deeper in the road map than Australia or Latin America or Africa. Which we’re working on more. It’s Imminent. And by imminent, I mean, 2025, 2026. We want those not just done deals, but open-in-the-market products.


TW: On LinkedIn, I saw one of the original investors of the WSOF, they were saying that they had the rights to the PFL Africa. Is there anything to this? 

DD: Nothing. 

TW: Alright, let’s get back to it. Elbows,  how do you feel about elbows in MMA?  

DD: And I addressed this on the Helwani show. Elbows in MMA, fantastic elbows in the sports season. PFL League where you have to fight every 60 days. Not a good part of that format. That’s why it wasn’t in K-I and Pride.

So we carefully studied how do you put on the sports season format where you fight four times in nine months. And everybody said that’ll never work.  And I said, there’s a way. And after studying the data of what are the injuries and what is the health of fighters? It would work clearly based on the data with only one thing eliminated; elbows to the head,  

And it does work. Five years of it works great. And so for that product, which is a great product, you can’t have elbows to the head and fight four times in nine months and it wouldn’t, it wouldn’t be good for the health of fighters.  

So every other product, PPV Super Fight. Yes. Bellator Champion series. Yes. Champs vs. Champs. Yes.

TW: Expansion to Bantamweight, 135 lbs for men? 

DD: Same answer as all expansion. When we can build premium 12 fighters it’ll be in the league season. When we can’t. You’ll see it show up in other divisions. So you see different weight classes in Europe or the Middle East. You’ll see different fighters in the champion series, but you’ll never see anything in the league season that’s not deep in premium. 

So as you saw one 125 show up this year, it’s now deep and premium, for women in the league season. So when you look across all franchises, we’ve got all weight classes, but you gotta have 12 deep and premium to put in the league season. 

PFL vs. Bellator

TW: This weekend, PFL vs. Bellator.  After the event do you phone Scott Coker for a little bit of bragging?

DD: No, never. I would never, first of all, I would brag with anybody. What everybody has done or is doing is always hard. So I never view myself as competing or beating anybody. Okay? Because somebody, if I beat somebody today, somebody’s gonna beat me tomorrow. Just, that’s how the world is. We’re playing our own game. 

And Scott [Coker], we did the acquisition and then Scott just wanted to just wanted make a clean break. Go do his own thing. We invited him to be part of the company going forward. He just wanted to do a clean break and do his own thing.

So Mike Kogan big part of it. Mike can really run the company day to day. More than most people know. And Mike’s been fantastic. A big part of what we’re doing. Mike is really running fighter operations for the combined company. So all the fighters now, you know, there’s not PFL fighters or Bellator fighters or Europe fighters, it’s all one fighters. Ray Sefo, Dan Hardy;  we have one fighter team. And Mike really runs that team. 

TW: I can’t imagine sitting in a boardroom and disagreeing with Ray Sefo.

DD: It’s very collaborative. And Mike’s been surprised himself with how we run the company. Again, we’re just trying to get the right answer and we get people’s views. No, no one person builds the card. There’s no Emperor here. We take everything into consideration. And no one person says X. We’re doing X. It’s not a dictatorship. 

Francis Ngannou

TW: Francis Ngannou, return date, what can we expect?  

DD: MMA PFL 2024. A hundred percent. A hundred percent. 

TW: Francis Ngannou or Anthony Joshua?

DD: Boy, I’d never bet against Francis Ngannou. I told, people before the Fury fight, and he won that fight, they just didn’t award it to him. So I think, I think he beats AJ.  I think Francis is gonna be the Bo Jackson Combat Sports. I think he’ll now look, will he win this? Lose this, win this what order?  But before it’s all said and done,  he will own the heavyweight title in boxing and MMA before it’s said and done.

TW: What about Jake Paul?

DD: First quarter 2025. He’s been training in Smart Cage for three months. He doesn’t want to do it until he is ready. What Jake has told us first quarter of 2025. He needs a full year to get ready. 

Will it be Tommy Fury? Will it be Nate Diaz? Big offers out to both. It could be super cool when it happens and it’s gonna happen.  


TW: For the last few years, why has the UFC struggled to create stars in this space? The one in a billion kind of star.

DD: My ninety-three-year-old dad said, every job is easy until it’s yours, right? So it’s hard to know about what somebody else does. All I know is; Cedric Doumbe and Dakota Ditcheva, we got two of the biggest stars in the world. In one year. So how did we do that? We worked on it. There’s no shortage of work on it. 

They spent a lot of time creating artificial drama to sell big pay-per-views. We don’t do that. We, in the sports season format, we recruit very good people and let ’em do their thing. I think those are the two biggest stars today in combat sports.

Now, are they featured on Sports Center? No. ’cause only UFC’s featured on SportsCenter. If those two are in the UFC right now, you would. Come to see the biggest emerging stars in the world are here, not there.