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A Saudi-backed league is challenging the status quo of the MMA world


Saudi Arabia is pushing to expand its influence in the sports world. A new Saudi-backed league is taking on the UFC - or Ultimate Fighting Championship - in the mixed martial arts arena. NPR's Ziad Buchh has this report.

ZIAD BUCHH, BYLINE: On a frigid Friday night in Washington, D.C., fans trickled into the Anthem, where the Professional Fighters League - or PFL - held its world championship.

LOU ALVAREZ: I'm excited to be here, I'm ready for the fights and I'm trying to see a couple knockouts.

BUCHH: Lou Alvarez (ph) was there with a group of his friends. I asked him if he knew any of the fighters competing at the event.

ALVAREZ: Not really, no, not - to be honest. But I know one of them was in the UFC.

BUCHH: Richard Percival (ph) came to the event with his father, Robert (ph). He also wasn't very familiar with the PFL roster.

RICHARD PERCIVAL: I know UFC in and out, but I like competition and I want PFL to do well.

BUCHH: His dad was a little more blunt.

ROBERT: I can't stand Dana White, so I'm glad to see there's a competitor to his operation.

BUCHH: He's talking about Dana White, the president of the UFC. Despite all of their success, the UFC's business practices have been incredibly unpopular. In the NBA and NFL, roughly half of the revenue generated goes to the athletes. In the UFC, that number is less than 20%, but fighters have few viable alternatives - that is, until a couple of weeks ago. The PFL announced that it was acquiring Bellator MMA, another UFC rival. With their combined fan bases, there would finally be a real competitor to the UFC. Analyst Luke Thomas sees one problem with that.

LUKE THOMAS: I don't think the PFL or Bellator have a fan base to speak of.

BUCHH: Thomas breaks down the challenge the PFL faces this way.

THOMAS: At any point in time in the history of combative athletics, there is always a group of people or a set of champions that the public loosely sort of sees as the guys. The UFC have basically all of them.

BUCHH: Which May be where one of the PFL's biggest financial backers comes in, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In late August, the PFL received $100 million from the country's public investment fund. Saudi has long been accused of sportswashing, using sports to cover up human rights abuses. Karim Zidan is a journalist who has covered Saudi sports investments. He says their strategy is more nuanced than that.

KARIM ZIDAN: At this point, it's very likely that you will see U.S. entities continue to go to Saudi Arabia no matter the human rights abuses, so we've really surpassed sportswashing here. The truth is they spend on sports because it brings them attention, it brings them prestige, and it brings them influence.

BUCHH: And as dominant as the UFC is in the MMA world, this wouldn't be the first time Saudi Arabia was able to turn an industry on its head, Zidan says.

ZIDAN: I don't think anybody expected that Saudi Arabia would be able to take control and take ownership of an American pastime, such as golf.

BUCHH: In June of this year, the Saudi-backed LIV Golf merged with the PGA tour, making the Saudi Public Investment Fund a major sponsor and financial backer. That deal has yet to be finalized, but Zidan says some of those strategies could be employed in the MMA world, and ultimately, money is no object.

ZIDAN: Saudi Arabia has absolutely no interest in making a profit of sports, and that honestly makes them even more dangerous.

BUCHH: There are still a lot of questions surrounding the extent of Saudi involvement in the PFL. And then there are the UFC's restrictive contracts, which makes poaching their athletes even more difficult. But the PFL acquiring another major player in Bellator is a first step and a sign that events like the PFL World Championship could be here to stay.


BUCHH: Ziad Buchh, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SNK SOUND TEAM'S "MAIN MENU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ziad Buchh is a producer for NPR's Morning Edition and Up First. In addition to producing and directing the broadcast, he has also contributed to the show's sports, tech and video game coverage. He's produced and reported from all over the country, including a Trump rally, and from the temporary home of Ukrainian refugees.