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Mike Tyson, Francis Ngannou set for Professional Fighters League debut in Saudi Arabia

The Professional Fighters League is set to become the first major MMA promotion to hold a card in Saudi Arabia

Dan Gelston
Friday 23 February 2024 16:57 GMT

Mike Tyson and Francis Ngannou are in Saudi Arabia, a pair of ferocious heavyweights with an eye on the championship belt.

For Tyson, his role is ceremonial. The retired boxing great is set to present the winner of three title fights in the inaugural PFL vs. Bellator: Champs card with a custom championship belt.

For Ngannou, it’s personal. The former UFC heavyweight champion says he’ll attend the bouts to confront the winner of the heavyweight superfight between Renan Ferreira and Ryan Bader. Ngannou could finally make his Professional Fighters League debut some time this year against Ferreira or Bader.

Tyson and Ngannou are on hand for the defining card in PFL’s five-plus year history.

The MMA promotion that has churned through Olympic champions and UFC retreads now has its strongest roster yet for its first pay-per-view show that pits Bellator champs against PFL’s champs on Saturday in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. PFL purchased Bellator from Paramount Global in November in its boldest attempt yet to make a run at the industry leader, UFC.

It’s also the first major MMA card held in Saudi Arabia. PFL is the only organization in MMA with a sports-season format, where fighters compete in a regular season, playoffs, and championship each year.

“We are the innovative, aggressive, disruptive company in MMA,” PFL founder and chairman Donn Davis said. “This sport is very young. It has a lot of room to evolve, a lot of room to grow.”

Ngannou is the centerpiece of PFL’s expected growth.

He was still UFC heavyweight champion when contract talks collapsed last year with the company once the African fighter said his demands for health insurance and personal sponsorships were rejected. UFC President Dana White stripped Ngannou of the belt in January 2023. Ngannou reached a deal with PFL last May that included a role as chairman and equity owner in PFL Africa.

Ngannou had put MMA on the backburner following his dalliance with boxing. The 37-year-old fighter floored boxing pundits when he took reigning WBC heavyweight champion Tyson Fury the 10-round distance. Ngannou narrowly lost the fight in Saudi Arabia in front of a crowd that included Kanye West, Eminem and Portuguese soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo.

Ngannou is scheduled to fight former boxing heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua on March 8 in Riyadh.

But after that, Davis said Ngannou will make his anticipated PFL debut.

“It’s 100% Francis will fight PFL MMA this year,” Davis said.

PFL’s suggestion that Ngannou fight UFC heavyweight champion Jon Jones on a co-promoted card was rejected and ridiculed by White. Ngannou instead figures to fight Ferreira (12-3) or Bader (31-7), the only Bellator fighter to hold championships in two weight classes simultaneously.

“There’s no other better heavyweights than the ones we have facing each other Saturday,” Davis said. “Francis is attending that fight, he’s sitting cage side, he’s sizing up those opponents and we’ll see if one of those two emerge strong enough, is a clear-cut winner enough to interest Francis. But I wouldn’t bet against it.”

Tyson was Ngannou’s idol as he grew up in Cameroon and the two trained together ahead of the Fury fight.

“He’s just a force to be reckoned with,” Tyson said. “He’s just a natural. He’s just a phenomenon. Maybe we use that word too often these days. Maybe it’s a juggernaut. He’s just very special.”

Tyson once hosted “ Mike Tyson’s New Fight Game: The PFL,” for the company and will present three winners with the Champion of Champions belt that includes a removable ring.

“I thought it was a no-brainer,” Tyson said. “It was just exciting, it was new and I wanted to be a part of it somewhere.”

The somewhere just happens to be Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia’s influence in the global sports scene included purchasing a stake in PFL last year, another example of the oil-rich kingdom using sporting events to increase its influence. The purchase was relatively modest — $100 million according to the Financial Times — but even in a minority role, Saudi-backed SRJ Sports Investments ensured mixed-martial arts events will take place in that country.

Saudi Arabia’s growing influence on pro golf — and sports in general — has mushroomed in recent years and raised concerns about the supposed menace of “ sportswashing,” an effort to rebrand a nation’s troubling public image.

“Zero concerns, all positive,” Davis said. “They’ve been fantastic hosts to our athletes. All you have to do is take a short glance at social media and our athletes are treated better here than anywhere in the world. We’re trying to be the global company in MMA out there and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have been the best partners.”

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