Canadians Julia (The Jewel) Budd and Rory (Red King) MacDonald, both former Bellator champions, kick off their Professional Fighters League season Friday, the first step hopefully toward a world title and US$1-million payday.
Unlike other MMA promotions, the PFL features a regular season, playoffs and championship. The four fighters in each division who earn the most regular-season points advance to the playoffs with the two winners meeting for the PFL title and the $1-million prize.
The two Canadians had different experiences with PFL in 2021.
Budd (16-3-0) signed with PFL last September and got a taste of the promotion in October when she won a decision over Kaitlin (The Striking) Viking in October.
MacDonald (22-8-1) came on board in December 2019 but had to wait until last year to make his debut after the 2020 season was wiped out by the pandemic. The former UFC welterweight contender opened 2021 with a first-round submission win over Curt (Curtious) Millender but then suffered a controversial split-decision loss to Brazil's Gleison Tibau — mmajunkie.com called it the robbery of the year — and unanimous decision loss to eventual champion Ray Cooper III in the welterweight semifinals last August.
On Friday, MacDonald takes on American Brett (Fudoshin) Cooper (28-15-0) while Budd meets New Zealand lightweight Genah (Fabioso) Fabian (4-2-0).
The 2022 season began with cards April 20 and 28. The regular season continues with shows June 17, June 24, and July 1.
Budd and MacDonald are both looking forward to what lies ahead. Barring injury, they will each have two regular-season fights in advance of the playoffs in August. The championship card will be held on a yet-to-be announced date in the fall.
"I love it," Budd said of the PFL format. "I've studied all the opponents that are in the bracket and I'm just super-excited. It's my first year here and so far I'm loving every second of it. I'm excited about the season format. I'm excited about how busy I can be this year. And I plan on going out on Friday and really kicking off to amazing start."
Added MacDonald: "It's a fresh start, a clean slate. I'm going to take from last year my disappointments and learn from them … I feel like the work I put in the off-season is going to pay off."
Friday's PFL 3 main event at eSports Stadium in Arlington, Texas, sees American Kayla Harrison, a two-time Olympic champion judoka, open her campaign for a third straight PFL lightweight title against Russia's Marina Mokhnatkina.
In the co-main event, Hawaii's Ray Cooper faces Brazil's Carlos Leal Miranda. Also on the card, former UFC lightweight champion Anthony (Showtime) Pettis meets Ireland’s Myles Price.
Like Brett Cooper, MacDonald had his first pro fight as a teenager in 2005 and has a wealth of experience. The Montreal-based fighter went 9-4-0 in the UFC with a memorable, bloody loss to welterweight champion (Ruthless) Robbie Lawler at UFC 189 in 2015.
In 2017, MacDonald switched to Bellator where he went 3-2-1 and won and lost the 170-pound title.
Brett Cooper has fought in Bellator and a slew of other promotions.
"I feel like we've had equal experiences on the elite level. He's obviously been more popular and the reason he's been more popular is he fought in the UFC," said the 34-year-old California-based fighter. "I've fought everywhere except the UFC — Bellator, PFL here now and every other big organization.
"I feel like his was kind of the path I could have had. He's done really well for himself. But I feel like I match up with him well. The experience is pretty equal, I'd say. I'm looking forward to the battle of the first-generation fighters. We both started MMA at the start. We didn't wrestle or box or kickbox. We both started doing everything at once."
MacDonald had his first pro fight at 16, with his parents having to give their approval to do so. Even then, only a few athletic commissions would sanction the youngster.
Brett Cooper made his debut at 18.
"Fights weren't still legal completely in California so there were a couple of underground fights," he recalled.
The 32-year-old MacDonald took three months off after the Ray Cooper loss before returning to training. He divided his preparations between Tristar, his longtime gym base in Montreal, and Austin, Texas, where he trained alongside former UFC fighter Tim Kennedy, a member of the U.S. army special forces, and renowned Brazilian jiu-jitsu coach John Danaher.
"Honestly I think my time in Texas working with the guys there was a real blessing and I just feel great. I feel like I'm the best in the world and I'm excited to go out there and show it." said MacDonald
Budd's mission in the PFL is simple.
"I came here to dominate," said the 38-year-old from Port Moody, B.C.
In facing the vastly experienced Budd, the 32-year-old Fabian may be jumping out of the frying pan into the fire. The Kiwi was stopped by Harrison in the first round of the 2021 playoffs.
"I'm learning on the job at the highest level and in one of the top promotions in the world," said Fabian. "Every single fight, every single weight cut, every single camp, I am constantly evolving and learning and levelling up at a rapid rate."
There is clearly more to learn. Fabian failed to make weight Thursday when she tipped the scales at 160.8 pounds, 4.8 over the non-title lightweight limit.
Fabian will be docked one point and will not earn any points no matter the fight's outcome. Budd, who weighed in at 154.5 pounds, is guaranteed three points and can earn bonus points if she records a finish within the distance.
Ray Cooper also missed weight at 176.4 pounds, 5.4 over the non-title welterweight limit.
Fabian has solid athletic credentials. She was a star sprinter and triple-jumper as a teenager, before switching to rowing. She fell in love with combat sports on a trip to Thailand, eventually transitioning to MMA from after winning a world kick-boxing title.
Fabian had won three straight in the PFL before running into Harrison. Unable to return to New Zealand due to pandemic-related travel restrictions after that loss in August, she held her camp in the U.S.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 5, 2022
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press