Now entering the promotion's fourth season, the Professional Fighters League's trademark season format is resulting in some unique approaches from its athletes, and UFC Hall of Famer Randy Couture has been cageside to watch it develop.
In the PFL, athletes compete in a pair of regular-season bouts, where they are awarded points based on their performances. Three points are given for a win, and bonus points are given based on how quickly a fighter is able to secure that victory. Standings are created based on those points awarded, with the top four athletes in each weight class moving on to a bracketed playoff system, with the winner crowned season champion and awarded $1 million.
But before an athlete can even consider the potential of the playoffs, they must get through the regular season, which means two fights in relatively quick fashion.
At Friday's 2022 PFL 4 event, athletes in the PFL's lightweight and light heavyweight division will be competing for the second time in just eight weeks, and Couture, who calls the fights from Atlanta's Overtime Elite Arena on ESPN (10 p.m. ET) and ESPN+ (7 p.m. ET), said the quick turnaround can prove quite grueling.
"Anthony Pettis said this last year," Couture told MMA Underground. "He came up to me at the finals. He said, 'Man, I didn't realize what I'd gotten myself into. I needed to manage my camps better and my energy better from fight to fight because turning around in seven or eight weeks is a big challenge,' and he thinks he's got that front-loaded this time going into this season, and boy, it sure looks like it is. His first outing was stellar, so it is a challenge."
Pettis currently sits atop the PFL's lightweight standings with six points, but his spot in the playoffs certainly isn't secure. Last season's surprise champion, Raush Manfio, is just behind with four points, while Clay Collard, Alexander Martinez and Olivier Aubin-Mercier each have three points.
Given the PFL's unique points system, though, the six athletes on this season's 155-pound roster who have yet to score a point could potentially still find their way into the playoffs.
It's a similar situation at light heavyweight, where defending champion Antonio Carlos Junior and his American Top Team training partner, Omari Akhmedov, each have six points, with Robert Wilkinson and Cory Hendricks each earning five points thus far, and Marthin Hamlet at three.
The playoff spots in those two divisions will be determined following Friday's event, and Couture said it presents a challenging scenario that athletes must address. Mixed martial arts is already an incredibly difficult sport in which to be successful at the highest level, but to then add pressure of needing to finish a contest in a specific round could prove detrimental to performance.
""I think most of the fighters, in my experience, strip it down and keep it as simple as they can keep it," Couture said. "I think the more stuff they get going on in their head, the more likelihood that they're going to freeze up. They're not going to go out and do what they trained to do, so I think simple is definitely the way to go.
"But, you know, you get a guy like (two-time featherweight champion) Lance Palmer, who is just as calculating as any athlete I've been around, he's a total package. He studies from nutrition and everything down the line. There's a guy that's definitely got a plan. He knows exactly where he stands in the standings. He didn't have the outing he wanted the first time around, so you can bet he's going to go out and put it out there and try and score some points early and ensure that he gets into the playoffs and gets a shot at another title."
Palmer gets his chance on Friday, June 24, when the featherweights and heavyweights will wrap up their regular season, while the welterweights and women's lightweights will have their playoff brackets set on Friday, July 1.
It's a fine balance for the athletes in their pursuit of $1 million. After all, the mental hurdles can certainly prove problematic, but if you cruise to a decision victory in a sport where a first-round finish would have seen you secure a playoff spot, then what really was the worth of that win?
Couture said that's what makes the next three weeks of the PFL's season so particularly interesting.
"Honestly, it has to factor in," Couture said. "You have to recognize the scenarios. Who wins this, who wins that? 'I've got to have this to even be in hope of making the playoffs,' so it does have to factor in, and any smart athlete – and I like to equate our sport to kinetic chess – there's got to be a couple of moves ahead, so I think it has to factor in.
"At the same time, you can't get so carried away. 'I've got to have a knockout!' That guy's head is going to shrink so small, you'll never be able to touch them, so there's a fine line there. You walk between getting yourself psyched up to go out and get the finish and be aggressive or being reckless and putting yourself in harm's way at the same time."
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