Josh Jackson lets his mind wander when he watches mixed martial arts fights. He imagines himself in the octagon, standing opposite fighters more accomplished than him. He wants to know, even if it’s just in his head, how he would stack up.
“I try to put myself in the fighter’s shoes,” he says.
A few months ago, the Professional Fighters League came to D.C. for its regular season event at George Washington University. Jackson, a 27-year-old Frederick, Maryland-based professional mixed martial arts fighter, would’ve made the trip—if only he had heard about it in time. He knows he missed an opportunity to learn from other pros.
This weekend, Jackson doesn’t plan on making the same mistake.
On Saturday, the recently opened Entertainment and Sports Arena in Ward 8 will host the PFL quarterfinals and semifinals in the middleweight (185 pounds) and welterweight (170 pounds) divisions. Eight fighters from each weight class in the league’s inaugural season will fight for a chance to advance to the championship round in New York on Dec. 31.
“We’ve been planning this one for two weeks now,” says Jackson, who will attend the event with a few friends from Soldierfit gym in Frederick.
The PFL, which launched in June at Madison Square Garden in New York, has local roots. It started in 2012 as the World Series of Fighting, but rebranded in 2017 after an investment group in Reston, Virginia acquired a controlling stake. Since the relaunch, the league has aggressively promoted itself as the first professional MMA organization to have a regular season, playoffs, and a championship.
There are six weight classes with 12 fighters in each competing for $1 million in prize money. PFL leaders see D.C. as one of its main target markets.
“I think the community is really great, and I think it’s been underserved,” says Carlos Silva, the league’s president and a D.C. native. “There have been two fights here in 2018, and we’re looking for more fights in 2019. D.C. has been a great marketplace.
“We’ll very likely be back. We have a lot of deep ties to the Washington sports community. …D.C is our home. D.C. is home of the PFL.”
Saturday night’s playoffs, which will be broadcast on Facebook starting at 7 p.m. and on NBC Sports Network beginning at 9 p.m., will be one of the 4,200-seat arena’s first big events since its grand opening last month. Events DC, the convention and sports authority for D.C. that helped develop the venue, considers combat sports, like mixed martial arts and boxing, “a focus area.”
“Combat sports, along with esports, obviously basketball, and concerts, those four areas are critical in our go-to market approach,” says Erik Moses, Event DC’s senior vice president and managing director of sports and entertainment. “That doesn’t mean we won’t have cultural events, community events, but we’re looking at those four areas to be pillars upon which we end up connecting real well with those audiences.”
Moses adds that not all four pillars will see equal amount of events, but that his group won’t turn down other combat sports like jiu-jitsu or taekwondo, if the opportunity arises.
Several well-known fighters like Jake Shields will be competing on Saturday. The format has attracted a mix of older athletes and up-and-comers from around the world. The 16 fighters in the two weight divisions have been seeded one through eight based on their regular season results.
Louis Taylor landed in D.C. this past Tuesday to prepare for his fight. The 39-year-old Chicago native who goes by “Handgunz” or “Put the Guns Down” went 2-0 during the regular season and is seeded second in the middleweight division.
He defeated Anderson Goncalves with a technical knockout in July at George Washington, which was the second time he’s been in the city. The PFL format, he says, with the chance to fight twice in one night, “leaves a lot of opportunity for chaos.”
“It’s going to be a great show,” Taylor continues. “Eventually I know they’ll know how to sell and tell the stories going on. …There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes stories that I hope one day gets told. I’m honored to be a part of the inaugural year of PSL, and they love D.C.”
According to Silva, PFL has averaged “close to two million viewers per event on Facebook with another 200,000 on NBC Sports Network.” He expects another lively crowd in D.C. on Saturday.
Taylor has fought all over the country, and says that each city “breeds a different atmosphere.” In July, he saw fans dancing in the stands and describes the atmosphere during his fight as “festive.”
“I felt appreciated to be performing. I felt like D.C. appreciated the effort we were putting in that night,” Taylor says. “Some fans get jaded, they’re spoiled, and want big names. I thought the D.C. crowd really appreciated us.”