To call Kayla Harrison the face of the PFL is to state the obvious. One could argue that she's been not just the most eye-catching face but the only face, as none of the recognizable names the fight promotion has imported -- talking about you, Anthony Pettis and Rory MacDonald -- have lived up to the hype.
Harrison, on the other hand, has delivered gloriously on the promise that accompanied her when she arrived less than five years ago as the most decorated American in world judo history, an uber-niche distinction if ever there was one. In winning the women's lightweight championship in her first two PFL seasons, she was so domineering in her command of the cage that she became the company's only fighter to crack the ESPN pound-for-pound rankings.
But with the PFL set to launch its 2023 season with three April fight cards, the face of the organization isn't showing her face. After re-signing Harrison last year, PFL brass let it be known that 2022 would be her final involvement in season competition. For this year, the self-anointed "Queen K" would be booked in what company founder Donn Davis termed "super fights" on pay-per-view. (Are you out there, Cris Cyborg?)
The PFL also signed another "face," social media maven-turned-boxer Jake Paul, who plans on adding MMA to his gilded résumé this year. But there has not yet been an announcement of a pay-per-view headlined by Harrison or Paul, or even a hint that any gaudy PFL spectacles are in the works.
Meanwhile, the humble regular season begins April 1 in Las Vegas with fights in the light heavyweight and men's featherweight divisions. Between that event and a couple more in the two weeks that follow, the PFL will be trying to establish some fresh new faces -- ones that fans will be able to set their eyes on for free.
Among the PFL's six weight classes, half are better positioned than the others in terms of a public profile, as the promotion has once again brought in a few fighters who'll add panache to the roster. Here are three new names fans should recognize, along with notes on the weight classes without any:
Shane Burgos, lightweight
First PFL fight: April 14 vs. Olivier Aubin-Mercier
Burgos' face has never been on a Wheaties box. He's not as high-profile a signee as Pettis, the flashy former UFC and WEC lightweight champion who competed in the last two PFL seasons and now figures in the company's pay-per-view plans. But whereas "Showtime" was past prime time when he joined the PFL in 2020, as evidenced by his 1-4 record inside the SmartCage, Burgos comes from the UFC as a legitimate contender nowhere near the twilight of his career. UFC president Dana White has acknowledged that "it was a mistake" to allow the "exciting, fun fighter" to get away. Burgos, who earned four Fight of the Night bonuses during his 11-bout run as a UFC featherweight, is moving up to 155 pounds and being thrown right into the deep end of the pool, making his debut against reigning 2022 champion Aubin-Mercier.
Holdover lightweights of note: Aubin-Mercier, 2018 and 2019 champion Natan Schulte, 2021 champ Raush Manfio and Stevie Ray, who beat Pettis twice on his way to being a 2022 finalist.
Thiago Santos, light heavyweight
First PFL fight: April 1 vs. Rob Wilkinson
Santos challenged for the UFC light heavyweight championship in the summer of 2019 and gave Jon Jones the closest fight of his life, losing a split decision that was disputed by some at cageside and on social media. That was the Brazilian's most recent brush with glory, though, as he was sidelined with knee injuries and then lost four of his five fights. It sounds like a ruinous skid, and it might indeed be a sign that, at age 39, Santos is near the end of the road. But it cannot be ignored that two of those defeats came against champions, Glover Teixeira and Jamahal Hill, and the other two were against top-10 contenders, Aleksandar Rakic and Magomed Ankalaev.
Santos might not be expecting to face such a lofty caliber of opponent in the PFL, but that's pretty much what's awaiting him in his debut. Wilkinson, ranked No. 8 in ESPN's divisional rankings, won the 2022 championship on the strength of four straight knockouts. A date in the cage with the 31-year-old Aussie will provide an immediate gauge of where Santos stands in his career.
The PFL also brought in another former UFC fighter for this division, and while he's not as recognizable a name as Santos, he could prove to be more impactful. Krzysztof Jotko never made it to a championship bout during his solid decade-long run in the Octagon, but at age 33 he is closer to the prime of his career than Santos is. The uncertainty surrounding Jotko, who makes his debut against Will Fleury on April 1: He's moving up a division after competing at middleweight in all 17 of his UFC appearances. If stepping in with bigger bodies suits him, Jotko could be the addition who makes a difference at 205 pounds.
Holdover light heavyweights of note: Wilkinson and 2021 finalist Marthin Hamlet.
Aspen Ladd, women's featherweight
First PFL fight: April 7 vs. Olena Kolesnyk
That'll actually be Ladd's first season fight, as she joined the promotion last year in time for a non-season feature bout with Julia Budd, defeating the former Bellator champion by split decision. It was the PFL's first bout at women's featherweight; for all three of its previous seasons, the promotion's lone division for women was lightweight. But this season PFL women will compete at featherweight, and that suits Ladd, who competed mostly at bantamweight in the UFC, but missed weight three times. If she can enter the cage not sapped by a taxing weight cut, and not outsized by her opponent, Ladd can be a factor. If nothing else, she'll be the next challenging obstacle in front of Larissa Pacheco, who upset Harrison in the 2022 lightweight championship final.
Holdover women's lightweights/featherweights of note: Pacheco and Budd.
Notes on the other weight classes
Heavyweight: The last two season champions, Ante Delija (2022) and Bruno Cappelozza (2021), are among a solid core of returnees, but a couple of newbies will be interesting to watch. Neither Maurice Greene nor Yorgan De Castro is a big enough name to warrant his own section, like the fighters profiled above, but they have one sizable thing going for them: Both have spent a lot of time in the gym recently with Jon Jones. It simply cannot be a bad thing to work out for several weeks with the GOAT as part of his preparation for his heavyweight debut, which, in case you missed it, turned out pretty well. The heavyweights open the season on April 7, with Greene fighting Marcelo Nunes and De Castro trading leather with Denis Goltsov, a 2021 semifinalist.
Welterweight: It's tempting to call Magomed Magomedkerimov a new face because, since winning the 2018 championship, he's been largely an invisible man thanks to injuries and visa issues. He did make it to the 2021 final, suffering his only PFL loss. Magomedkerimov posted one win last season but because his other bout was canceled, he missed the playoffs. In his absence, a couple of fighters he previously defeated, Sadibou Sy and Dilano Taylor, made the final, with Sy becoming champion. They're all back, with the 170-pounders getting underway on April 14.
Men's featherweight: Brendan Loughnane is as close to being a "face of the PFL season" as any roster holdover. He is 8-1 since joining the promotion and looked dominant in winning last season's championship with a TKO of Bubba Jenkins, who's also back. Loughnane will take on Marlon Moraes, who will be making his PFL season debut. Moraes is nearly four years removed from fighting for the UFC bantamweight belt; prior to that, he was the 135-pound champ of the World Series of Fighting -- a promotion later rebranded as, you got it, the PFL. So this is a kind of a return. Know who's also returning? The undefeated 2021 champ Movlid Khaybulaev, who handed Loughnane his only PFL defeat but missed last season because of injury. This division, well stocked with returnees, begins its season on April 1.