On February 24, Saudi Arabia held its inaugural international pro MMA event in Riyadh, adding to the country’s program of mega boxing shows and furthering its reputation as the new Las Vegas for combat sports.

Promoter, Professional Fighters League (PFL), used its first event in Saudi following the $100 million investment from the nation’s Public Investment Fund to showcase seminal title matches, historic firsts for the sport, and significant announcements, including the launch of its regional league, PFL MENA.

Having recently acquired US promoter Bellator, PFL used the event “PFL vs Bellator Champs: Seize the Throne” to unify its titles with championship clashes in the heavyweight and middleweight divisions. The heavyweight headliner saw PFL’s Renan Ferreira beat Bellator’s Ryan Bader with a stunning 21-second victory via technical knock-out to face Francis Ngannou next.

The announcement came as Ngannou prepares for his boxing showdown against Anthony Joshua on Friday (March 8), also in Riyadh. The action played out at the city’s open-air Kingdom Arena, following a venue switch to utilize the facilities built for boxing’s recently postponed Tyson Fury vs Oleksandr Usyk fight.

But it was the other end of the card that excited home fans most as two Saudi fighters opened the night: Amateur medallist Mishal Basahel secured a win against Brazilian Vinicius Pereira by decision in the sole amateur bout. He was followed by Abdullah Al-Qahtani, a veteran of Bahraini promotion BRAVE CF, competing on home soil for the first time to seize a TKO win in a lethal performance that culminated in a devasting body kick.

Al-Qahtani was supported cageside by teammate, Hattan Alsaif, the first Saudi female to be signed to a global MMA promotion, who cut a glistening presence in a diamanté decked black dress.

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PFL vs Bellator Champs made history too with the Kingdom’s first-ever pro women’s MMA bout. Handsomely accoladed world boxing champion Claressa Shields faced Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt Kelsey Santis in a lopsided affair in which the former lacked answers in the wrestling phases. But Shields was able to create sufficient space to demonstrate enough of her destructive striking power to inch a victory by split decision.

The presence of combat A-listers such as Mike Tyson, igniting the crowd, and the featuring of Muhammad Ali’s grandson Biaggio Ali Walsh gave a conscious nod to boxing’s glory days. In the balmy, outdoor air under a full moon, replete with dazzling lighting and high-energy beats, PFL delivered an adrenalin-packed program, cushioned by the warm hospitality of the venue staff and a vibrant but gentle crowd.

The investment into and hosting of elite MMA by Saudi Arabia sits alongside the nation’s plans to develop the sport from the grassroots and create national talent pathways in its broader sports drive that forms part of its Vision 2030. PFL’s goal to likewise develop regional leagues and talent funnels, partnering agnostically with local sports organizations and structures, accords with Saudi’s vision.

This commitment was illustrated in the regulation of the event, which although commissioned by USA organization the Mohegan Commission, was shadowed by the local Saudi MMA federation, following an educational model previously utilized by UFC in new territories. The national federation, which has experience in organizing amateur competitions was responsible for commissioning and officiating the card’s amateur bout.

Regarding the impact of the event on Saudi MMA participants and hopefuls, Basahel commented: “It will definitely inspire Saudi fighters who want to make it big and fight on the big shows. Speaking for myself, it was seeing Abdullah Al-Qahtani fight for PFL twice that inspired me and made me see that one of our own can make it.

“So, I was excited to fight on this event, particularly in the first fight of the night, to show how good Saudi fighters are and hopefully inspire more fighters to train hard and focus on their goal of one day making it to the big leagues.”

The newly announced PFL MENA is to be run out of a dedicated new office in Riyadh and will see events take place this year in Egypt, UAE, Bahrain, and Jordan as well as Saudi, spanning a region in which the grassroots sport is under rapid evolution.

CEO Pete Murray has also stated PFL’s plans to hit Qatar, the next GCC state to be throwing its hat into the MMA ring.

See here for the full fight results