“This is going to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
That’s a sentiment one might expect from a fighter who has worked his way up from lower-tier MMA promotions and is about to debut among the sport’s elite in the UFC.
But the career journey of Shane Burgos is headed in the opposite direction.
After more than six years and 11 fights in the UFC, he signed with the PFL last summer and will make his debut on Friday, facing 2022 lightweight champion Olivier Aubin-Mercier at PFL 3 in Las Vegas (9:30 p.m. ET on ESPN+, with prelims at 7 p.m. on ESPN/ESPN+).
Burgos (15-3), a career featherweight, will make his first PFL appearance in a weight class 10 pounds heavier than the division he’s called home for a decade. And he’ll be doing so against a reigning champion who looked thoroughly in control in going 4-0 last season. Those are challenges, for sure. But there are other difficulties most weighing on the mind of Burgos going into the season.
“It’s the season structure itself, man, it’s grueling,” Burgos said this week.
He already has a date for his second fight — June 23 — and if he qualifies for the playoffs, he’ll have to win two more times before the end of the year to take home one of the $1 million checks awarded to season champs.
“Four fights in eight months is definitely gonna be a physical and mental test,” said Burgos, who never fought more than twice in a calendar year during his UFC run. “I know exactly what I am getting myself involved in, though. I didn’t make a blind decision to sign with the PFL. I’m up to the challenge.”
Being a former UFC fighter in the PFL is a challenge in itself. Two of the PFL’s highest-profile signees in recent years, Anthony Pettis and Rory MacDonald, arrived with resumes decorated with Octagon accomplishments that made them shoo-ins for the PFL’s rich season-ending prize. It didn’t happen for either of them. Pettis, a former UFC lightweight champion, has lost four of his five PFL fights. MacDonald, a one-time UFC welterweight title challenger and a former Bellator champ, lost four of his six bouts inside the SmartCage before retiring last year.
That reality might feel counterintuitive for longtime followers of a sport that the UFC has dominated seemingly forever. But the trend has continued even this season. At PFL 1 two weeks ago, Thiago Santos and Marlon Moraes, both of whom fought for UFC titles, lost their season openers to PFL champs, and former ranked UFC middleweight Krzysztof Jotko also went down to defeat. All are in their first PFL season, as is another former UFC contender and touted signee, Aspen Ladd, who lost last week at PFL 2.
Burgos is not interested in any of this daunting history. “I don’t put too much stock into how anyone else has done,” he said. “Everyone else is everyone else. I’m different.”
That might come across as bluster, but it’s grounded in truth. While many UFC emigrants moved at the tail end of their careers or in the wake of Octagon struggles, the 32-year-old Burgos is coming to the PFL in his prime. What’s more, his arrival promises high-level fighting at a thrill-a-minute pace. Burgos is No. 2 all-time among UFC featherweights in strikes landed per minute — ahead of champ Alexander Volkanovski and former champs Max Holloway, Jose Aldo and Conor McGregor.
The PFL wants to get as many eyeballs on Burgos as possible. Even though his meeting with Aubin-Mercier is worthy of Friday’s main event slot, it instead will be the feature bout of the prelims, putting it on the ESPN broadcast rather than the main card’s ESPN+ stream. An all-action performance by Burgos would be an appealing calling card for the PFL.
That certainly was the case during his time in the UFC. Even his three losses inside the Octagon were wins for the promotion — Burgos took home Fight of the Night bonuses each time. He’s precisely the type of fighter the UFC doesn’t typically allow to get away.
“We don’t f— up often, but we f—ed that one up,” UFC president Dana White told reporters after the Burgos signing with PFL was announced. “I like guys that come out and they bring it every single time they fight and guys who want to perform and guys who want to win. Who has it more than that kid does?”
Burgos even got a fare-thee-well phone call from his former boss, who isn’t known for sending fragrant bouquets to fighters who leave the Octagon behind.
“For him to go out of his way to say those nice things about me and then to make a call to me personally, that was humbling, honestly, and flattering,” Burgos said. “It showed the appreciation Dana had for my performances. I put my body on the line for the UFC for nearly seven years. I put my blood, sweat and tears into this, and to get that appreciation back meant a lot to me.”
So why, then, did he leave the UFC?
“Honestly, just to be as blunt as possible, it’s the money,” Burgos said. “This is an opportunity to change my family’s life. Obviously, winning the whole thing will mean a million dollars. But on top of that, what I get paid per fight is too good for me to turn down.”
Now begins the hard work to earn that payday.
Burgos expects the season to be a grind but believes it will be less so while competing at 155 pounds. “I couldn’t do four fights in eight months at ’45,” he said. “But the lesser weight cut is a burden lifted off my shoulders. When I’ve fought at ’45, my last couple weeks of training camps were solely based around making weight. Now my last couple of weeks before fights can be performance-based, with me feeling my best. And that’s f—ing huge, mentally and physically.”‘
And starting the season against the guy who won it all last year? Burgos sees that as a positive as well. “For me to go into this thinking it’s gonna be a walk in the park, easy breezy, that would be f—ing ignorant and naive of me, and I’m not either of those things,” he said. “Give me the hardest fight first, when I’m fresh.”
The full PFL 3 fight card
ESPN+, 9:30 p.m. ET
ESPN/ESPN+, 7 p.m.
Lightweight: Olivier Aubin-Mercier vs. Shane Burgos