Professional Fighters League set to end unique season with $1 million for each champion

John Howard is flanked by his coaches, Shawn Graham, left, and Jake Pilla, right, before entering the arena for his semifinal bout with Louis Taylor (behind him). Andre Chung for ESPN

WASHINGTON -- Louis Taylor is visibly upset. Sitting in the corner of his locker room at The Entertainment and Sports Arena, the middleweight fighter takes off the giant bag of ice pressed against his face. He then looks at teammate Belal Muhammad and expresses his emotions in that moment.

"I feel like s---."

Taylor defeated Rex Harris by unanimous decision just minutes earlier in the quarterfinals of the Professional Fighters League playoffs. But it wasn't an easy victory. He didn't just cruise to advance to the semifinals.

"I wasn't my best in my first match," Taylor said. "My timing was way off. I was having some acid buildup in my muscles. I just wasn't myself. My body and mind wasn't in sync."

Taylor puts the ice back on his face. He's not hurt badly, but any bumps and bruises will need to heal. Fast. In less than two hours, he'll be back inside a cage, staring down an opponent who could be the difference in whether he fights for $1 million.

Yes, you read that correctly.

Two fights in one night. Competing for a chance at $1 million.

The Professional Fighters League will crown six mixed martial artists as champions in their weight classes on Monday night (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN) inside Madison Square Garden. All six will walk away with money rarely seen in the sport.

In October, Taylor was one fight away from being added to that card. One fight away from potentially setting his family up for life. He just needed to push through physically and emotionally a bit more to get there.

MMA today consists almost entirely of matchups handpicked by promotions. Two fighters of similar ranking within a division fighting once in a night for either three or five rounds. It's not always the best versus the second best. Oftentimes it's two contrasting styles or two people who are rivals outside the cage.

There's nothing wrong with that. But sometimes fighters want to know their hard work will get them far in the sport, not just their voice. Trash-talkers are rewarded in other organizations. Not here.

PFL has a unique season-long format in which fighters earn points for wins and early finishes. At the end of the regular season, those with the most points in each weight class are seeded and then fight in a playoff bracket. If you win the entire bracket, you win $1 million.

In a sport where you can count on one hand the amount of fighters earning more than that in a year, it's an enticing offer.

"It's about giving fans choices," PFL founder Donn Davis told ESPN earlier this year. "Fans don't buy one kind of bottled water. Fans don't want one kind of TV show. And I don't think fans will only watch one kind of MMA. It's just that so far, they've only been given one option: one-off events with matchups chosen by a promoter. That's great. Enjoy that. But we're giving you a new option."

Also new: A playoff format that forces fighters to compete twice in one night. A quarterfinal fight can last up to two rounds. If it goes to a decision and the judges score one round for each fighter, the winner is whoever took the first round. This promotes early finishes and fast starts.

If you win the quarterfinal matchup, you have to go back out there mere hours later to do it again in a semifinal scheduled for three rounds. You're likely tired and potentially hurt. But with that much money on the line, it's worth fighting through the pain.

Welterweight Abubakar Nurmagomedov unfortunately found out the hard way in Washington. He defeated Bojan Velickovic by decision in his quarterfinal but couldn't continue in the tournament after breaking his hand. Volickovic advanced.

Strategy within the new rules also proved vital that night in the nation's capital.

Middleweight Sadibou Sy's first matchup was against Bruno Santos of Brazil. Sy didn't land many shots but controlled the initial round. Santos was a lot more aggressive than his opponent in the second but did not get a finish. With all judges scoring it 1-1 after two, Sy moved on because he took the early round.

Fans were not happy and rained down boos. From their vantage point, Sy had not done enough to win.

"There's nothing to complain about because we all know the rules beforehand," Sy said between fights. "I knew that I did enough to win the first round. The second round, when he took me down, I knew that I just couldn't get finished.

"When he got the takedown, I tried a little bit to stand up and then after that it was like, 'All right, cool, I guess I'll stay here because I know I have the first round. Just take it easy and make sure not to leave anything so he can get a submission.'"

Rules are rules. And they also came into play later in the night when Taylor faced John Howard in the semifinals. He said walking out to the cage a second time felt "super strange."

Taylor dominated the first round and was controlling most of the second. Then he threw a knee while Howard had a hand on the mat. It appeared illegal. After a long wait, the judges ruled it an inadvertent foul, and rather than disqualify Taylor from the tournament, they deducted a point, making the fight a draw. Taylor advanced based on the tiebreaker rule.

He thought at the time the accidental knee may have eliminated him.

"It took so long, I didn't have a clue," Taylor said of the discussion among officials. "I thought I lost. That was it. I lost my chance at $1 million. Then they said draw. It was crazy."

After some drama involving the new rule set and people pushing through fatigue and possible injury, four fighters -- Taylor, Abus Magomedov, Ray Cooper III and Magomed Magomedkerimov -- won twice each that night and advanced to the final in New York. They will joined Monday night by the top two fighters in four other divisions.

"We've said from Day 1, this format works," PFL executive and former world kickboxing champion Ray Seffo said. "I keep reminding people that I'm a product of this format. We know this works. All of our fighters, from the featherweights to the heavyweights, have proven that it works. Everybody that I've spoken to, from the managers to the fighters, they love the format. They love how guys earn their spot to continue to the finals."

Ray Cooper Jr., Ray Cooper III's father and coach, loves PFL being different from other promotions and having fighters compete twice in a night.

"I think that's more of a gladiator style," Cooper Jr. said. "You got to work through injuries if you do get any in the first fight." He said of his son, "He wrestled and I wrestled. Tournament-style is what we know. We grew up with it. I wouldn't say I prefer it, but it's tougher, so it says something about the fighter. It tests yourself."

Cooper III, in particular, shone. He dominated both Jake Shields and Handesson Ferreira en route to first-round finishes.

Asked about his star potential, PFL president Carlos Silva didn't stop at just the Hawaiian welterweight.

"Bottom line, all these guys in the finals are stars," Silva said. "They are going to Madison Square Garden on Dec. 31 to fight for $1 million. There are six championship fights. That's the biggest night in MMA ever."