Johnny Eblen and Impa Kasanganay show potential of what PFL’s future could be

Impa Kasanganay is three months removed from winning the PFL’s 2023 season as a light heavyweight. Now he’s moving down in weight to face Bellator MMA middleweight champion Johnny Eblen Saturday night in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, with the hopes a victory might bolster his case for an eventual shot at heavyweight Francis Ngannou. And oh, by the way, he hasn’t entirely given up on his welterweight aspirations either.

“I don’t even consider weight classes,” Kasanganay told ESPN. “I’m not trying to be the best middleweight or light heavyweight in the world. I’m focused on being the best fighter possible. Whether it’s at 170 pounds or 265 pounds, it’s just a different form of discipline.”

Thanks to PFL’s acquisition of Bellator MMA late last year, there are plenty of opportunities for fighters looking to think outside the box. The PFL will continue operating both leagues for now but is eager to mix up the rosters. Saturday’s PFL vs. Bellator event will feature multiple champion vs. champion matchups, and a handful of Bellator athletes will compete in PFL’s 2024 season.

Arguably, no fighter on either roster is looking to make more of the opportunities in any division than Kasanganay (15-3), who has already proved to be a chameleon when it comes to weight. He fought at the 170-pound welterweight limit in the UFC as recently as 2021. He won last year’s PFL tournament at 205 pounds without cutting weight, and should make 185 pounds comfortably this week. At his heaviest, he says, he has weighed 245.

Immediately after beating Joshua Silveira in the PFL finals in November, Kasanganay called out Ngannou, a PFL heavyweight, former UFC champ and now a professional boxer. It was not exactly a traditional callout. At the moment, no one would place Kasanganay on any short list of potential opponents for Ngannou. But Kasanganay, whose family is from Africa, sees a clear path to making that fight happen.

“Some said [the callout] was fake, but this is something I pray for and work for,” Kasanganay said. “I was the first person of my family to be born outside of Congo. The PFL wants to re-create ‘[The] Rumble in the Jungle’ in Africa. My parents are from Kinshasa, the same city where that fight took place. It would be a great story.

“I intend to keep talking about that fight, keep it in people’s minds and take care of business. The business right now is Johnny Eblen. Then, it is to win the PFL season again as a light heavyweight. Then, maybe a move to heavyweight. If Francis needs more time, no problem, I’ll fight [former Bellator MMA light heavyweight champion] Vadim Nemkov. Give me the challenges that stand in the way of that fight. That’s what I want.”

A two-time defending champion in Bellator, Eblen (14-0) represents far more than a hurdle in Kasanganay’s quest for Ngannou. There are some who believe Eblen, a former NCAA Division I collegiate wrestler at the University of Missouri, is already the No. 1 middleweight in the world — ahead of his UFC counterparts Dricus Du Plessis, Sean Strickland, Israel Adesanya and Robert Whittaker.

It’s difficult for a non-UFC fighter to break into “the best in the world” conversations, but Eblen has done so through dominant performances and a well-rounded skill set. He comes from a wrestling background, but the rest of his game, which he has sharpened in a world-class atmosphere at American Top Team (ATT), is very well developed.

“I think it’s my consistency and the fact that I can do everything,” Eblen said of his high middleweight ranking. “In the UFC, the belt has been changing hands and every champion is pretty much very good at one aspect of the game. So, I think it’s my consistent performances and that I’ve been impressive in every facet.”

Eblen signed with Bellator after his fourth professional fight, largely due to his close relationship with former Strikeforce champion Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal. Lawal now coaches at ATT and encouraged Eblen to sign with Bellator because the promotion not only wanted him badly but paid him well. As Eblen’s success grew, Bellator renegotiated his contract regularly to keep him under its banner.

PFL’s acquisition of Bellator’s roster was perfect timing for Eblen, who took the belt from Gegard Mousasi in 2022 and notched title defenses against Anatoly Tokov and Fabian Edwards, both in 2023. He admits his options in Bellator, where he has fought since 2019, were starting to thin out — so facing a 2023 PFL champion from a different weight class in a new pay-per-view product for the PFL was a welcome opportunity.

“There’s not really many interesting matchups in Bellator, other than guys I’ve already fought,” Eblen said. “That kind of sucks, but it is what it is, and I understand the sport and the nature of MMA. These organizations don’t want to cross-promote. But now, we do get to cross-promote in a sense, and I am happy to be a part of it, because I do feel like I’d already fought the who’s who of my weight class in Bellator.”

Rumors of PFL’s looming acquisition of Bellator were a significant topic in MMA in 2023. Now that the deal is final, a major topic of 2024 will be how it impacts the industry and some of the key players involved. Every athlete on Saturday’s card has more options this year than they had 12 months ago. Some of the biggest names to watch this weekend include PFL’s Renan Ferreira and Clay Collard and Bellator’s Patricio Freire and Ryan Bader.

But with Eblen already on the cusp of perceived middleweight superiority despite being outside the UFC and Kasanganay’s lofty ambitions to turn this new system into a vehicle toward Ngannou, the 185-pound co-main event is arguably the most intriguing matchup on the card.

“I love that I’m fighting Eblen. I think he’s earned every accolade,” Kasanganay said. “He’s a pioneer who has proven you can be a great fighter outside of the UFC. I believe he’s done that … and I believe that’s what I can do in this fight.”

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