Meet the Former Newcastle University Student Bringing The Professional Fighters League up North
The Professional Fighters League is the world's fastest growing and most innovative sports league and this spring it will be coming to Newcastle as part of the inaugural PFL Europe season, thanks to former Newcastle University student James Frewin
Born and raised in London, James first came to Newcastle in 2009 for university. However he’s quick to admit he didn’t do much studying during his time here. ‘I was studying politics but I did say to a journalist the other day I didn’t do too much studying,’ he admits. ‘I was spending more time focused on mixed martial arts and combat sports.
‘I started watching video tapes that I got from CEX in the centre of town. Then I actually had a fight myself, not mixed martial arts, it was boxing, but I competed in Newcastle and just fell in love with the sport.
‘At the time, Newcastle as a city was an early adopter of the sport, there were lots of fans. I think Fighters Only magazine is based up there, and there’s a few big top fighters that have come out of Newcastle and really it was that mix that led me to wanting to work in the sport.’
After university, James found himself following this new passion, shaping a career in sports and entertainment, and most recently earning the position of Senior Vice President of International for the Professional Fighters League (PFL).
‘I worked in one of the biggest sports agencies in the world, IMG, and then moved on to build the biggest WWE wrestling business around the world. But as I mentioned I fell in love with the sport of mixed martial arts (MMA) back during my time living in Newcastle so when the opportunity came up to work with, advance and grow the sport with the PFL, I jumped at it and I’ve been with the organisation for a year and a half now,’ says James.
For those who don’t know, the PFL is the world’s fastest growing and most innovative sports league, and now the number two global MMA promotion in the world. ‘We launched in 2018, initially in the United States, but we’ve grown very quickly around the world,’ explains James. ‘There’s lot of great promotions that have come before, for example the UFC have done an amazing job of taking the sport of MMA mainstream, but now the PFL’s looking to play a role in that.
‘We’re all about true sports values and that’s the big difference between the PFL and other MMA or boxing promotions. If, as an athlete, you are good enough to get into the PFL then we don’t tell you who you’re going to fight next. Instead, you compete in a regular season and if you’re successful you move into the play-offs and the championships, and we’re one of the only combat sports promoters that offer that. We put the control back into the hands of the athletes. If you keep winning you progress and you’re rewarded accordingly – both financially and with a title.’
Now, having had so much success in the United States, James’ role specifically is all about growing the sport around the world, and the next step to do this is through the new PFL Europe season. ‘Our focus now is about developing the sport here in Europe,’ says James. ‘We’re launching our European season and it’s all about bringing the very best talent from across Europe to compete in a very similar format but in events based here in Europe.’
For the PFL Europe season there will be four events in 2023, with four weight divisions: men’s light heavyweight, men’s lightweight, men’s bantamweight and the women’s flyweight. James explains: ‘The way we structure our format is we have regular season play-offs and championships. So for the first event we’ll have the men’s light heavyweight and the women’s flyweight. Then we’ll move onto the next place, where the men’s lightweight and men’s bantamweight will compete.
‘The winners of those fights will all come together and compete, and then the winners of those fights will go on to compete in the PFL Europe Championship. So we’ll have 32 athletes competing, eight in each weight division, and it’s a win and advance, or lose and go home format.’
James continues: ‘For European fighters this is exactly what they want. They want the opportunity of the PFL where they’ll compete regularly throughout the year, and if they keep winning they will be rewarded. Assuming they’re successful they’ll become the inaugural PFL Europe Champion and will also win $100,000 on top of their show and win purse. So it’s really exciting, not just for the fans who want more mixed martial arts in their timezone, in their own cities. But also for the fighters. They’re all ready and excited to take their careers to the next level with the PFL.’
Thanks to James, the PFL Europe season is actually starting in Newcastle on 25th March. ‘It was very clear from the growth of other promotions like the UFC who have been doing very well in London that we have such an exciting opportunity to bring the very best MMA to other cities around the UK and Europe,’ says James.
‘But for me, when we had the opportunity to start things off and we looked at all of the cities across Europe, I thought based on my experience there’s no better place to do it than Newcastle. As I mentioned, Newcastle was an early adopter of MMA and it’s been too long since the city had a major event. We felt like it was the right time and and we’re looking forward to welcoming 2,500 screaming North East fans.’
From Newcastle the PFL Europe season will move to Berlin on 8th July, Paris on 30th September, and finish in Dublin 8th December. However for James it is the first event location which means the most to him. ‘It means a lot to me because it’s where I started my mixed martial arts journey and now I’ve kind of come full circle,’ he says.
‘I’m not a fighter, I’m a promoter, but I love this sport and I understood very young that Newcastle was a city very fond of combat sports too. It will be a massive night for us, so we can’t wait. We’re really excited to launch in Newcastle and we’ve got plans to come back every year.’
And James’ goal for the future is just that – to keep building the PFL year-on-year. ‘My plans are to build the PFL into the largest combat sports promotion in the world,’ he says. ‘Right now that’s all I’m focused on. As I said, I’m so passionate about the sport, advancing and growing the sport, and creating more opportunities for the fighters and the fans, so right now that’s what my life is all about.’
An item you couldn’t live without?
It’s not a great answer but probably my phone these days, because we’re very busy trying to build this.
Advice you’d give your younger self?
I think probably to have studied harder. I was talking about it just yesterday and I think if I’d spent more time focusing, studying and learning things like law or another language it would’ve stood me in good stead for a career in sports. So yeah that’s what I would go back and tell myself.
Favourite place to walk in North East?
It’s gotta be Jesmond Dene. I always used to run around or go for a walk there. I’m very fond of it there and I’m actually really looking forward to going there when I land in March.
A podcast you recommend?
I’m a big Joe Rogan podcast fan but there is another one I’ve started listening to which is with Dr Andrew Huberman. It’s quite a scientific podcast but breaks it down into layman’s terms so I’m a big fan of that. It helps me understand different concepts around neuroscience and things like that which in general would be more challenging for me to understand if I was reading a book, so I definitely recommend it.
Food guilty pleasure?
That’s difficult! I’m a big Nandos fan. I actually remember when I fought in Newcastle I had my pre-fight meal in the Nando’s in Eldon Square. I used to visit Nandos two or three times a week when I was a student – and I still do! It’s my guilty pleasure.