Jon Fitch (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: Professional Fighters League Daytona Preview and Predictions

Smoke. Beer-fueled yells. The rattle of a chain-link fence. Endurance.

Yes, these things can all be found in mixed martial arts — from the smoke that fills the arena during fighter entrances, to the obnoxious shouts of inebriated fans, to the sound of the cage clattering as two fighters collide and battle for supremacy over the course of a grueling 15 or 25 minutes.

But you know where else you can spot these same things? The Daytona International Speedway — from the smoke of burning rubber as cars peel out or slam into one another, to the shouts of fans who have consumed plenty of beer while tailgating before the race, to the vibration of the chain-link sections of fencing around the racetrack as cars rush past at incredibly high speeds, and to the 250 miles that the drivers must cover to cross the finish line.


The former World Series of Fighting has rebranded itself as the Professional Fighters League, and its first official event will take place in coordination with the Fourth of July weekend festivities surrounding NASCAR’s Coca-Cola Firecracker 250 race in Daytona, Fla. The card will be free to guests attending the race, but it’s also an abbreviated event that contains just four fights.

The bill is topped by a five-round clash between welterweights Jon Fitch and Brian Foster. The supporting cast includes a co-headlining light heavyweight battle between Rony Markes and Smealinho Rama, as well as lightweight bouts pitting João Zeferino against Herman Terrado and Jason High against Caros Fodor.

The action is set to begin after the NASCAR race has concluded. The event will air live on the NBC Sports Network at 10:30 p.m. ET on Friday, June 30. Combat Press writers Dan Kuhl and Bryan Henderson preview the PFL’s inaugural outing in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

Obviously, the Professional Fighters League is a rebranding of sorts for the old World Series of Fighting. Is this a good or a bad idea for the promotion? Champions won’t be crowned in the new PFL until the end of 2018. This leaves us with a set of non-title bouts, including a five-round headliner. Why should we care about these fights?

Kuhl: After speaking to a few of the fighters myself, I can say that everyone seems to think the rebranding is a good thing, and they are excited for a fresh start with the same talent-deep pool. The WSOF has already sent three champions to the UFC just in the last couple months, so we know the guys fighting for the PFL are gunning for the big show, and most of them will fight their asses off to get there. This makes for very entertaining fights.

For its inaugural event, the PFL is bringing in a handful of UFC vets and a few guys teetering on the fence to make it into the Octagon for the first time. Plus, when you take grizzled vets and those hungry for recognition and combine them into a “new promotion,” they will certainly put forth their best to make headlines with highlight-reel finishes.

As for the five-round headliner, this makes sense, because Brian Foster is making his welterweight return against Jon Fitch, who is technically the incumbent champ. Both of these guys are grinding workhorses, and this could lend to a technical battle. Rony Markes and Smealinho Rama are both coming off tough submission losses — Rama’s causing him to lose the heavyweight strap — so both men are coming in to get back in the win column.

All in all, I feel this will be a great night of fights well worth watching.

Henderson: I’m not quite as sold on this idea. There’s a lot to be said for name recognition, especially in the sport of MMA. To most fans, MMA is still referred to as “UFC.” That’s pretty telling. Ask someone about other organizations that are name brands to us insiders and hardcore fans — Bellator, the WSOF and the Legacy Fighting Alliance, to name a few examples — and most will probably give you a confused look. This means that the PFL is basically starting from square one, with only the additional perk of a TV deal, when building its fan base and brand recognition.

The idea of a fresh start is nice, however. The WSOF launched strong, but it was losing its focus. The new PFL is taking a championship-season approach, adding some novelty and creating a more even playing field. The league is set to pay fighters on a monthly basis and potentially improve overall fighter livelihoods. It could allow some new names to flourish, too, which is great. And that starts with this four-fight card.

Jon Fitch and Brian Foster garner headlining duties in this one. Fitch, while quiet lately, is 5-2 overall since his departure from the UFC and still stands as a borderline top-15 or top-20 welterweight. Can he add Foster’s scalp to his collection?

Henderson: Fitch has undoubtedly seen his stock go down since he was shown the door by UFC President Dana White. The former perennial UFC welterweight contender went 1-2-1 over his final four contests in the UFC, where he fought to a draw with B.J. Penn and lost to Johny Hendricks and Demian Maia. His WSOF debut was spoiled by UFC veteran Josh Burkman, and while he did rebound with victories over Marcelo Alfaya and Dennis Hallman, he was not able to get past Rousimar Palhares. Fitch has recovered admirably, however, to pick up big victories over UFC castoffs Yushin Okami, João Zeferino and Jake Shields.

Now, granted, Fitch can’t seem to get past fighters at the caliber of Hendricks (in his welterweight prime at the time), Maia and Palhares, but his wins over guys like Okami and Shields are evidence enough that Fitch’s grinding style can still be effective against the right type of competitor. Consider Foster to be another example of the proper foe for Fitch.

Foster, a fellow UFC veteran, has had plenty of ups and downs since his last Octagon appearance. He departed the UFC on a two-fight winning streak, but he followed two more regional wins with a loss to Daniel Roberts. Four more wins followed, including a decision nod over Gilbert Smith, before Foster fell to the aforementioned Shields. From there, Foster would win two fights via strikes, lose a fight, win two more via strikes and lose again. However, Foster avenged one of those losses when he defeated Zeferino in their rematch. His only other loss in this stretch came to Justin Gaethje in a lightweight title showdown. Foster is returning to welterweight after more than two years in the lightweight division.

This last detail is a big one. Foster went 3-2 overall while competing as a welterweight under the UFC banner. His losses came via submission to Rick Story and Chris Lytle. If those fighters could put Foster away on the ground, Fitch might even have a chance at scoring a stoppage. OK, maybe that’s going too far, but the patient Fitch will be able to implement his shutdown wrestling style to outwork Foster en route to a decision win.

Kuhl: Here’s the problem with Fitch: if he holds Foster down to grind out a win, he may get a win, but he will get the same rolling eyes from promoters that ultimately sent Ben Askren to Asia. MMA may not be just a striking game, but it is the entertainment business, and nobody wants to watch a guy hold another guy down for five rounds. Unless he goes in there and scores a stoppage, which would be his first in over seven years, his stock will certainly not go up, and I would hardly consider him a top-20 welterweight. At the end of the day, Fitch’s style can be boring as hell, and nobody wants to watch that. Even if he did have a name in the UFC for a while, every “grinding” win just grinds down at the viewers will to watch.

The thing that I like about Foster is that he’s absolutely fearless and is willing to fight anywhere. Just look at his last fight. Firmino is a BJJ black belt, and Foster was a blue belt when he submitted Firmino by triangle. In the fight before that, he stood toe-to-toe with undefeated leg-wrecking machine Gaethje, and, had it not been for a wrecked leg, he didn’t look all that bad. Luis Palomino has 15 knockout wins, and Foster won by TKO in the second round. Do not sleep on Foster as an opponent for anyone.

Everyone knows what Fitch is going to do, and if he gets his way, expect 25 minutes of wet-blanket wrestling. However, Foster is a wild card that never considers himself at a deficit in any one aspect of the game. He knows he’s a well-rounded fighter, and he knows he can win anywhere. If he can avoid the blanket, he has a really good chance of stopping Fitch.

Herman Terrado — do we need to know this name?

Kuhl: Do you like to watch guys who have 14 finishes in 14 wins in 17 fights? Do you like guys that only were stopped once in three losses? Granted, Terrado lost a Bellator welterweight tournament bid against Rick Hawn, and he followed it up by popping positive for straight-up ‘roids against Justin Baesman. This comes as no surprise considering his physique and the fact that he started bodybuilding before he wasn’t even close to driving age.

Nonetheless, Terrado is an exciting fighter from Guam who is making his WSOF/PFL debut against longtime vet João Zeferino, who is coming off a third-round knockout win over Jason High at WSOF 33 in October. Terrado is a very exciting 27-year-old fighter who loves to put on a show. Most of his finishes have taken place in the first round, and Zeferino will be one of his biggest tests to date.

The Guamanian can beat the Brazilian, likely in nasty fashion. Terrado finishes this one by the midpoint of round two.

Henderson: It’s never a great start when a fighter’s biggest headline involves performance-enhancing drugs. However, Terrado’s biggest problems come with his track record in the cage.

Terrado lost to Hawn and fought to a draw with Baesman. He dropped his 2008 pro debut to future UFC fighter Bobby Green and lost a regional fight to Marcio Navarro, a fighter whose head is just barely above the .500 mark. He did beat A.J. Matthews and Chris Brown while in Strikeforce, but his recent victories are far less stellar — five stoppages, yes, but against a set of fighters with a combined mark of 0-24. That’s right, not one win in the bunch.

Terrado can beat scrubs all day, but he doesn’t fare so well when he meets higher-level opponents. Zeferino is going to bring Terrado another dose of reality and send him packing.

Who’s the biggest winner at PFL 1?

Henderson: NASCAR fans. This show is part of a partnership with the Daytona International Speedway during its “Coke Zero 400 Weekend,” and takes place immediately following the Coca-Cola Firecracker 250 NASCAR XFINITY series race. Admission to the event is included in the price of the race ticket. So, NASCAR fans get to come to the race and enjoy some fights as a bonus perk. Sounds like a win.

Kuhl: To me, it’s Brian Foster. He’s been doing well at lightweight and could easily stay there. However, he got offered a chance to fight the WSOF welterweight champ, and he used to fight as a welterweight. If he loses, he can go back to lightweight and string together another win there. If he wins, which would most likely be by stoppage, then he is the first guy to avoid the blanket in a few years, and he also picks up a win in a weight division he hasn’t been in since he face Shields two and a half years ago. To me, he has the most upside potential with the least amount of downside.

Who’s the biggest loser at PFL 1?

Kuhl: I don’t see a lot of downside for anyone in this event. A big win for any of these guys could open doors to the UFC, especially if the company needs someone with a lot of experience on short notice. For those that lose, they just stay right where they are. This should be a big win for fans, as every fighter should have a nothing-to-lose mentality. The only downside for the fighters is that it’s an outdoor event in Florida in the middle of summer. Current forecasts say a chance of thunderstorms, and, hopefully, the NASCAR fumes will chase away the mosquitoes.

Henderson: Rony Markes. The dude just can’t catch a break. First, it was Yoel Romero and Thiago Santos in the UFC. Then it was Cássio de Oliveira in Shooto Brazil and Viktor Nemkov in M-1 Global. Now, it’s Smealinho Rama in the PFL.

On first impulse, I was going to pick Markes to take the victory over Rama, but then I was reminded of how Rama looked at heavyweight and, more importantly, how he looked against Jake Heun in his light heavyweight debut for the WSOF. Markes, meanwhile, went from a highly touted prospect who entered the UFC to the tune of three Octagon wins, to a fighter who dropped his final two UFC fights and then stumbled to a mediocre 2-2 showing through four post-UFC outings spanning four different promotions, including the WSOF.

Rama’s move down to light heavyweight might be a career-booster that receives another boost with a win over a notable name like Markes. The 29-year-old Markes had the potential to be a top light heavyweight, but he doesn’t seem to be on that track anymore. This fight might just provide one more setback for the Brazilian.

Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?

Henderson: There are only four fights slated for this card, which doesn’t leave us with a lot of picks. Let’s go ahead and say the sleeper fight is the one that promises the most entertainment value out of these four contests. In that case, sign me up for the lightweight scrap between Herman Terrado and João Zeferino.

Terrado’s nickname of “The Hitman” is very accurate. The dude has not won a fight by decision in his career, instead relying on his fists to deliver eight knockouts and his grappling to execute six submissions. Zeferino has three decision wins, but he, too, has a long list of stoppage wins, including three knockouts and 15 submissions. Terrado has suffered one submission loss and Zeferino has been knocked out four times, so there are decent odds for either man to score the finish.

If any of these fights turns out to be something other than a grinding affair, it’s going to be the fight between Terrado and Zeferino.

Kuhl: I like that Rama-Markes match-up in this one. Both guys are willing to stand and trade, and both of their recent losses are by submission, so neither is likely to want to take it to the ground. Expect a lot of hard punches in this one, as well as a knockout, likely from Rama.

Pair this card with…

Kuhl: Tall cans of cheap beer, hot dogs, gas-station nachos and a white tank top. Get the drift?

Henderson: A NASCAR race. Too obvious? Oh well.

Fight Picks

Fight Kuhl’s Pick Henderson’s Pick
Main Card (NBC Sports Network, 10:30 p.m. ET)
WW: Jon Fitch vs. Brian Foster Fitch Fitch
LHW: Rony Markes vs. Smealinho Rama Rama Rama
LW: Herman Terrado vs. João Zeferino Terrado Zeferino
LW: Caros Fodor vs. Jason High High High