Vinny Magalhães (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

PFL 9: Lightweight and Light Heavyweight Playoffs Preview and Predictions

October and the postseason are synonymous. The Major League Baseball playoffs are well underway now. So, too, are the playoffs for the Professional Fighters League’s inaugural campaign. The first postseason event narrowed down the fields in the featherweight and heavyweight divisions. On Oct. 13, the PFL shifts its attention to the lightweight and light heavyweight brackets, where we’ll be treated to the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds of both tournaments.

As has been the case across weight classes in the PFL, the lightweight bracket has plenty of UFC veterans. This cast includes Johnny Case, Chris Wade, Thiago Tavares, Rashid Magomedov and Will Brooks. Outside of this contingent, there are also a handful of prospects who have never set foot inside the Octagon, including the top finisher in the regular-season standings, Natan Schulte, and notable prospects Robert Watley and Islam Mamedov.

In the light heavyweight division, the UFC veterans include Vinny Magalhães, Sean O’Connell and Dan Spohn. This trio will be joined by journeymen vets Rakim Cleveland, Emiliano Sordi, Bozigit Ataev, Maxim Grishin and Smealinho Rama.


The first portion of the card airs live on Facebook Watch at 6:15 p.m. ET. The remaining quarterfinal bouts and the entire semifinal round air live on NBC Sports at 9 p.m. ET.

Can Will Brooks re-establish himself as an elite member of the lightweight class?

It’s possible, but it won’t be a walk in the park. The 31-year-old Brooks, a former Bellator lightweight champion, was riding high when he entered the UFC in 2016. However, he underwhelmed in a decision nod over Ross Pearson and then suffered losses to Alex Oliveira, Charles Oliveira and Nik Lentz to earn a pink slip from the promotion. He landed in the PFL, where he’s outworked Luiz Firmino and fellow post-season qualifier Robert Watley.

The American Top Team fighter is a special talent, but he’s in a crowded field. The aforementioned Watley still holds potential, and the bracket also includes plenty of other threats. Thiago Tavares has been about as inconsistent as they come, but for every loss to a Doo Ho Choi or Matt Wiman, he has also posted wins against Clay Guida and Robbie Peralta. The 26-year-old Natan Schulte scored the most points in the regular season, and he’s tallied wins over the likes of Jason High and fellow tourney participant Chris Wade in the PFL. Wade, along with Johnny Case, likely represent the weakest opponents for Brooks in this field, but even they managed records of 5-2 and 4-2, respectively, with the UFC. Islam Mamedov, meanwhile, has gone almost a decade without a defeat, and his early-career losses came against legitimate opponents Alexander Butenko and Alexander Sarnavskiy. Brooks also has a hell of a quarterfinal challenge on his hands with Rashid Magomedov.

Unlike Brooks, who went 1-3 in his Octagon run, Magomedov departed from the UFC after posting five wins and just one loss. Magomedov was able to top the likes of Tony Martin, Rodrigo Damm, Elias Silvério, Gilbert Burns and Bobby Green, while his only loss came to Beneil Dariush. The Russian also holds victories over the aforementioned Firmino in the PFL, as well as Alexander Yakovlev, Yasubey Enomoto and Shamil Zavurov under the M-1 banner. Not only is Brooks hard-pressed to re-establish himself, but he may not even make it out of the first round of the playoffs.

Is there a standout favorite among the light heavyweights?

Bozigit Ataev carries the best record, but Vinny Magalhães has the proven track record to make him the standout favorite.

The 39-year-old Ataev is a head-turning 19-2, but a deep dive into his resume doesn’t provide reassurance that he can dominate this field. First of all, he lost a regular-season bout to fellow tourney participant Dan Spohn by way of a TKO stoppage. The graying veteran hasn’t exactly had a lot of marquee bouts otherwise. The bulk of his fights came between the years 2000 and 2006, and his most notable victory was a majority decision over veteran Tsuyoshi Kosaka. He also suffered a TKO loss to Alistair Overeem in the Pride ring. Since returning to action in 2017, he has finished Jeremy May and fellow tourney participant Sean O’Connell, but his age and lack of prior dominance works against him here.

Magalhães, meanwhile, has an incredibly decorated Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu career and fared well in his run to the finals of The Ultimate Fighter 8 before losing to Ryan Bader. He’s had his ups and downs since then, but the Brazilian has held an M-1 title and demonstrated his ability to complement a superb grappling base with a striking attack that has led to three finishes by some form of knockout. Of course, he’s still far more dangerous on the ground.

The 34-year-old “Pezão” finished at the top of the light heavyweight standings with 12 points. The high point total was a result of a first-round submission finish of Jamie Abdallah at PFL 2 and a 94-second TKO stoppage of Brandon Halsey at PFL 2. He’ll have to avoid some aggressive strikers in this bracket, but the UFC veteran has to be considered an early favorite at light heavyweight.

Which four fighters advance to the finals?

On the lightweight side, it’s advantage Mother Russia. Rashid Magomedov, who fights Will Brooks in the quarterfinals, put up an extremely strong run in his time with the UFC. He only managed one finish, but he excelled at convincing the judges of his superiority. Meanwhile, Islam Mamedov has not lost since 2009. The 28-year-old lost two of his first three fights, but those defeats came to fellow beginners Alexander Butenko and Alexander Sarnavskiy, both of whom have gone on to put together solid career numbers. Mamedov has already beaten top seed Natan Schulte and he also holds career wins over Jorge Patino and Yuki Kawana.

The problem is that, should Magomedov and Mamedov win in the quarterfinals, these two Russian fighters would end up clashing in the semifinals. It’s a tough pick, but Magomedov’s time and achievements in the UFC provide him with favorite status in this showdown. When he advances to the finals, he’ll likely meet the aforementioned Schulte. Schulte is in a solid grouping with Robert Watley, Johnny Case and Chris Wade, but Schulte should advance past his quarterfinal match with Case and then hand a decision loss to Wade in a repeat of their regular-season battle.

The light heavyweight bracket is also a very competitive one. Vinny Magalhães, the top seed, has to be the early favorite, but this doesn’t guarantee that the Brazilian will go far. He can slay any of his fellow tourney participants if the fight goes to the ground, but his chin has always been suspect. His quarterfinal adversary, Rakim Cleveland, has heavy hands, but this is also a submission-prone guy who was even submitted in his pro debut by Derrick Lewis, a current UFC fighter far more known for his power than for his own submission prowess.

Magalhães should survive Cleveland’s onslaught and advance to the semifinals, where he’s likely to meet either Bozigit Ataev or Emiliano Sordi. This is another tough call. Ataev is a proven finisher in both the striking and grappling realms, but Sordi has the power to stop Ataev. Sordi could even be a big risk to Magalhães if he can land a clean punch before the Brazilian gets him to the mat, where the Argentine fighter makes for easy prey for a BJJ black belt.

The other side of the bracket likely belong to Maxim Grishin, who came within a point of Magalhães in the regular-season standings. The 34-year-old Russian has 14 knockouts to his name, and he’s tasked with Smealinho Rama in the quarterfinals. Rama has lost most of his biggest fights, and Grishin should be able to follow in the footsteps of Anthony Hamilton, Blagoy Ivanov, Ronny Markes and Brandon Halsey in handing Rama a defeat. From there, Grishin would advance to meet the winner of the fight between Dan Spohn and Sean O’Connell. O’Connell is 3-6 over his last nine outings, and Spohn has suffered losses to the likes of Rodney Wallace, Pat Walsh and Josh Stansbury. In other words, neither of these men seem like a big threat to Grishin in his march toward the finals.

Fight Picks

Fight Pick
The Lightweight Quarterfinals
Will Brooks vs. Rashid Magomedov Magomedov
Islam Mamedov vs. Thiago Tavares Mamedov
Chris Wade vs. Robert Watley Wade
Natan Schulte vs. Johnny Case Schulte
The Light Heavyweight Quarterfinals
Maxim Grishin vs. Smealinho Rama Grishin
Dan Spohn vs. Sean O’Connell Spohn
Bozigit Ataev vs. Emiliano Sordi Sordi
Vinny Magalhães vs. Rakim Cleveland Magalhães
The Alternates
LW Tournament Alternate: Ramsey Nijem vs. Yuki Kawana Nijem
LHW Tournament Alternate: Brandon Halsey vs. Ronny Markes Halsey