In the early days of mixed martial arts, the tournament format was how stars were made. Fans watched the likes of Royce Gracie, Dan Severn, Tank Abbott and Ken Shamrock fight for superiority. Back then, the tournaments were grueling one-night affairs. Now, in the modern MMA landscape, tournaments typically last much longer. In the case of the Professional Fighters League, the tournament has transformed into a playoff bracket that caps off a yearly season. On New Year’s Eve, at the Hulu Theater in Madison Square Garden, the PFL will crown champions for its inaugural season.
Some stars have already been made as a result of the PFL’s venture. We’ve seen Ray Cooper III dismantle Jake Shields in both the regular and postseason. We’ve watched Josh Copeland work his way through a set of fellow UFC veterans to land in the heavyweight finals opposite Philipe Lins, who has been a wrecking ball at his new weight class. We’ve witnessed unlikely runs by light heavyweight Sean O’Connell and featherweight Steven Siler. Now, these men are among the finalists who will take to the cage one last time in 2018 to close out the PFL’s first season.
Cooper fights for welterweight superiority against Magomed Magomedkerimov. Copeland and Lins collide in the heavyweight final. O’Connell attempts to continue his surprising run against fellow light heavyweight Vinny Magalhães. In the lightweight division, Natan Schulte battles Rashid Magomedov. Siler seeks the championship in the featherweight division, where he meets Lance Palmer. Louis Taylor and Abusupiyan Magomedov scrap for middleweight dominance. Meanwhile, in the only non-tourney bout, PFL women’s lightweight star Kayla Harrison continues her MMA career with a bout against sub-.500 opponent Moriel Charneski.
The PFL’s New Year’s Eve show airs live on NBC Sports at 7 p.m. ET.
Ray Cooper III has easily emerged as the biggest star from the PFL’s inaugural season. Will he cap off his tremendous breakout campaign with a welterweight championship win over Magomed Magomedkerimov?
When Cooper entered the PFL season, he was a 13-5 fighter who was seen as a mid-tier competitor. He was a +800 underdog in his first PFL outing against Jake Shields. Instead of falling victim to the grinding wrestling and the dangerous grappling of Shields, Cooper stuffed Shields numerous times and punished him with strikes en route to the knockout. Then, Cooper steamrolled Pavel Kusch in 18 seconds and seemed even less worried about Shields when the pair rematched in the playoffs. He capped off his run by avenging a prior loss to Handesson Ferreira by torching the Brazilian with ground-and-pound in the first round. That’s an epic streak for someone who had previously suffered defeats courtesy of such unheralded fighters as Joey Gomez, Danny Navarro, Craig Jackson and Jun Yong Park.
Cooper can certainly cement his status as one of the year’s biggest breakouts if he can top Magomedkerimov in the finals. It won’t be an easy task, though. The 28-year-old Russian put together a pretty solid run of his own this year with victories over Herman Terrado, Bojan Velickovic (twice) and the aforementioned Kusch. However, his pre-PFL resume isn’t exactly overwhelming. Magomedkerimov suffered losses to Vitaly Bigdash and Beslan Isaev, and he barely squeaked by the mediocre Bobby Cooper in a World Series of Fighting outing.
Magomedkerimov has yet to be stopped via strikes, and Cooper is primarily known for his hands. However, Cooper handled himself extremely well against a former elite wrestler and grappler in two meetings with Shields. Everything seems to be clicking for Cooper right now, too. While both fighters made solid runs to the finals, Cooper is definitely the hot hand. If anybody can score the first knockout of Magomedkerimov, it’s Cooper.
The heavyweight division does not have one true standout fighter, but Josh Copeland and Philipe Lins survived the gauntlet to advance to the finals. Lins has scored finishes in every fight thus far in the PFL season. Does the Brazilian continue this streak against Copeland?
It’s been a total crapshoot when picking winners in the PFL’s heavyweight division this season. Copeland lost a regular season bout to Jack May, and Lins entered the PFL on the heels of back-to-back losses inside the Bellator cage. Likewise, fellow playoff heavyweights Francimar Barroso, Alex Nicholson, Caio Alencar and Jared Rosholt had all either suffered losses during the regular season or entered the PFL following some rocky patches. We do have to toot our our horn, though, when it comes to predicting Copeland’s success in the playoffs.
Lins has found the most consistent string of success among the PFL’s heavyweights. His Bellator loss to Vadim Nemkov now looks better, given Nemkov’s own success against Liam McGeary and Phil Davis. In addition, all of the Brazilian’s setbacks came while he was competing at 205 pounds. Perhaps he’s just better suited to the heavyweight division, where he has crushed Nicholson and Rosholt and submitted Alencar in less than a minute.
Copeland’s not too shabby, either. However, the loss to May and a draw through two rounds against Barroso aren’t encouraging signs. The “Cuddly Bear” also suffered UFC losses to the aforementioned Rosholt and Ruslan Magomedov, as well as losses outside the UFC to Vitaly Minakov and Blagoy Ivanov.
Copeland always has a puncher’s chance. He also tips the scales at close to the heavyweight limit, so his size could be a factor against a former light heavyweight who usually checks in around 230 pounds since moving to the heavyweight level. However, Lins was able to handle a big, grinding wrestler like Rosholt, so he should be capable of overcoming the weight disparity here. May was able to finish Copeland with strikes in the first round, so the probability of Lins earning a stoppage seems quite high.
Vinny Magalhães and Sean O’Connell tangle in the light heavyweight division’s final. Is this the one tournament final with a pretty clear favorite?
Who? Magalhães? That’s a joke, right?
The Brazilian has all the skills to stack up as a clear favorite over a brawler like O’Connell, but he has never lived up to that potential. Magalhães regularly loses in the biggest fights of his career. He stormed his way through The Ultimate Fighter 8 competition, only to get clobbered by Ryan Bader in the finale bout. He dropped his next UFC outing to Eliot Marshall and was jettisoned from the promotion. He did well under the M-1 banner to earn a return invite to the UFC, but he only managed a 1-2 run before he was kicked to the curb again. His next big chance came in the WSOF, where he unsuccessfully challenged David Branch for the league’s light heavyweight crown. He also stumbled in his lone Absolute Championship Berkut contest before excelling in the PFL.
So, the Brazilian has a bad habit of coming up short in big situations. The PFL finals qualify as another big situation. Magalhães needs a win to establish himself as a world-class light heavyweight. However, he’s been knocked silly before by Bader and Anthony Perosh. It’s a sign that his striking defense isn’t always there, nor is his chin. The 35-year-old O’Connell might seem like a prime target for the Brazilian’s elite jiu-jitsu attack, but the veteran also has some heavy hands that have contributed to wins over the aforementioned Perosh, as well as Ronny Markes and Smealinho Rama. If he connects against Magalhães, then it could be an early end to the night for the Brazilian.
The slight edge still has to go to Magalhães, primarily due to his grappling acumen. He was able to climb the ladder in both The Ultimate Fighter and M-1 Challenge. However, there’s no way he can be viewed as anywhere near a guaranteed winner against someone with O’Connell’s power.
Natan Schulte and Rashid Magomedov have secured the two spots in the lightweight final. Could this fight ultimately produce the tournament champion with the brightest future ahead of him?
There’s no doubt about it. Most of the tournament finals feature UFC castoffs, Bellator veterans and journeymen. Some fighters, such as Cooper, might be breakout contenders, but they’ve already suffered enough losses to shed the prospect tag. While some of these men still have plenty of potential, none of them have avoided setbacks and built upon their own success as much as Schulte and Magomedov.
Magomedov, 34, is a bit too old to still deserve the prospect tag, but his past record hints at plenty of promise for him in the remaining years of his athletic prime. The Russian posted a solid pre-UFC mark with just one loss while capturing and defending the M-1 welterweight title. He’s not the typical UFC flunky, either. Instead, Magomedov went 5-1 inside the Octagon with wins over Tony Martin, Elias Silverio, Gilbert Burns and Bobby Green. His only UFC loss came to Beneil Dariush. In PFL action, he defeated Luiz Firmino and Thiago Tavares, and he also fought to a draw against Will Brooks.
Schulte is just 26 years old, and he is among the finalists with the least big-league exposure prior to his time with the PFL. The Brazilian lost two of his first three pro fights, but he righted the ship and went on a 10-fight winning streak. The American Top Team fighter landed in the WSOF, where he was submitted by Islam Mamedov. Schulte bounced back with the PFL to add wins over Chris Wade (twice) and Jason High, plus a draw against Johnny Case.
The PFL has snagged plenty of stars, including some surprise ones, but Magomedov is perhaps the league’s crowning achievement. The PFL managed to lure in a fighter who had a very good record inside the UFC. Magomedov is a proven talent with victories over a few borderline UFC contenders. He may be on the wrong side of 30, but Magomedov should beat Schulte and emerge as one of the PFL’s bigger names.
Steven Siler has had a career year while competing in the PFL’s featherweight division. Now, he locks horns with Lance Palmer. Can Siler get past the former WSOF champion?
The PFL’s featherweight tournament seemed like it was going to turn into a showcase for undefeated grinder Andre Harrison. Instead, Palmer eliminated Harrison during the playoffs. Meanwhile, Siler went from a UFC washout to a fighter with a new lease on his MMA life. It makes for one hell of an interesting story heading into this final.
The 31-year-old Siler now has 50 pro fights under his belt. He had a rough start that led to a 5-7 record through his first 12 outings, but he turned things around and went on a 13-2 run in which his only defeats came courtesy of future perennial UFC contender Chad Mendes and former WEC champ Cole Escovedo. Siler then appeared on season 14 of The Ultimate Fighter and followed up with five wins, including a quick knockout of Mike Brown, over his first six UFC bouts. However, he lost three straight fights in the UFC and then dropped his first post-UFC appearance to Des Green. He went on a smaller 6-1 run in which his only loss came to the aforementioned Harrison. His only WSOF outing and his first PFL bout — sort of a preseason affair — both ended in a decision loss, but he managed two submission finishes, a decision win and a victory due to an illegal upkick to cruise through his first PFL season.
Palmer, a four-time NCAA Division I All-American wrestler out of Ohio State, has a better career mark, but it lacks UFC credentials. His only losses came to Georgi Karakhanyan, Alexandre de Almeida and the aforementioned Harrison. His PFL season started with two submissions and included decision wins in both of his playoff bouts, culminating in the victory over Harrison. Palmer has also avenged the loss to de Almeida and stopped both Chris Horodecki and Rick Glenn.
Palmer is a stud wrestler who has managed to beat some tough opponents. He was the first fighter to hand Harrison a loss, and he’s not someone that can ever be counted out. Siler’s been another hot hand for the PFL, but there’s been so much inconsistency out of him over the course of his career. He appeared to be climbing the ladder in the earlier part of his UFC career, but he dropped fights to Dennis Bermudez, Rony Jason and Noad Lahat to derail that run.
There’s also the not-so-small detail of Palmer’s previous victory over Siler. The Buckeye was able to use his superior wrestling to ground Siler. While Siler did attack from the bottom, it was a rather one-sided affair that included one 10-8 round for Palmer. Siler’s going to have a very hard time maintaining his recent string of success if he can’t fend off Palmer’s takedowns. It’s likely that this encounter plays out in a similar fashion to their previous meeting and ends with a Palmer win.
Louis Taylor suffered two early career losses under the Strikeforce banner and appeared destined for a career as a journeyman fighter. Now, he’s in the PFL middleweight tournament finals opposite Abusupiyan Magomedov. Is Taylor capable of claiming the crown and becoming a star for the organization?
Some fighters take a while to find their rhythm. Taylor is one of those guys. It’s not that he was ever horrible — he still has just four career losses — but he failed to capitalize on his opportunities in the spotlight. Taylor lost his first Strikeforce outing to Nate Moore. After two more victories, including one in the fledgling Bellator promotion, he returned to Strikeforce during the promotion’s Challenger Series and lost to Joe Riggs. Two fights later, he was put away by Perry Filkins.
This put Taylor at a mediocre 7-3, but he fought his way back with a six-fight winning streak that included victories with Bellator and the WSOF. He made it into the fifth round of an unsuccessful title bid against David Branch, but he’s gone on to post four wins and a draw under the PFL banner. Taylor’s now 10-1-1 over his last 12 fights. He challenged for a WSOF title, and now he’s on the hunt for a PFL title. These are the makings of a potential star, but he will have to prove he’s ready for that role by defeating Magomedov.
The Russian fighter will enjoy a rather large reach advantage and stands a few inches taller than his counterpart. Magomedov has compiled a strong resume of his own, but most of his pre-PFL wins came on the European regional circuit, where he also suffered losses to Andreas Stahl, Rafal Moks and Mikkel Parlo. His PFL run has featured two first-round finishes, a unanimous decision and a draw.
The 28-year-old Magomedov has the slightly better record, but Taylor has fought the tougher competition. It won’t be an easy win for Taylor — he does have to worry about Magomedov’s power — but the Strikeforce veteran is talented and will get the job done.
Does Kayla Harrison belong on this card?
The PFL has hyped Harrison as a major star signing. She’s a two-time Olympic gold medalist judoka who opted to transition to MMA and make her debut with the PFL. She’s already submitted Brittney Elkin and demolished Jozette Cotton. Here’s the problem, though: she’s a fighter competing in a division that doesn’t even truly exist.
UFC women’s featherweight champion Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino has had a tough enough time finding worthy opponents at 145 pounds. By comparison, the women’s lightweight division is a barren wasteland. Elkin has spent the majority of her career at featherweight, leaving Cotton as the only true 155-pounder to have tangled with Harrison. As for Harrison’s current opponent, Moriel Charneski? Well, this sub-.500 fighter has seen most of her action as a bantamweight.
So, while the PFL can’t be blamed for putting one of its biggest acquisitions on the New Year’s Eve card, it’s Harrison’s competition that often doesn’t belong. Harrison should have her way with Charneski en route to an easy win. Then it’s back to digging for another sacrificial lamb to throw at the star judoka.
Main Card (NBC Sports, 7 p.m. ET)
WW Tournament Finals: Ray Cooper III vs. Magomed Magomedkerimov
HW Tournament Finals: Josh Copeland vs. Philipe Lins
LHW Tournament Finals: Vinny Magalhães vs. Sean O’Connell
Women’s LW: Kayla Harrison vs. Moriel Charneski
LW Tournament Finals: Natan Schulte vs. Rashid Magomedov
FW Tournament Finals: Steven Siler vs. Lance Palmer
MW Tournament Finals: Louis Taylor vs. Abusupiyan Magomedov
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