It’s a new season — a fresh start. For some, like Magomed Magomedkerimov, it’s a chance to defend a championship. For others, such as Kayla Harrison, it’s a chance to announce their arrival. For Ray Cooper III, it’s a chance for redemption. The Professional Fighters League is back for its second season, and it all starts at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Long Island, N.Y., with the welterweight men and lightweight ladies.
Harrison, an Olympic gold-medalist judoka, has been under contract with the PFL for some time now, but this is her first chance to win a season championship with the league. Harrison will encounter a division filled with bulked-up former bantamweights and featherweights, including former Strikeforce and Invicta champion Sarah Kaufman and UFC veteran Larissa Pacheco. The 28-year-old’s road to a title starts with Pacheco.
Meanwhile, Magomedkerimov and Cooper seek to once again run the gauntlet at 170 pounds. Their competition this season includes two of last season’s middleweight field, John Howard and Sadibou Sy, as well as plenty of promising newcomers.
This season, the promotion’s events will air live on the ESPN family of networks. This first show, which takes place on Thursday, May 9, splits its broadcast between ESPN2 and ESPN+. The prelims kick off on ESPN+ at 6:30 p.m. ET. The main card airs live at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN2.
Kayla Harrison was featured prominently in the 2018 season, but only in one-off bouts. Now, she’s part of an actual season-long competition at lightweight. Will she score a win in her first outing of the year against Larissa Pacheco? Should Harrison be viewed as the favorite to win the whole thing this year?
Harrison is the centerpiece around which the PFL’s women’s lightweight division has been built. She’s an accomplished judoka with real skills, not just a pretty face. The promotion has even brought in natural bantamweights just to fill out the roster so that Harrison isn’t stuck in those one-off contests anymore.
Given the talent gathered for this season, Harrison does project as an early favorite. She’s in a field that includes one top-10 bantamweight, a number of semi-active featherweights, an alum of The Ultimate Fighter who washed out of that competition after one fight, and one sub-.500 fighter. There are only a couple of fighters in this group who figure to pose much of a threat to Harrison.
Svetlana Khautova, Harrison’s original scheduled opponent for this event, was not one of those ladies. Pacheco, on the other hand, is a potential spoiler to Harrison. Pacheco’s wild, aggressive striking style could allow her to clip and finish the star judoka. However, history suggests that Pacheco only has a puncher’s chance. The Brazilian did score an impressive victory over Irene Aldana in 2013, but she’s gone on to lose to Jessica Andrade, Germaine de Randamie and Macy Chiasson. Pacheco can’t win the big fights with any consistency, and she’s been thrown into this affair on roughly a week’s notice.
Harrison, a gold-medalist Olympian, has steamrolled her three MMA opponents thus far, including Brittney Elkin and Jozette Cotton. Pacheco is a potentially more difficult opponent for Harrison, but the Brazilian has bowed out in the first round on a couple of occasions across exhibition and official bouts. Harrison’s judo skills should carry her to a submission win and an early lead in the PFL standings.
Can Ray Cooper III maintain the levels of success we saw from him in the 2018 season?
Cooper really came out of nowhere in 2018. While he did fall short of the championship, he managed four victories, including two decimations of former top-10 welterweight Jake Shields, on the year. Cooper has always had dangerous power in his hands, but it had only led to a 13-5 mark prior to his PFL run.
The pressure will definitely be on Cooper for a repeat this year, but his consistency in 2018 suggests that he was no fluke. Shields crumbled under the pressure of Cooper’s stand-up attack, as did Pavel Kusch. Cooper even avenged a previous loss to Handesson Ferreira. Only Magomed Magomedkerimov had an answer for the 808 Fight Factory product.
Cooper needs to figure out the puzzle that is Magomedkerimov, who draws John Howard on this card. Howard, a UFC veteran, did go 2-1 under the PFL banner as a middleweight last year, but he will be no match for the defending PFL welterweight champion. Meanwhile, Cooper meets Zane Kamaka, a Titan FC and Tachi Palace Fights veteran who has had trouble finding an opponent recently.
Kamaka, who failed to get past Cameron Diffley on season 16 of The Ultimate Fighter, has a solid winning record, but his only truly notable victory came due to an arm injury suffered by opponent Mike Bronzoulis. Kamaka holds additional victories over mid-tier competition like Danny Davis Jr., Chris Cisneros and Collin Reuter, but he’s also suffered losses at the hands of current UFC fighter Belal Muhammad and JC Llamas, who barely has his head above the .500 mark right now.
Kamaka has only been knocked out once in his career, and he’ll enjoy a significant reach advantage over Cooper. However, the 26-year-old Cooper should still hold an edge on the feet. If Kamaka gets the fight to the ground, he has a chance to find a submission. If the contest is a stand-up affair, it’s difficult to see Cooper losing this one.
Speaking of Cooper, is there a similar breakout stud for 2019 on this card that fans should know?
Many familiar names have returned for this, the second PFL welterweight season. Cooper and Magomedkerimov are joined again by Bojan Velickovic and Handesson Ferreira, as well as former middleweight competitors John Howard and Sadibou Sy. There are some new faces, though, including two potential breakouts in Gamzat Khiramagomedov and Glaico França.
França brings a 19-5 mark into the season, which makes him a potential 2019 edition of Cooper. The Brazilian veteran ran through the competition on The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil 4, and he won the season with a submission finish of Fernando Bruno at UFC 190. The Astra Fight Team product didn’t face an easy road from there, with losses to borderline top-10 lightweights James Vick and Gregor Gillespie. After departing the UFC, he moved to 170 pounds, where he has rattled off six victories, including five finishes.
Khiramagomedov, the other breakout candidate, also happens to be França’s first opponent of the season. Unlike França, whose TUF and UFC stints provide us with plenty of proof that he’s a legit contender in this field, Khiramagomedov has toiled around the Russian regional scene while picking up eight wins. However, his two most recent victories should turn some heads. First, he submitted Alexey Butorin. Then, he added a doctor’s stoppage over veteran Jae Young Kim. The 25-year-old combat-sambo specialist is unheralded, but that could change if he tops França and victimizes the weaker end of this group of eight.
Sarah Kaufman, who normally competes at 135 pounds, is moving up a full two weight classes to be part of the lightweight competition. Will she struggle in this division?
If the PFL had gathered a field full of active, top featherweights or lightweights, then the answer would be a definite yes. However, this group of ladies includes Roberta Paim Samad, who last fought in 2015 and last won in 2014, and Genah Fabian, who has only one pro fight that came in 2015. There’s also the sub-.500 Moriel Charneski, the rather green Morgan Frier, and Bobbi-Jo Dalziel, whose win over Brittney Elkin in January marks her only fight since 2016.
Kaufman may be small compared to some of these women, but she’s also an extremely seasoned veteran and former champ who has shared the cage with some of the best in the business. Dalziel’s striking could cause problems for Kaufman, and Harrison could follow Ronda Rousey’s path to victory over the veteran. Otherwise, the former UFCer should have a good shot at picking up some wins. Her tendency to go the distance could prevent her from topping the standings during the regular season, though.
Kaufman should at least start off on the right foot against the aforementioned Frier. The 28-year-old up-and-comer has just five fights under her belt, including a debut loss, and all of those contests came in the Gladiator Challenge organization, which is not known for its depth of talent. Kaufman, a skilled boxer, should be able to score points on her taller opponent despite giving up several inches in reach. Experience counts for a lot in this game, and Kaufman has plenty of it.
Main Card (ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET)
Women’s LW: Kayla Harrison vs. Larissa Pacheco
WW: Magomed Magomedkerimov vs. John Howard
WW: Ray Cooper III vs. Zane Kamaka
Women’s LW: Sarah Kaufman vs. Morgan Frier
WW: Sadibou Sy vs. David Michaud
Preliminary Card (ESPN+, 6:30 p.m. ET)
WW: Handesson Ferreira vs. Bojan Velickovic
Women’s LW: Genah Fabian vs. Bobbi-Jo Dalziel
WW: Gamzat Khiramagomedov vs. Glaico França
WW: Andre Fialho vs. Chris Curtis
Women’s LW: Moriel Charneski vs. Roberta Paim Samad
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