Bozigit Ataev (top) finishes Dan Spohn (Ryan Loco/PFL)

PFL 2019 Power Rankings: Light Heavyweight and Heavyweight

The 2019 season for the Professional Fighters League continued last night in Long Island, N.Y. Everyone now has their first fight of the season out of the way after the light heavyweights and heavyweights threw down.

The PFL’s season format includes standings that determine which fighters make it to the playoffs. Extra points go to competitors who score finishes. Of course, not every win is equal, nor is every loss. For this reason, we here at Combat Press will track the PFL divisions throughout the regular season by way of power rankings, intended to provide an insight to how these fighters looked in an individual fight and how it projects on their momentum and future progress through the season. Here’s how the featherweights and lightweights stack up after their first event.

Light Heavyweight Division

1. Maxim Grishin (1-0, 3 pts, No. 4 in standings): What better way to make a statement in the 2019 PFL season than to hand out a loss to one of the organization’s biggest acquisitions and a previously undefeated UFC veteran? That’s exactly what Grishin did in claiming a unanimous verdict over Jordan Johnson, who was perfect through 10 career fights that included four UFC appearances. Grishin actually has never lost in PFL competition — he was ousted from the playoffs last season after fighting to a draw with Smealinho Rama — and should be viewed as a front-runner for the 2019 light heavyweight crown.


2. Bozigit Ataev (1-0, 6 pts, No. 1 in standings): The Russian stumbled against Vinny Magalhães in the 2018 semifinal round, but he’s off to a strong start in 2019. He dropped Dan Spohn with an uppercut and put the final nail in the coffin with some ground-and-pound to open the event with a bang. While his loss to Magalhães is a mark against him, this is also a 40-year-old man who beat last season’s eventual champion during the regular season and topped Emiliano Sordi, who just easily breezed past Magalhães, in the 2018 playoffs.

3. Emiliano Sordi (1-0, 5 pts, No. 2 in standings): The 28-year-old Argentinian fighter wasn’t much to talk about in the 2018 season, where he went just 1-1 with a loss to Bozigit Ataev in the playoffs. However, he looked quite confident to open the current season. He repeatedly teed off on Vinny Magalhães, the closest thing this season has to a defending champion, en route to an eventually standing stoppage. Sordi has never been a consistent presence, so it’s still tough to expect too much from him.

4. Viktor Nemkov (1-0, 3 pts, No. 5 in standings): In his PFL debut, Nemkov outworked Rakim Cleveland over three rounds to take home a decision win. It’s an excellent way to kick off his season, but the 32-year-old Russian has a lot left to prove in a field that includes two men — Vinny Magalhães and Rashid Yusupov — who already hold victories over him.

5. Vinny Magalhães (0-1, 0 pts, No. 10 in standings): Magalhães is the closest the PFL has to a defending champ in the light heavyweight division following 2018 champ Sean O’Connell’s retirement and transition to the broadcast booth. The Brazilian was his usual aggressive-but-flawed self in his scrap with Emiliano Sordi, but he was severely outgunned on the feet and ultimately had to be saved by the referee. The savvy veteran should be a factor this season, but more performances like this one could eliminate him from a true shot at the crown.

6. Rashid Yusupov (1-0, 3 pts, No. 3 in standings): Well, at least Yusupov came away with the win. In a snoozer with Mikhail Mokhnatkin — the two men appeared to be carrying out an uninspired sparring session — Yusupov’s third-round knockdown of Mokhnatkin turned out to be the lone highlight of the bout and enough to excite a single judge into awarding a 10-8 round to the former M-1 Challenge kingpin. The 27-year-old is going to have to do more in his next turn.

7. Ronny Markes (0-1, 0 pts, No. 12 in standings): The Brazilian is the latest PFL fighter to miss weight for a bout, and it hurts him tremendously. Markes scored a second-round finish of Sigi Pesaleli, but Pesaleli was the one to take the win and the points as a result of Markes’ blunder at the scales. The 31-year-old Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt also gave up position too often to his purple belt counterpart. However, if Markes can get his weight on point, he could quickly climb into a better spot in the standings.

8. Jordan Johnson (0-1, 0 pts, No. 7 in standings): Ouch. The free-agent acquisition was supposed to be the golden boy for the PFL in the light heavyweight competition. Instead, Johnson is now in the middle of the pack after dropping a decision to Maxim Grishin. The undefeated UFC veteran lost his perfect mark and now faces an uphill battle in the standings.

9. Rakim Cleveland (0-1, 0 pts, No. 8 in standings): The 30-year-old’s lone boast in the PFL came last season when he picked up a win over Rashid Yusupov when the Russian fighter suffered a jaw injury. Otherwise, Cleveland has not fared well. He lost to Maxim Grishin during the 2018 regular season and Vinny Magalhães in the playoffs, and now he’s already 0-1 this season following a decision loss to Viktor Nemkov. Cleveland’s one saving grace is that he made the fight competitive.

10. Mikhail Mokhnatkin (0-1, 0 pts, No. 9 in standings): The only thing worse than winning a lackluster affair is to lose one. That’s where this 29-year-old sits after his defeat at the hands of Rashid Yusupov. Mokhnatkin didn’t flash any substantial offense, providing fans with a disappointing first PFL outing.

11. Sigi Pesaleli (1-0, 3 pts, No. 6 in standings): You have to give Pesaleli a ton of credit. The 25-year-old New Zealander entered the PFL season with just one pro fight under his belt. His spot opposite Ronny Markes seemed daunting, but Pesaleli made the most of it. He was able to escape bottom position early in the fight and didn’t make it an easy night for Markes. Eventually, the Brazilian’s experience and skill set proved to be too much for Pesaleli, but he lucked out in gaining a win and three points due to Markes’ inability to make weight. Perhaps he’ll surprise us again in his next outing.

12. Dan Spohn (0-1, 0 pts, No. 11 in standings): The former prospect just can’t seem to catch a break. He washed out of Bellator early in his career, came up short on The Ultimate Fighter, lost his official UFC debut, wasn’t picked up by the UFC despite a win on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series, lost a decision to eventual 2018 PFL champ Sean O’Connell in last year’s playoffs, and now has been demolished by Bazigit Ataev to start his 2019 campaign.

Heavyweight Division

1. Denis Goltsov (1-0, 6 pts, No. 1 in standings): The Russian’s record can cause him to go unnoticed, but many of his setbacks came early in his career. He’s now lost only one of his last 18 fights, which makes him a sneaky favorite in the 2019 season. The 28-year-old made a big statement in his promotional debut with a finish of Jared Rosholt. His power is real, folks, and it could carry him to the PFL heavyweight crown.

2. Kelvin Tiller (1-0, 6 pts, No. 2 in standings): “The Mama’s Boy” made his mom proud on Thursday night. The 28-year-old cranked on Muhammed De’Reese’s arm until De’Reese tapped out in the first round of their contest. Tiller, who made it to the 2018 playoffs only to be eliminated by Jared Rosholt, is off to a strong start.

3. Ali Isaev (1-0, 3 pts, No. 4 in standings): On Thursday night, Isaev provided a clinic on how to emulate Bellator era Ben Askren. The undefeated freestyle wrestler blanketed opponent Valdrin Istrefi for three rounds to ride out a decision. It may not have been pretty, but it was effective and showcased the tools that could make Isaev a threat in this field.

4. Francimar Barroso (1-0, 3 pts, No. 5 in standings): The UFC veteran engaged in a war with Alex Nicholson and escaped with a split decision. The 39-year-old Brazilian is another oddity of the PFL season format, in that he has never lost a fight with the promotion but was eliminated from last year’s playoffs after fighting to a draw with Josh Copeland.

5. Ante Delija (1-0, 3 pts, No. 3 in standings): The 28-year-old Croatian has a strong record, but he’s largely an unproven entity in this field. However, he showed that he can dominate an opponent when he tangled with Carl Seumanutafa. The judges’ scores were tilted heavily in favor of Delija.

6. Satoshi Ishii (1-0, 3 pts, No. 6 in standings): Ishii, despite his victory over Zeke Tuinei-Wily, is arguably one of the biggest losers from Thursday night’s festivities. The Olympic judoka was set for his desired fight against defending PFL champ Philipe Lins before Lins withdrew with an arm injury. So, instead of a chance to make a big statement win, Ishii was tasked with relative unknown Tuinei-Wily, and Tuinei-Wily put up a strong fight. In fact, Ishii only managed a split verdict in the fight and appeared small and weak in doing so.

7. Alex Nicholson (0-1, 0 pts, No. 7 in standings): “The Spartan” talked a big game coming into his fight with Francimar Barroso, but he couldn’t find the victory. The 29-year-old put up a stiff challenge, though, and only lost by a small margin via split decision.

8. Zeke Tuinei-Wily (0-1, 0 pts, No. 8 in standings): The late replacement for injured 2018 champ Philipe Lins carried a modest 3-1 mark into his fight with Satoshi Ishii, but he left the impression that he could be a spoiler in this competition. Tuinei-Wily did enough to almost beat Ishii — it was a split decision in the Japanese fighter’s favor — and he actually holds a strong kickboxing record. He’s a definite dark-horse candidate.

9. Muhammed De’Reese (0-1, 0 pts, No. 11 in standings): De’Reese entered the season with a perfect record and two wins in the PFL that were not part of the season-long competition. He appeared competitive out of the gates against Tiller, but soon found himself tapping to a kimura. He’s likely to make some missteps, but he’s also capable of scoring a knockout at any moment.

10. Jared Rosholt (0-1, 0 pts, No. 12 in standings): After a 6-2 run in the UFC, Rosholt was considered a top heavyweight free agent when he first joined PFL predecessor the World Series of Fighting. He hasn’t lived up to that tag, though he did land in the semifinals of the 2018 season. The 32-year-old was dropped by Denis Goltsov and could be vulnerable against much of this field.

11. Valdrin Istrefi (0-1, 0 pts, No. 9 in standings): It’s something of a miracle that the man from Liechtenstein escape his first fight of the season with generous scores of 30-27 against Ali Isaev. Istrefi was blanketed by the strong wrestler for much of the three rounds and scored very little offense. This seems to be a trend for the 28-year-old against all but the weakest of PFL opponents. Maybe the company will throw him a lifeline and pair him with Carl Seumanutafa next?

12. Carl Seumanutafa (0-1, 0 pts, No. 10 in standings): Istrefi can at least point to those 30-27 scores. Seumanutafa doesn’t even have that luxury. He did get one 30-27, but the other two judges saw it as a 30-26. There’s no doubt the Samoan was dominated by the rather unknown Ante Delija. He’s likely to dwell in the basement this season.