It’s been two months since the featherweight and lightweight men kicked off their 2019 Professional Fighters League season in Long Island, N.Y. Defending champions Lance Palmer and Natan Schulte began their march toward repeats. Longtime Brazilian regional circuit staple Luis Rafael Laurentino made a splash. Others, including UFC castoff Jeremy Kennedy didn’t fare so well.
Now, these men, along with a handful of fresh faces, return in an attempt to secure their positions in the field of eight within their respective divisional playoffs. It’s desperation time for the unfortunate ones who possess zero points thus far. Even those who have scored a prior victory might not be safe. It all depends on what happens when the PFL returns to the Ocean Casino in Atlantic City, N.J., which plays host to the entire second set of fights for the organization’s 2019 campaign.
As usual, the action is split between ESPN broadcast outlets for this show. The preliminary card airs live on ESPN+ at 5:30 p.m. ET. The main card begins at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN2.
Luis Rafael Laurentino entered the 2019 PFL season with a Fedor-esque 33-1 career mark and destroyed Jeremy Kennedy in just 23 seconds. Is the Brazilian the real deal?
Laurentino’s lengthy record left a lot to be desired. A whopping 33 wins to just one defeat can turn heads, but it appeared far less impressive upon further investigation. Then came the Brazilian’s stunning victory over UFC veteran Jeremy Kennedy, who had only previously lost to current UFC contender Alexander Volkanovski.
In light of Laurentino’s big win, he has to be taken seriously. His competition in Brazil definitely left something to be desired, but he has an established history of finishes, including plenty of first-rounders. The PFL has been great at delivering breakout campaigns — Ray Cooper III in 2018 is the prime example — and 2019 could be Laurentino’s year.
Of course, the 26-year-old has another tall task in front of him. He’s been paired with 2018 champ Lance Palmer for his second outing of the season. Palmer, a member of Team Alpha Male, is a strong wrestler who has even victimized Andre Harrison and Steven Siler (twice), two of the better fighters in the PFL featherweight pack. However, the 32-year-old has also had setbacks against Harrison, Alexandre Almeida and Georgi Karakhanyan.
This is a big opportunity for Laurentino, and there’s a possibility he could deliver. Karakhanyan, a mid-tier fighter who has lost as much as he’s won lately, was able to tap Palmer. Almeida was able to decision the wrestler. If they could do it, Laurentino cannot be counted out. However, Palmer’s probably more prepared for the Brazilian, who was a short-notice pick to fight Kennedy after both men lost their original opponents. Palmer should play a conservative game and smother Laurentino for three rounds to take the win on the scorecards.
In addition to Jeremy Kennedy, who suffered a brutal loss in his first appearance of the season, the second regular-season show for the featherweights features three men who desperately need to pick up points if they’d like to make it to the postseason. Can Alexandre Almeida, Freddy Assunção and Daniel Pineda deliver?
Well, the neat thing here is that the PFL has made this a do-or-die scenario. While Steven Siler, Alex Gilpin and Peter Petties are currently listed above the cutoff for the playoffs, they all hold zero points and fight a counterpart who sits on the other side of that magic line. Kennedy has been pitted against Siler, Almeida collides with Petties, and Assunção draws Gilpin.
After watching Luis Rafael Laurentino steamroll through Kennedy, Almeida might be glad he missed weight and was scrapped from his scheduled fight with his Brazilian counterpart. However, this leaves him in a spot where he needs a victory to advance to the postseason. He has a winnable fight, too, against Petties, who struggled to get any offense going against Andre Harrison. If he makes weight, Almeida should cash in on this pairing to at least secure a decision nod.
Assunção, meanwhile, is set to make his season debut. The Brazilian, who hasn’t fought since 2016, has a tough scrap with the aforementioned Gilpin. Gilpin, an established finisher, has only suffered career losses to 2018 champ Lance Palmer and Dan Moret. The latter of those opponents barely squeaked past Gilpin with a split verdict. Assunção holds notable wins against Gesias “JZ” Cavalcante and Cody Bollinger, but ring rust could be a factor here. Gilpin should come out strong and barrel through Assunção.
The wild card is Pineda. If he was not part of the mix, those other three winners would be headed to the postseason. However, the UFC and Bellator washout could complicate matters if he wins. It’s not a certainty that one of the remaining three would be gone — finishes in all four of these bouts would throw an additional four fighters into the fray who currently only have three points each. Pineda’s something of a longshot, though. He’s scheduled to meet Gadzhi Rabadanov, one of those fighters with three points. The Russian only has three career defeats and proved good enough to top Siler on the scorecards earlier in the year. The combat-sambo specialist is likely to have his way with the inconsistent Pineda, thereby clearing the way for those other three men to join the playoffs.
Defending 2018 PFL lightweight champion Natan Schulte easily walked through his first 2019 opponent, Yincang Bao, in May. Will he have the same good fortune against UFC veteran Ramsey Nijem?
It shouldn’t be quite the cake walk as what he experienced with Bao. The Chinese fighter succumbed to a rear-naked choke from Schulte in just over three minutes. Nijem, who has tons of UFC experience, should be able to hang with the defending champ at least a short while longer.
Schulte had plenty of stoppages early in his career, but he has resorted to grinding his way through PFL fights. He decisioned Chris Wade and stopped Jason High in the 2018 regular season. In the playoffs, he fought to a majority draw with Johnny Case and claimed a split verdict over Wade. In the finals, Schulte won by unanimous decision against Rashid Magomedov. Bao, his first 2019 foe, was more an exception than the norm.
This doesn’t mean Schulte won’t claim the victory. He should add yet another decision to his resume against Nijem, who went just 1-1 during The Ultimate Fighter 25 and followed with the same mixed results in his 2018 PFL campaign. In official competition, the Utah resident is sitting at .500 (a 6-6 record) since his official Octagon debut against Tony Ferguson at the end of TUF 13. Nijem is better than Bao, but he should be only a slightly tougher opponent for Schulte.
Six lightweight fighters have zero points and will vie for the final two playoff spots. Which two men make the cut?
This isn’t quite as simple as the featherweight division’s loser-goes-home pairings for its final three spots. Even some of the fighters who already have three points could be sent packing, depending on how they perform on Thursday night. The six men currently at zero are: Ylies Djiroun, Nate Andrews, Loik Radzhabov, Yincang Bao, Carlao Silva and newcomer Jesse Ronson.
Andrews and Bao are paired with opponents who already have points to their credit. Andrews gets Rashid Magomedov, another stiff test following his loss to Chris Wade. It’ll be an uphill battle for Andrews against one of the favorites in this group, so don’t expect to see him in the postseason. Bao is also almost a definite no, thanks to a match-up with Islam Mamedov.
The other four men are in playoff eliminators.
Djiroun and Radzhabov will meet, as will Silva and Ronson. This all but guarantees two of them will emerge with at least three points. Whether that’s enough to do the job largely depends on how the rest of the lightweight field plays out. Djiroun got close in his fight with Mamedov, and he could fare better against Radzhabov. Meanwhile, Ronson’s experience should carry him past Silva.
Main Card (ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET)
LW: Chris Wade vs. Akhmet Aliev
FW: Lance Palmer vs. Luis Rafael Laurentino
LW: Rashid Magomedov vs. Nate Andrews
FW: Daniel Pineda vs. Gadzhi Rabadanov
LW: Loik Radzhabov vs. Ylies Djiroun
Main Card (ESPN+, 5:30 p.m. ET)
LW: Natan Schulte vs. Ramsey Nijem
FW: Andre Harrison vs. Movlid Khaibulaev
LW: Islam Mamedov vs. Yincang Bao
FW: Alex Gilpin vs. Freddy Assunção
LW: Carlao Silva vs. Jesse Ronson
FW: Alexandre Almeida vs. Peter Petties
FW: Steven Siler vs. Jeremy Kennedy
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