Alex Nicholson (L) blasts Zeke Tuinei-Wily (Professional Fighters League)

PFL 2019 Final Power Rankings: Light Heavyweight and Heavyweight

The 2019 season for the Professional Fighters League continued last night in Atlantic City, N.J., where the light heavyweight and heavyweight men got in their second — and final — fights of the regular season.

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. While the playoff qualifiers are now known, we here at Combat Press intend to provide deeper insight into how these fighters looked in an individual fight and how it projects on their progress through the season.

Light Heavyweight Division

1. Emiliano Sordi (2-0, 11 pts, No. 1 playoff seed, Previous power ranking: 3): Talk about a stunner! The 28-year-old Argentinian followed up a surprising knockout of Vinny Magalhães earlier this season with another shocking finish, this time against Bozigit Ataev. This victory also served to avenge a knockout loss to Ataev in the 2018 playoffs. Sordi is now riding high as the top seed following his two first-round finishes, and he has a cherry of a first playoff fight against the very inexperienced Sigi Pesaleli. He’s certainly become one of the breakout stars for the PFL this season.


2. Maxim Grishin (2-0, 9 pts, No. 2 playoff seed, Previous power ranking: 1): The Russian continued his run with a 48-second knockout of Mikhail Mokhnatkin. Grishin played spoiler to Jordan Johnson earlier this season, and he’ll get to prove it wasn’t a fluke when the pair rematch in the postseason’s quarterfinal round.

3. Vinny Magalhães (1-1, 6 pts, No. 3 playoff seed, Previous power ranking: 5): The Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu ace recovered nicely from his stunning loss to Emiliano Sordi. The former M-1 champion and UFC veteran was far more effective in his second appearance of the season, where he scored an armbar finish of Rakim Cleveland in under two minutes. The submission win puts Magalhães back in the thick of things, setting him up for a quarterfinal fight against Rashid Yusupov.

4. Bozigit Ataev (1-1, 6 pts, No. 4 playoff seed, Previous power ranking: 2): The 40-year-old couldn’t repeat the success he found earlier this year when he demolished Dan Spohn. Instead, the Russian became the second victim of Emiliano Sordi’s breakout campaign. Ataev will have to get past Viktor Nemkov in the quarterfinals to have any chance at a rubber match with Sordi.

5. Jordan Johnson (1-1, 3 pts, No. 7 playoff seed, Previous power ranking: 8): Johnson stumbled out of the gates with the PFL and dropped a decision to Maxim Grishin, but he performed much better in his second outing of the season. The UFC veteran used wrestling to dominate Sigi Pesaleli. It has to serve as a big boost of confidence for Johnson, who departed the UFC with a perfect record only to lose in his first post-UFC bout. The MMA Lab product will even get a chance to redeem himself when he meets Grishin in the quarterfinal round of the playoffs.

6. Viktor Nemkov (2-0, 5 pts, No. 5 playoff seed, Previous power ranking: 4): The 32-year-old Russian didn’t exactly make a strong case for his postseason potential when he met Rashid Yusupov last night. Nemkov did barely enough to squeak past his fellow countryman. This comes on the heels of a decision win over Rakim Cleveland, another basement dweller in the standings. While his career finishing rate is high, Nemkov has been content to go the distance this season. This formula might not see quite as high returns in a postseason that starts with a match-up against Bozigit Ataev.

7. Rashid Yusupov (1-1, 3 pts, No. 6 playoff seed, Previous power ranking: 6): The argument could be made that Yusupov actually earned the nod over Viktor Nemkov in last night’s fight. It was certainly a close one, where Nemkov provided some of his offense while fighting off his back against his Russian counterpart. The 27-year-old did score a decision win earlier in the year when he fought Mikhail Mokhnatkin, but he’s going to have to push harder in the postseason, which starts with a fight against Vinny Magalhães.

8. Sigi Pesaleli (1-1, 3 pts, No. 8 playoff seed, Previous power ranking: 11): The New Zealander deserves praise. The 25-year-old entered the season with just one pro fight under his belt. He was faced with a field of far more experienced and accomplished foes, but Pesaleli managed to hang in there for three rounds with UFC veteran Jordan Johnson, albeit in a losing effort. He wasn’t as fortunate earlier in the year against Ronny Markes, but he benefited from Markes’ inability to make weight and was awarded the win despite actually suffering the loss. This keeps Pesaleli alive for the postseason, but it might just make him the third victim for Emiliano Sordi, who lines up as his quarterfinal opponent.

9. Dan Spohn (1-1, 3 pts, No. 9 in the rankings, Previous power ranking: 12): Spohn earned a victory by default, thanks to the failure of Ronny Markes to make weight. So, why does the 34-year-old Ohio native jump three spots in the power rankings? Well, he at least scored a legitimate 2018 victory over Bozigit Ataev, which is a bigger achievement than anything the three lower-ranked fighters can boast in their PFL tenures.

10. Rakim Cleveland (0-2, 0 pts, No. 10 in the standings, Previous power ranking: 9): Well, the 30-year-old put up an admirable effort earlier this season against Viktor Nemkov in what ultimately resulted in a decision loss. That’s the one positive for the Texan native. Otherwise, Cleveland is now just 1-4 through two PFL seasons, and that one win came due to an injury to his opponent, Rashid Yusupov. This time out, he was an easy mark for Vinny Magalhães, who put Cleveland away in under two minutes via armbar submission. There’s always next year, right?

11. Mikhail Mokhnatkin (0-2, 0 pts, No. 11 in the standings, Previous power ranking: 10): Earlier this season, the Russian at least made it to the final bell against Rashid Yusupov. He was not quite as fortunate against powerhouse Maxim Grishin, who landed a right cross that dropped the 29-year-old in just 48 seconds.

12. Ronny Markes (0-2, 0 pts, No. 12 in the standings, Previous power ranking: 7): Two PFL outings, two missed marks at the scale. The Brazilian veteran has been perhaps the easiest opponent for his fellow light heavyweights, as even when he wins inside the cage, his opponent gets the points. Unfortunately for his most recent foe, Dan Spohn, the lack of an actual fight might have cost Spohn a shot at the postseason.

Heavyweight Division

1. Denis Goltsov (2-0, 11 pts, No. 1 playoff seed, Previous power ranking: 1): The Russian big man continued his impressive run on Thursday night with an ezekiel choke of Kelvin Tiller. It was his second stoppage of the season, following a first-round dismantling of Jared Rosholt in June. The 29-year-old is a longtime veteran of the sport, but this is his coming-out party with an American audience. Goltsov draws the underperforming Satoshi Ishii for the quarterfinal round of the playoffs.

2. Ali Isaev (2-0, 6 pts, No. 5 playoff seed, Previous power ranking: 3): Some subpar performances from other favorites in the heavyweight field have left room for the undefeated 35-year-old to ascend to the No. 2 spot in the power rankings. The Russian decisioned Valdrin Istrefi earlier in the season and added another judges’ nod last night when he clashed with Carl Seumanutafa. The freestyle wrestler is an effective grinder. His first postseason task will be Kelvin Tiller.

3. Francimar Barroso (2-0, 6 pts, No. 6 playoff seed, Previous power ranking: 4): The UFC veteran hasn’t made the same impact as Denis Goltsov in the PFL’s heavyweight division, but he’s in the thick of things after a wrestling-heavy decision nod over Ben Edwards. Barroso’s showing didn’t exactly please the fans, though, and it comes on the heels of a split verdict against Alex Nicholson. The 39-year-old Brazilian is still one of the favorites heading into the postseason, but he’s headed for a tough rematch with Nicholson.

4. Alex Nicholson (1-1, 6 pts, No. 3 playoff seed, Previous power ranking: 7): “The Spartan” made one of the biggest moves in the PFL standings thanks to a first-round finish of Zeke Tuinei-Wily. The six points puts him in the playoffs as the third seed. He kept his June fight with Francimar Barroso close in a losing effort, and he could avenge that loss when the two meet again in the quarterfinals. Nicholson certainly has momentum on his side right now.

5. Jared Rosholt (1-1, 3 pts, No. 7 playoff seed, Previous power ranking: 10): The three-time NCAA Division I All-American wrestler isn’t the most entertaining fighter out there, but he can certainly be effective against the right opponent. Count Satoshi Ishii among that group. The Olympic gold-medalist judoka didn’t let Rosholt run away with the victory, but the lack of much offense aided the American en route to a decision victory. It was a major improvement for the 33-year-old over his drubbing in June at the hands of Denis Goltsov. Muhammed De’Reese awaits Rosholt in the quarterfinal round of the playoffs.

6. Kelvin Tiller (1-1, 6 pts, No. 4 playoff seed, Previous power ranking: 2): The 29-year-old former prospect has been the epitome of inconsistency in his two seasons with the PFL. He made it to the playoffs in 2018, only to lose to Jared Rosholt. In 2019, he followed up a stellar win over Muhammed De’Reese with a submission loss to Denis Goltsov. Tiller now resides in the middle of the pack, both in the power rankings and the playoff seeding. He’s tasked with Ali Isaev in the quarterfinals, in what now seems like a very risky play for Tiller.

7. Muhammed De’Reese (1-1, 6 pts, No. 2 playoff seed, Previous power ranking: 9): The former The Ultimate Fighter 23 contestant skyrocketed up the leaderboard while also making opponent Valdrin Istrefi pay for landing a low blow and then attempting a jumping knee in place of a glove touch at the restart. The 31-year-old was easily submitted by Kelvin Tiller earlier in the season, but his power credentials are well known thanks to his starching of Istrefi and last season’s finishes of veterans Leroy Johnson and Mike Kyle. His biggest struggles will come against those who opt to battle him on the ground. This will almost certainly be the route for his quarterfinal adversary, Jared Rosholt.

8. Satoshi Ishii (1-1, 3 pts, No. 8 playoff seed, Previous power ranking: 6): The PFL’s announcement of the Olympic gold-medalist judoka as part of this season’s heavyweight field seemed like a huge boon for the promotion at the time. Instead, the Japanese star, who now trains with the legendary Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic, has looked awfully flat through two regular-season outings. What should have been a cruise-control effort against Zeke Tuinei-Wily in early June ended up with the 32-year-old Ishii barely squeaking by in a split decision. Now, he couldn’t even out-grind Jared Rosholt. Ishii’s earlier win was enough to secure a playoff spot, but his opponent, the top-seeded Denis Goltsov, has to be considered the clear favorite.

9. Ben Edwards (0-1, 0 pts, No. 13 in the rankings, Previous power ranking: unranked): Yes, the Aussie had just one fight on the season after an injury forced him out of a June contest with Ante Delija. He stepped in when Delija withdrew from last night’s card. He didn’t win his fight, though. However, the 34-year-old earned cheers from the crowd for at least trying to finish his fight with Francimar Barroso, who was more than happy to blanket Edwards for three rounds. “The Guvner,” entered with even less professional MMA experience than Zeke Tuinei-Wily, but he had his moments against a UFC veteran and definitely deserves respect.

10. Zeke Tuinei-Wily (0-2, 0 pts, No. 11 in the rankings, Previous power ranking: 8): Kudos to one of the least experienced members of this season’s heavyweight class. Tuinei-Wily entered as a replacement for last season’s champion, Philipe Lins, and put up his best effort. He nearly derailed Satoshi Ishii’s season in a close fight in June. However, he couldn’t pull off a similar performance against Alex Nicholson, who put the 31-year-old away in the first frame. His season might be done, but Tuinei-Wily is better than his 3-3 mark suggests.

11. Ante Delija (1-0, 3 pts, No. 9 in the rankings, Previous power ranking: 5): Well, that was a short-lived comeback. After a three-year layoff, the Croatian made one appearance in 2018 and then entered the PFL 2019 season. He was able to decision Carl Seumanutafa in June after replacing Ben Edwards. However, the 29-year-old couldn’t make it back for a fight with Francimar Barroso and was instead replaced by the aforementioned Edwards.

12. Carl Seumanutafa (0-2, 0 pts, No. 10 in the rankings, Previous power ranking: 12): The Samoan couldn’t find a win in his 2019 PFL campaign. After a June decision loss to Ante Delija, the 29-year-old dropped a verdict to Ali Isaev last night.

13. Valdrin Istrefi (0-2, 0 pts, No. 12 in the rankings, Previous power ranking: 11): It was a rough year for Istrefi. First, he dropped a decision to Ali Isaev. Next, he was dropped by Muhammed De’Reese. The 28-year-old from Liechtenstein lands near the bottom in the PFL’s standings and the very bottom of the power rankings.