October. It’s what postseason dreams are made of. While the New York Yankees, Houston Astros, Washington Nationals, and St. Louis Cardinals remain in the hunt for the Major League Baseball championship, the Professional Fighters League has many playoff hopefuls in contention for its numerous trophies. This week, the playoff picture will grow clearer in the men’s featherweight and lightweight brackets.
On Thursday, Oct. 17, eight men in each of these two divisions will take to the cage. First, they’ll have to make it through a quarterfinal match-up. The fortunate few who advance will return to the cage later in the night for the semifinals. The eventual winners will secure a Dec. 31 date to compete for their division’s title and a $1 million payday.
In the lightweight division, 2018 champion Natan Schulte returns in a field that also includes Islam Mamedov, Chris Wade, Akhmed Aliev, Rashid Magomedov, Nate Andrews, Loik Radzhabov and Ramsey Nijem.
In the featherweight division, defending 2018 winner Lance Palmer is joined by Movlid Khaybulaev, Luis Rafael Laurentino, Alex Gilpin, Andre Harrison, Jeremy Kennedy, Daniel Pineda and Gadzhi Rabadanov.
The playoffs, which started last weekend with the women’s lightweight and men’s welterweight divisions, continues at the Mandalay Bay Events Center. The action begins on ESPN 2 at 8 p.m. ET with six fights. Then, it’s over to ESPN+, where another six fights will commence at 10:30 p.m. ET.
Natan Schulte is the PFL’s defending lightweight champion. Will he make it to the finals again?
He’s far from a sure thing. Schulte’s 2018 postseason campaign took him through a majority draw with Johnny Case and a split verdict over Chris Wade before he topped Rashid Magomedov via unanimous decision in the finals. The American Top Team product didn’t exactly steamroll his way through the bracket, which doesn’t bode well for him in an arguably tougher 2019 field.
First, Schulte will have to make it through UFC veteran Ramsey Nijem. This is one hurdle he should definitely clear. Nijem didn’t even compete this season, instead gaining his points when Ronys Torres failed to get medical clearance for their fight. He was supposed to meet Schulte, too, but missed weight and forfeited that contest. The 31-year-old hasn’t experienced much sustained success since his 2012 winning streak inside the UFC. Schulte might even be able to find the finish in this one.
If the 2018 champ advances to the semifinals, he’ll have to deal with either his finals adversary from last year, Rashid Magomedov, or Akhmed Aliev. This will be a far tougher fight. Yes, Magomedov dropped their first fight on all scorecards, but the 35-year-old has fared well at the highest levels of the game. Magomedov went 5-1 under the UFC banner, defeated Luiz Firmino and Thiago Tavares during the 2018 PFL season, and fought to a draw with Will Brooks last year. The Russian performed well against Schulte when they engaged on the feet, but he’ll have to improve his takedown defense if he wants to take the win here.
Aliev is no slouch, either. The 29-year-old’s season has included a first-round finish of Carlos Silva and a loss to Chris Wade, but he also holds prior victories over Zubaira Tukhugov, Ivan Jorge, Vener Galiev, Efrain Escudero, Diego Brandão and the formerly undefeated Magomedsaygid Alibekov. Aliev, like Magomedov, could provide plenty of headaches for Schulte if he can keep the fight in an upright position.
So, while Schulte should see action in two separate contests, he won’t likely return to the finals. Magomedov kept their first fight close through three rounds and should have a better idea of how to handle the 2018 champion in this rematch, while Aliev appears to be just as superior in the striking department. One of these Russians will advance past Schulte on Thursday night.
Who else can we expect to see advance to the lightweight finals?
The other half of the bracket has some compelling pairings.
Nate Andrews is set for a rematch of his season-opener against Chris Wade. Wade outworked Andrews through three rounds, but Andrews rebounded with a decision over Rashid Magomedov. Wade, meanwhile, added a decision over Akhmed Aliev. The 32-year-old Wade just can’t seem to solve the puzzle of Natan Schulte, but he’s consistently beaten everyone else lately. The Long Island MMA fighter performed well against Andrews in their initial encounter, and his wrestling and grappling acumen should lead him to another victory over the New England regional circuit hero.
The other quarterfinal bout features two veterans who each have just one pro loss. Islam Mamedov suffered his defeat in 2009 in his sophomore outing against Alexander Sarnavskiy, a worthy opponent. The 29-year-old has gone on to sweep his four World Series of Fighting appearances, including wins over Natan Schulte and Jorge Patino. Likewise, he’s been perfect with the PFL while competing against Yuki Kawana, Thiago Tavares, Ylies Djiroun and Yincang Bao. Mamedov’s foe, Loik Radzhabov, tasted defeat much more recently when he lost to Rashid Magomedov in his first fight of the current season. The Tajikistan native secured his one PFL victory with a split verdict over Djiroun. Radzhabov has not seen nearly the level of competition as Mamedov and should bow out in the quarterfinals.
This would set up a fight between Mamedov and Wade, which is a very intriguing affair. Wade’s recent success aside, his losses are troublesome. He dropped a WSOF bout to Ozzy Dugulubgov and UFC fights to Rustam Khabilov and Islam Makhachev. It would seem that Russians, with the exception of the aforementioned Aliev, usually have his number. If this trend continues, Mamedov will march through Wade and advance to an all-Russian lightweight final.
The 2018 featherweight champion Lance Palmer is also seeking a repeat. How likely is he to end up back in the finals?
Far more likely than Natan Schulte in the lightweight field. Unlike Schulte, Palmer has demonstrated a good amount of dominance against his PFL brethren. He’s topped Steven Siler twice, ground-and-pounded Luis Rafael Laurentino, and even decisioned the formerly undefeated Andre Harrison. He hasn’t tasted defeat since his WSOF days, when he lost to Georgi Karakhanyan, Alexandre de Almeida and Harrison. Palmer’s game has advanced considerably in the years that have followed.
The defending champ draws Gadzhi Rabadanov in the quarterfinals. The Russian sambo specialist decisioned Siler to kick off his season, but missed weight for his second fight. His record has a fair amount of padding, but the nod over UFC vet Siler proved his legitimacy. Still, he hardly seems like a guy who can crush Palmer.
Once Palmer hands Rabadanov a loss, he’ll be faced with either Alex Gilpin or the aforementioned Harrison. The Team Alpha Male product has already defeated Gilpin once this season. His wrestling was key to victory in that encounter, but Gilpin was a game opponent. Harrison, meanwhile, does hold a victory over Palmer and seems to be emerging as the defending champ’s archrival. If Harrison clears the Gilpin hurdle, then he could give Palmer a real challenge.
The rubber match between Palmer and Harrison seems like a solid bet for the semis, and it’s a coin toss as to who wins that one. Harrison did struggle a bit in taking a draw against Movlid Khaybulaev, so let’s lean to Palmer for the win.
Who else can we expect to see advance to the featherweight finals?
While the other half of the featherweight bracket offers plenty of intrigue — we’ll get to some of that in the next question — it does feel like the weak side in contrast to the branch that includes Lance Palmer, Andre Harrison and Alex Gilpin.
Luis Rafael Laurentino turned heads with his quick finish of Jeremy Kennedy, but flamed out in a hurry when faced with Palmer. Kennedy, a huge free-agent acquisition following strong runs in the UFC and Brave Combat Federation, lost some of his shine with the loss to Laurentino. Movlid Khaybulaev is still undefeated, but he had to settle for a majority draw against Harrison. Khaybulaev’s opponent, Daniel Pineda, was an afterthought in both the UFC and Bellator, and he already has 13 career losses.
Khaybulaev and Laurentino are wild cards to score a knockout with their explosiveness and power. However, Kennedy’s track record suggests he should be the favorite here. Pineda, meanwhile, has to be the big underdog on this side of the bracket.
That said, it’s hard to resist Khaybulaev as the pick. The 28-year-old’s unblemished record is not of the padded variety. He excelled in the Fight Nights Global organization, decisioned Herbert Burns under the ONE Championship banner, and absolutely destroyed Damon Jackson to kick off his 2019 PFL campaign. Even his draw against Harrison was a big statement. Don’t be surprised to see a run to the finals for the prospect and No. 2 tournament seed.
Jeremy Kennedy gets a second crack at Luis Rafael Laurentino. Will their fight play out much differently this time around?
It should. Kennedy fought the Brazilian on just one day’s notice after Alexandre de Almeida missed weight. He likely didn’t know what to expect from an opponent whose 33-1 mark was built on the backs of regional opponents in his homeland. Laurentino came back down to Earth against Lance Palmer, and that’s where he’s likely to stay in his rematch with Kennedy.
Unless Laurentino simply has the Canadian’s number, we should see a much more grounded affair — literally. Palmer was able to utilize wrestling and ground-and-pound to put away the Brazilian. Kennedy is known more for his striking, but he has trained in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu under the tutelage of Bibiano Fernandes. He could mix in his wrestling to put Laurentino on the mat and work from top control. On the feet, he’ll know what to expect this time around and play a more cautious game.
Kennedy should advance to the semis, but Movlid Khaybulaev appears to be the real deal and should knock the UFC veteran from the competition.
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