Don’t feel like going out on New Year’s Eve? Parties too expensive and the roads too dangerous with drunk drivers? Well, that’s fine, because the Professional Fighters League is ready to help MMA fans ring in the new year right in front of their TV sets.
The PFL hosts its second annual championship finale from the Hulu Theater in Madison Square Garden in New York on Dec. 31. Six championships for the 2019 season will be decided on New Year’s Eve.
In the women’s lightweight division, talented judoka Kayla Harrison is out to earn her second win over Larissa Pacheco. Harrison advanced to the finals with an October win over Bobbi-Jo Dalziel. Pacheco outworked Sarah Kaufman to secure her spot in the championship round.
The other five tourney bouts feature male competitors. At heavyweight, Jared Rosholt and Ali Isaev collide. The light-heavyweight final pits former UFC fighter Jordan Johnson against Emiliano Sordi. Ray Cooper III, a 2018 breakout fighter, takes part in the welterweight final opposite David Michaud. The 2018 lightweight winner Natan Schulte seeks a repeat this year when he battles Loik Radzhabov. Lance Palmer, the 2018 featherweight champ, also hopes for back-to-back titles when he meets Alex Gilpin.
There is also one non-tournament affair in the lineup, as Brendan Loughnane returns to the PFL cage against David Valente.
The 10th and final event of the PFL 2019 season can be seen live on ESPN 2 beginning at 7 p.m. ET on New Year’s Eve. The lone preliminary bout will air live on ESPN+ as part of the pre-show that begins at 6 p.m. ET.
The PFL built a women’s lightweight tournament around Kayla Harrison. The Olympic gold medalist is now in the finals. Can she beat Larissa Pacheco for a second time and live up to the promotion’s expectations?
Pacheco was the first opponent of the 2019 campaign for Harrison, and it was mostly a one-sided fight. Pacheco did score a takedown on Harrison and threatened with a rear-naked choke, but Harrison remained composed and eventually reversed into top position. It was the only stretch of the fight where Pacheco delivered any significant offense.
If anything, that fight, which is still the only pro bout for Harrison to go the distance, was a huge learning experience for the Olympian. Jozette Cotton was the only other fighter to even manage a second round with Harrison. These fights have given Harrison needed experience, and someone of her caliber is going to excel as a result. She already has a feel for Pacheco’s physical strength and her tendencies on the ground. That’s huge.
Pacheco impressed against Sarah Kaufman, but Kaufman is a natural bantamweight who was competing a full two weight classes above her typical home at 135 pounds. In addition, Pacheco’s extreme reach advantage allowed her to cruise to a victory on points by fighting at range. A fight with Harrison will be completely different, as the Brazilian already knows. She won’t be able to play the range game, and she’s still going to struggle to keep Harrison from scoring the takedown. Perhaps Pacheco’s tough enough to go the distance again, but whether it’s on the scorecards or while on the mat, she’s still going to suffer the loss.
After an awful start to the 2019 season, David Michaud has put together quite the run. How will he fare against 2018 standout Ray Cooper III in the welterweight tournament final?
Michaud was dispatched in just 17 seconds by a Sadibou Sy body kick to start the season, but he’s been a scrappy dark horse ever since. He stopped Handesson Ferreira with punches from the crucifix position during the regular season and then outworked John Howard and Glaico França in a single October night to advance to the finals. The 31-year-old has gritted through it all to advance to the finals. It may be a stretch to call this a breakout campaign, but it’s doubtful that many people saw this coming.
It’s only fitting then for Michaud to meet Cooper, 2018’s breakout star. It could be bad news for the UFC veteran, though. Cooper is a solid boxer who has put away quite a few opponents, including Jake Shields, with his fists. Michaud’s last two losses have come via strikes.
Michaud could still find success against Cooper. The Hawaiian fighter seemed unstoppable — until the finals, anyhow — in 2018, but his 2019 season hasn’t been so rosy. He started off strong with a win over Zane Kamaka, but he suffered a regular-season loss to the aforementioned UFC veteran Howard and then fought to a draw with Sy. His momentum isn’t there, while Michaud’s is running along at full steam. Michaud might just grind out another win here.
Will 2018 featherweight tourney winner Lance Palmer and 2018 lightweight champ Natan Schulte repeat this year?
Yes on both counts.
Palmer’s been a stud at featherweight for the PFL. He hasn’t lost since the old World Series of Fighting days. His run is now up to 10 straight wins, including avenging his most recent loss to Andre Harrison. Palmer also benefits from a very familiar opponent in Alex Gilpin, whom he’s decisioned twice before. It definitely appears to be an easier task for Palmer than original opponent Daniel Pineda, who was removed from this finals bout after a failed drug test.
Schulte’s opponent, Loik Radzhabov, has just one career loss, but he also had to squeak his way through to the finals this season. He suffered a decision loss to Rashid Magomedov to kicks things off and then went on to win a split verdict over Ylies Djiroun and fight to a majority draw with Islam Mamedov. Radzhabov advanced past Mamedov, though, and then scored a unanimous decision over Chris Wade. Schulte sports a strong resume, despite suffering a submission loss to the aforementioned Mamedov. This should be another test that he can pass against a fighter who hasn’t really separated himself from his recent opponents.
Jordan Johnson, a free-agent acquisition from the UFC, battles Emiliano Sordi in the light-heavyweight finals. Will Johnson emerge with the crown?
There were high expectations for Johnson entering the season. He was a free-agent pick-up who the PFL snagged from the UFC. The MMA Lab fighter exited the Octagon while on a four-fight promotional winning streak with an unblemished career mark. Yet, those expectations came crashing down when he dropped a decision to Maxim Grishin in June. He’s righted the ship with wins over Sigi Pesaleli and Rashid Yusupov, plus a majority draw in a rematch with Grishin.
Johnson has another daunting task in front of him in the finals. Sordi, who never really had put it all together prior to 2019, could be considered this year’s Ray Cooper III. He has absolutely smashed the competition. First, he dropped Vinny Magalhães in June. Then, he stopped Bozigit Ataev in August. In the postseason, he added a first-round finish of Pesaleli and a submission of Ataev. The Argentinian is on a roll.
Johnson’s year could close with more disappointment. His UFC campaign didn’t include any upper-tier opponents, so he was far from a proven stud upon arrival in the PFL. He’s also failed to dominate this season, whereas Sordi has delivered on all occasions. Sordi might just be able to extend his surprise season with a championship victory.
The heavyweight finalists are Jared Rosholt and Ali Isaev. Will Rosholt be the first fighter to hand Isaev a loss?
Rosholt is one of those fighters who often outperforms expectations. He looked like an also-ran early in his career when he was steamrolled by Derrick Lewis, but he rebounded with a lengthy winning streak that punched his ticket to the UFC.
Once in the Octagon, Rosholt picked up wins over Walt Harris, Daniel Omielańczuk, Soa Palelei, Josh Copeland, Timothy Johnson and Stefan Struve. His only UFC losses came against Alexei Oleinik and Roy Nelson, but the Nelson loss was all the excuse the UFC needed to part ways with Rosholt. He made it to the PFL’s 2018 postseason, but faltered against eventual champion Philipe Lins. This year, he stumbled out of the gates against Denis Goltsov, only to bounce back for three wins on his way to the finals.
Isaev has been far more consistent, but he’s only had eight pro outings. The Russian wrestler’s postseason victory over Goltsov, a favorite to win it all, was a real head-turner. The 36-year-old also scored wins over Valdrin Istrefi, Carl Seumanutafa and Kelvin Tiller during his 2019 campaign.
Rosholt typically succeeds when he can utilize his wrestling to control the fight. When he can’t, bad things happen. Isaev’s not likely to give Rosholt many openings here. The Russian should be able to match Rosholt in the wrestling department and tag the American’s unreliable chin. Isaev will follow his knockout of Goltsov with a knockout of Rosholt.
Main Card (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET)
Women’s LW Tournament Final: Kayla Harrison vs. Larissa Pacheco
WW Tournament Final: Ray Cooper III vs. David Michaud
HW Tournament Final: Jared Rosholt vs. Ali Isaev
LW Tournament Final: Natan Schulte vs. Loik Radzhabov
FW Tournament Final: Lance Palmer vs. Alex Gilpin
LHW Tournament Final: Jordan Johnson vs. Emiliano Sordi
Preliminary Card (ESPN+, 6 p.m. ET)
FW: Brendan Loughnane vs. David Valente
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