Anthony Pettis (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

PFL 2021 1: Regular Season Preview and Predictions

After a global pandemic caused the shelving of its 2020 season, the Professional Fighters League finally returns for 2021. The first trio of shows takes place over consecutive weeks from the Ocean Casino Resort in Atlantic City, N.J. It begins on Friday, April 23, with PFL 2021 1 with the lightweights and featherweights.

The spotlight in the lightweight division will shine on one of the PFL’s biggest acquisitions: former UFC champion Anthony Pettis. “Showtime” seeks a new challenge after defecting from the UFC, and he’ll get it in a lightweight field that features such studs as 2019 PFL champ Natan Schulte and the Roufusport product’s first foe, Clay Collard.

Collard has gained a reputation in the boxing world based on his knack for stealing the shine of a number of prospects. He’s been out of the MMA realm for the last two years, but his experience across combat sports and in the UFC makes him a legitimate threat to spoil the debut of Pettis.


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Meanwhile, Schulte starts his 2021 run against submission specialist Marcin Held. Schulte is already a two-time PFL champion, and his PFL tenure includes victories over Jason High, Rashid Magomedov, and three members of the 2021 field. Held makes his first attempt at a PFL crown. The Polish fighter is a grappler who loves to attack the legs of his opponent. Held had a strong showing in Bellator between 2011 and 2016, but he floundered in the UFC en route to a 1-3 promotional mark.

In the featherweight field, two-time defending champ Lance Palmer gets a unique opportunity to spoil the debut of first-time season participant and former collegiate wrestling rival Bubba Jenkins. While Palmer has had more success in the cage, he did lose three times out of four clashes with Jenkins on the NCAA wrestling mats.

The PFL 2021 season returns to the ESPN family of networks. The six-fight preliminary card can be seen on ESPN+ beginning at 5:30 p.m. ET on Friday, April 23. The four-fight main card follows on ESPN2 at 9 p.m. ET.

Natan Schulte may be the returning and defending lightweight champion for the PFL, but the spotlight here has to be on Anthony Pettis, who makes his first post-UFC appearance. How will Pettis look against Clay Collard?

Pettis left the UFC as a free agent. He was on a two-fight winning streak at the time, and his prior losses were to some of the best in the business. Unlike long ago when UFC stars only landed in other promotions when they were on a noticeable decline, the current era of defections has more to do with the UFC’s desire to cut expenses. In other words, Pettis is still an upper-echelon talent.

Collard had a short stay of his own in the UFC, but it consisted of just one win in four appearances. His promotional debut ended in a stoppage loss to Max Holloway, but his remaining UFC setbacks came to the unheralded duo of Gabriel Benitez and Tiago Trator. This was all the way back in 2014-15, though. More recently, Collard has been busy in the world of boxing, where he’s become known as “The 0-Snatcher” for his ability to derail undefeated foes.

Pettis is moving back to lightweight, where he once held a UFC title, after spending his last two bouts at welterweight. He had his struggles in the UFC across both weight classes, but it’s impossible to put Collard in the same category as fighters like Eddie Alvarez, the aforementioned Holloway, Dustin Poirier, Tony Ferguson, Nate Diaz and Diego Ferreira.

Collard’s chance here is based on his power — he’s scored 10 knockouts in his MMA career and an additional three in the boxing ring last year. If he happens to connect to the chin of Pettis, he could add to that tally. Pettis has three TKO losses on his record, but only one came from strikes while the remaining two were the result of injuries. So, it’s possible to finish Pettis, but not likely.

Pettis should come out of this affair looking like the UFC star that he had been for much of the last decade. Collard can box, but Pettis has a more diverse and creative striking arsenal. Pettis, a kickboxer out of the Roufusport camp, is also likely to be the better man if the fight does go to the ground. The 34-year-old “Showtime” will impress and make it clear that he — not Schulte — is the man to beat this season in the PFL’s lightweight division.

The PFL’s seasons often deliver stunning finishes and surprise performances. Who shines unexpectedly at the first show of the 2021 season?

There are two fighters here who could make huge statements.

One is Joilton Lutterbach. He’s the most experienced fighter in this season’s lightweight field, and he has an incredible finishing rate — he’s stopped his opponent in 24 of his 34 career victories. While the 28-year-old The Ultimate Fighter Brazil alum has faced a mixed bag of talent in his career, he does have a first-round knockout of Alex Lohore on his record and has also tangled with the likes of the UFC’s Alex Oliveira and Dricus Du Plessis. Perhaps this will be the year he puts it all together. Lutterbach is in his prime and fights an opponent in Raush Manfio who has not seen official MMA action since a 2018 loss to Sidney Outlaw. Manfio is a knockout artist as well, which could lead to a short-lived banger in which one of these men drops. Lutterbach could make the early highlight reel.

Meanwhile, Bill Mahood disciple Alex Martinez enters the season as one of only two undefeated fighters on this first card — the other is featherweight Movlid Khaybulaev — and the only undefeated member of the lightweight contingent. The 26-year-old, who was born in Paraguay and moved to Canada as a teenager, has a strong finishing rate, but he has a lot to prove. He’ll get that chance in an opening salvo against 2019 lightweight runner-up Loik Radzhabov. Radzhabov’s only two losses have come to defending champion Natan Schulte and UFC veteran Rashid Magomedov. Martinez could announce his arrival if he can finish one of last season’s standouts.

Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?

Featherweights Brendan Loughnane and Sheymon Moraes make for a key fight in their division. Loughnane has already enjoyed a promotional push from the PFL with a pair of showcase fights. The Brit gets to compete for a PFL season title and a cool million bucks. First, he has to get through the World Series of Fighting and UFC veteran Moraes.

Loughnane has only suffered three career setbacks, and they came to fellow UFC vet Mike Wilkinson in 2012, current UFC fighter Tom Duquesnoy in 2015, and grizzled vet Pat Healy in 2017. He avenged the Wilkinson loss in 2017 and added a win over Bill Algeo on Dana White’s Contender Series. He’s in a crowded featherweight field, but this gives him a real chance to prove himself.

Brazil’s Moraes is coming off a five-fight stint in the UFC, where he went a disappointing 2-3. The 30-year-old struggled against the likes of Zabit Magomedsharipov, Sodiq Yusuff and Andre Fili. The move to the PFL gives him a fresh slate, and the match-up with Loughnane provides him with a chance to spoil the start of a PFL darling’s first season campaign.

Both men are hungry to prove themselves under the PFL banner, which could lead to a very fun back-and-forth affair.

FIGHT PICKS
Fight Pick
Main Card (ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET)
LW: Anthony Pettis vs. Clay Collard Pettis
LW: Natan Schulte vs. Marcin Held Schulte
FW: Movlid Khaybulaev vs. Lazar Stojadinovic Khaybulaev
FW: Lance Palmer vs. Bubba Jenkins Palmer
Preliminary Card (ESPN+, 5:30 p.m. ET)
LW: Loik Radzhabov vs. Alex Martinez Martinez
LW: Joilton Lutterbach vs. Raush Manfio Lutterbach
LW: Akhmet Aliev vs. Mikhail Odintsov Odintsov
FW: Chris Wade vs. Anthony Dizy Wade
FW: Sung Bin Jo vs. Tyler Diamond Diamond
FW: Brendan Loughnane vs. Sheymon Moraes Loughnane