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Like a Lead Balloon
Back in May, less than a month into the Professional Fighters League’s 2021 season, things were looking like an abject disaster. After taking all of 2020 off due to the COVID-19 pandemic, PFL had entered the new season with perhaps its strongest roster to date, bolstered by returning contenders and champs in nearly every division and spearheaded by a grip of big-name free agent signings: former Ultimate Fighting Championship titleholders Fabricio Werdum and Anthony Pettis, UFC and Bellator MMA standout Rory MacDonald and superstar boxing crossover Claressa Shields, just to name a few. PFL had even been able to keep its biggest star, Kayla Harrison, on roster through the year off, with the help of a loaner fight in Invicta FC. Things were primed for a spectacular return.
Of course, we all know what they say about the best-laid plans, et cetera, et cetera. In the very first show of the season, Pettis lost, as did two of the most dominant fighters in PFL history, two-time featherweight winner Lance Palmer and two-time lightweight champ Natan Schulte. None of the three looked particularly inspired, and none would go on to make the playoffs. Two weeks later, the heavyweight season took a gut shot as Werdum and Mohammed Usman, who probably had the second-most buzz in the division as the brother of UFC welterweight champ Kamaru Usman, both lost by finish. Werdum’s TKO loss to Renan Ferreira was a sketchy piece of work involving phantom taps, while Usman getting put to sleep by Brandon Sayles simply looked like the work of a prospect perhaps too green for prime time. “Vai Cavalo” was incensed by the controversial finish, to the point that he appeared willing to walk away from PFL entirely, before it was overturned to a no contest. In the end it didn’t matter: Werdum and Usman were both forced to withdraw from their scheduled matchup at PFL 6 in June with injuries, and neither is in the playoffs.
“The Report of my Death Was an Exaggeration.”
Just like that, almost every high-profile matchup of the 2021 season seemed to be breaking in the opposite of the direction PFL probably hoped it would. High-profile acquisitions and homegrown studs alike were dropping like flies. The promotion can’t be blamed too hard for that: MMA is unscripted and deeply unpredictable, and all a matchmaker can do about it is try to make fights where either outcome is a win for the promotion. That’s a monstrous task, and frankly nobody since Joe Silva has managed to do it consistently for long periods of time. It’s just the way it goes; PFL had quite a few matchups in the season where one outcome was far better from a promotional standpoint, and most of them went the other way.
As the 2021 tournament kicks off this Friday at PFL 7: 2021 Playoffs, however, it is surprising how much firepower PFL is bringing to bear in the next couple of weeks. For a promotion that I have watched with a mix of did-you-see-that entertainment and nervous nail-biting since the beginning of the tournament format, PFL has actually shown itself pretty resilient. What follows are a couple of main ways the upcoming Professional Fighters League playoffs will salvage the season, going on the belief that the goals are: One, draw the strongest TV ratings possible; two, deliver a product that entertains fans, rather than frustrates them or drives them away; and three, build buzz for next season.
“There are 106 miles to Chicago, we have a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it's dark and we're wearing sunglasses.”
And as the taller Blues Brother’s tone implied when he delivered that line, what more do you need? Despite the big-name casualties along the way, the 24 fighters who made it to the playoffs — and the ones populating the non-playoff fights on each card — represent an impressive mix of PFL’s big names and best fighters, and they’re sprinkled fairly evenly through the three cards. Harrison, unquestionably PFL’s signature star, made it to the playoffs without breaking a sweat. Now she faces an array of women who will all be 10-to-1 underdogs against her, but that’s just the way it’s going to be until either the promotion creates a featherweight division for her, or she jumps to an organization that has one. At 145, there are quite a few dream matchups for Harrison. At 155, I’d be fine with, “Please…just not poor Larissa Pacheco again.” Nonetheless, there’s an appeal to seeing Harrison ply her trade, even if the matchups are squashy.
One name to dangle in front of Harrison — and us — is that of Shields, who overcame some adversity thanks to Brittany Elkin in her MMA debut back in June before rallying to punch her out in the third round. Afterward, public opinion seemed divided, with some scoffing at the supposed killer pugilist struggling with a sub-.500 fighter, and others pointing to her two-round display of poise and composure against a BJJ brown belt, and the terrifying ground-and-pound finish. Ultimately, what matters most is that Shields is now 1-0, and a potential future matchup with Harrison keeps its blockbuster potential. Never mind that Shields would be a colossal underdog if the fight took place any time in the next year, the clash of an undefeated boxing champion and a two-time Olympic gold medal judoka — both of whom also happened to be undefeated in MMA — would be big.
MacDonald fared better than most of his fellow free agent signings; his loss to Gleison Tibau was an iffy decision, and luckily he made the playoffs anyway thanks to his throttling of Curtis Millender. The question with MacDonald any time since his second fight with Robbie Lawler is which “Red King” will show up: the creepy-cold killer of old, or the guy who barely looks as if he wants to be in there. If we get the killer, MacDonald’s semifinal against Ray Cooper III is easily the best matchup of the semifinal round in any division. Cooper, whose lineage and just-scrap-Hawaiian demeanor belie his well-rounded skills, is likely PFL’s top home-grown fighter other than Harrison, in terms of blending star power and straightforward accomplishment. Remember my earlier mention of win-win matchups? This is one, as any outcome is a shiny gold star for PFL, as long as the fight itself is good.
Speaking of straightforward accomplishment, Magomed Magomedkerimov might be PFL’s best fighter, period. While he doesn’t exactly exude charisma, he’s the kind of insider tip that gets hardcore fans on the forums speculating on how he would do against his UFC and Bellator counterparts.
The New Playoff Format
One major change from the 2018 and 2019 playoffs is that this year features a semifinal round with three-round fights, followed by the finals, where the first two seasons staged quarterfinals and semis in the same night, with two-round fights. As a throwback to the Wild West MMA days of one-night tournaments, it was charming. In practice, it was a mess. The inevitable injuries led to losing fighters being thrust back into the bracket, of course, but even worse, the two-round format led to a ton of draws. Those draws were settled by tiebreaker criteria that left nobody happy.
This year’s format will give us, to the extent possible — see the earlier reference to MMA’s inherently chaotic nature — an Oct. 27 (tickets now available) card full of PFL finals featuring the most deserving fighters. As a wrap-up to a difficult comeback year and a teaser for 2022, the promotion would have to call that a season salvaged.