Ranking the PFL Fighters: Heavyweights

By: Keith Shillan
Jun 5, 2019
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The Professional Fighters League invades the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York, Thursday night when they roll out their 12 light heavyweight and heavyweight competitors, who are battling over the course of a regular season and three-round playoffs to crown the 2019 champions at PFL 3.

We previewed the fighters competing at light heavyweight yesterday, so today the big men are the focus. These 12 fighters will go to war with only one of them ending the season a million dollars richer.

The field took a little bit of a hit when they got struck by the injury bug. Last year’s champion Philipe Lins and kickboxing standout Ben Edwards were both forced to drop out before the action started. The two fighters have been replaced and the competition still includes a loaded field. This season features an Olympic gold medalist, three Ultimate Fighting Championship veterans, two NCAA Division I football stars, two undefeated fighters, and many more.

Here is a countdown of the fighters from a talent perspective and how I view their chances of becoming the 2019 season winner.

12. Ezekiel Wily

Ezekiel Wily enters the competition as an injury replacement for Lins. He has a 3-1 professional record, but it hasn’t come against the highest level of competition. He does hold a win over the Ultimate Fighter veteran Darrill Schoonover, though the victory came via disqualification.

The former University of Utah football star is a great athlete and extremely strong. There are videos on his Facebook page of him lifting an insane amount of weight.

On the feet, the 31-year-old isn’t very technical. He keeps his hands extremely low and throws wildly hoping his speed and power will make up for lack of technique. He also refuses to check leg kicks.

The “Samoan Rhino” will go for takedowns but won’t be matching the wrestling chops of several others in the competition. There isn’t enough film of his fights available to really grasp how proficient he is in the grappling department.

As a late addition and early into his career, the Texas native is highly unlikely to win the season championship.

11. Carl Seumanutafa

Carl Seumanutafa is also a late addition to the PFL heavyweight field as he was an injury replacement for Ben Edwards. A training partner of the Diaz brothers, the 35-year-old has fought in Strikeforce, M-1 Challenge, and Bellator MMA. He is best known for facing Matt Mitrione in “The Ultimate Fighter” alumni’s Bellator debut. He shocked the masses when he floored the UFC veteran with a big punch and appeared to be on his way to a massive upset. Instead of finishing off Mitirone, “Badwater” showed a poor fight intelligence by deciding to go for a submission instead of laying the heavy leather to his hurt opponent. This allowed Mitrione to rebound and eventually knock him out moments later.

The 35-year-old enters the competition only winning five out of his last 11 bouts, making him a massive underdog heading into the very competitive field. The veteran fighter really has one chance to win this season via his knockout power. He fights best when he is moving forward instead of being pressured. The Stockton, California, native has a sneaky high kick that can separate a fighter from consciousness if it lands.

Seumanutafa is a really poor wrestler but has never been submitted before. If he finds himself in the top position, he unloads powerful blows which could lead him to victory.

Seumanutafa hasn’t been very successful during his 12-year professional career, and it is highly unlikely he suddenly turns it around at the age many fighters are starting to think about retirement. Don’t count on him winning the competition.

10. Alex Nicholson

Alex Nicholson’s run inside the Octagon was a disaster. Besides going 1-3 in the premier mixed martial arts organization, during his time with the promotion, the middleweight was arrested for domestic violence and was caught making racist comments towards Hyun Gyu Lim while cornering his teammate Mike Perry at UFC 202. Since being cut from the UFC, changing weight classes, and picking up three wins on the regional scene, Nicholson joined the PFL with hopes of building some success in a major MMA organization. The 13-7 professional had mixed results in the first season, winning two bouts via TKO while also being on the receiving end of two knockouts.

The former Island Fights Middleweight champion is undersized as a heavyweight but has two tools to make up for his lack of size. These are his power and athleticism. The Spartan uses his explosiveness to suddenly spring at his opponent with attacks. He throws haymakers hoping one lands and ends the fight. The Floridian has nice snap on his kicks and will try flying- attacks like he did when he knocked out Jake Heun with a knee.

The 29-year-old is all offense and practically no defense. He keeps his chin high, his hands low, and lacks head movement. He doesn’t check kicks at all and can be so aggressive that he runs straight into counter blows. He isn’t a strong wrestler and doesn’t possess much in the grappling game. He has gassed out in the past after emptying his tank throwing power shots. His chin is also a problem as he has been knocked out five times already as a professional.

The PFL has given Nicholson a promotional push based on his exciting style and big personality but unless he shores up some of his defensive insufficiencies, he will likely not become the eventual season winner.

9. Valdrin Istrefi

Valdrin Istrefi returns to the PFL cage in an attempt to make up for having to drop out of last year’s competition just before his quarterfinal playoff match. He is officially nicknamed “the Beast” but as the PFL’s own website says, “he refers to himself as ‘Mr. International’ because he was born in Macedonia, has Albanian roots, grew up in Switzerland, trains in Germany and will represent Liechtenstein.”

The 28-year-old fighter has a 13-2 record with 11 stoppage victories. He is a long and lengthy volume striker, who works behind a basic 1-2 combination. He ends almost every combination with a chopping low kick, which is his best weapon. He has great dexterity in his hips to throw in a high kick after a combination. Though he has a long reach, the former Westside Fighting Challenge Heavyweight champion, loves to get in close and brawl it out. This isn’t the best strategy as he gets sloppy and is hittable.

“The Beast” is a pretty underrated wrestler too. He loves to sneak a takedown when his opponent over pursues on an attack or when he catches a kick. The gigantic heavyweight pummels his foe with ground and pound from the top position and also has five submission victories. If an opening for a fight ending sub presents itself, he has no issue taking it. Istrefi’s biggest flaw is his wrestling defense and inability to get off the bottom, which was greatly displayed last season when he fought Jared Rosholt.

It will likely be an uphill climb for Istrefi this season, but he does have the ability to pull it off a million-dollar run.

8. Francimar Barroso

Nine-time UFC veteran Francimar Barroso returns to the PFL cage to try and build off his successful 2018 regular season. His initial stint saw him capture the number-one seed before being upset by Josh Copeland in the quarterfinals.

The Brazilian has a savvy style of fighting which can easily frustrate his opponents. He isn’t the best athlete but is a very patient striker that slows down the pace of a match and simply point fights his way to victory. The former light heavyweight pops his opponent with a stinging jab and clean right hand. He follows this up with a plethora of leg kicks. The Xtreme Couture product struggles against fighters who can overwhelm him with volume and force him to back himself up near the cage.

Barroso is a strong offensive and defensive wrestler. He usually gets his takedown from catching a kick or after getting a body lock against the cage. He does some of his best striking with his dirty boxing game inside the clinch. Once the fight hits the ground the Brazilian jiu-jitsu blackbelt shines. He isn’t much of a threat off his back but has an arsenal of submissions attacks from top position.

At 39-years-old, this might be the last chance for Barroso to capture a major MMA title. Winning a million dollars before calling it quits would be a nice ending too.

7. Ali Isaev

Though he is already 35-years-old, Ali Isaev is an intriguing up-in-comer in the heavyweight division. The Russian has a perfect 4-0 record, while cutting his teeth exclusively under the prestigious Fight Nights Global banner. While he doesn’t have a lot of experience, his last two opponents, Vladimir Dayneko and Alexander Gladkov, have a combined record of 19-4.

Isaev is still a very raw striker, though he won his last fight by way of spinning wheel kick knockout. He makes the mistakes of leaving his chin straight up and leans back to avoid a strike instead of bouncing his head off the centerline. Due to this, he was dropped by Timofey Mishev in his debut fight.

The Russian’s strength is his high-level wrestling. He owns the rank of international master of sports in freestyle wrestling and is a former European wrestling champion. He likes to set up his takedown by shooting when his opponent throws a punch at him, though he makes the mistake of shooting from too far a distance, which can cause him to be sprawled out upon. Once on top, he is very tough to get off. His top pressure is smothering, and he dispatches some strong ground and pound.

The Russian doesn’t have the experience as most of the fighters in the field, but his high-level wrestling and lack of damage taken makes him a dark horse pick to win the season.

6. Kelvin Tiller

Kelvin Tiller had a breakout 2018 season for the PFL. The Kansas native made headlines after stoppage victories over Caio Alencar and Jared Rosholt in the regular season before ultimately falling to the aforementioned Rosholt in the quarterfinals. The 10-2 professional, who used to fight as low as middleweight, returns to show why he was a trendy pick to win the 2018 season right before the playoffs started.

“The Mama’s Boy” is an aggressive striker, who loves to switch stances and has fast and powerful hands. His knockout of Alencar was one of the best knockouts of the 2018 season. The 28-year-old fighter works behind a stiff jab, and he loves to punish the body. He throws hard leg kicks and is even willing to throw a spinning back kicks and fists. His quality head movement makes him hard to hit while also leaving him in range to dispatch a bone crushing blow.

Tiller is willing to go for a takedown but really struggles to stop them. He has a hard time getting off his back but has the ability to find submissions from the position. He also carries a lot of weight on his 6’0” frame, which could slow him down if the fight goes into the deep waters.

Tiller’s power and bigger than life personality makes him a fan favorite heading into the competition. Meanwhile, his ability to end a fight with his striking and submission game makes him one of the best picks to win the competition.

5. Satoshi Ishii

Move over Kayla Harrison, the PFL has added another Olympic gold medalist. They have signed 2008 Beijing Games champion Satoshi Ishii. The Japanese fighter flaunts a 20-8-1 record and has fought in several top organizations which include Dream, K-1, M-1 Challenge, Rizin, Bellator, and Konfrontacja Sztuk Walki. The level of compeition he has faced is insane. The list includes Fedor Emelianenko, Mirko Filipovic (twice), Tim Sylvia, Quinton Jackson, Muhammed Lawal, and several others.

The decorated judoka is a southpaw, who trains under the tutelage of his old rival “Cro Cop.” While he isn’t known for his striking, he is a willing participant in standing his ground and throwing fisticuffs. He does possess some decent pop in his strikes and is an adequate counterstriker. He does a good job at slipping his head just out of range to counter with a huge overhand left. However, due to years of fighting against the top fighters in the world, there is a lot of doubt if he can take a clean shot from the big strikers in the division.

As a grappler, Ishii is probably still the best in the field. In the clinch, the 32-year-old has world-class level trips and throws. He can also snag a single or double leg takedown from a distance. The Japanese fighter is a wizard on the canvas. While he will batter his opponent with strikes, he prefers to look for a submission. He favorite submission is either the Kimura or the scissor choke. He has nine wins by way of submission.

While years of taking damage from top fighters in the world can’t help his chances of winning the competition, his ability to find a submission against anybody makes him a fighter to not look past. Let’s not forget that he has experience in winning a big competition in the past.

4. Muhammed DeReese

Besides an exhibition loss to Khalil Rountree on season 23 of “The Ultimate Fighter,” Muhammed DeReese does not have a blemish on his record. The undefeated fighter took a 31-month layoff after “TUF,” and began running his own amateur promotion, but he’s returned looking better than ever. In the process, he moved up from light heavyweight to heavyweight. Since his return to action, he went 2-0 inside the PFL with wins over Leroy Johnson and Mike Kyle.

The former University of Central Florida football player is developing as a striker. He throws hard knees and leg kicks, but often throws the shots naked without setting them up leaving him to be counterstruck. He uses his strikers to set up his bread and butter, which is his wrestling.

“Mo Muscle” is a former high school wrestling state champion in Florida. He has quick entries on his shots, and great throws from the clinch. Once the fight hits the canvas, the 31-year-old looks for dominant position and then unleashes ferocious ground and pound.

Due to his success as an alternate in the 2018 season, he looks like a major threat in 2019.

3. Jared Rosholt

Eight-time UFC veteran, Jared Rosholt had a disappointing 2018 PFL season. Though he reached the semi-finals, he entered as one of the favorites to win the season and only went 2-2. The 32-year-old was stopped in both losses and has been on a rough stretch lately, only winning three out of his last seven matches. While he has been on a skid, the veteran fighter is still the most accomplished fighter in the heavyweight field with wins over the likes of Stefan Struve, Timothy Johnson and Walt Harris.

Rosholt’s usual game plan on the feet is to close the distance as soon as possible. He uses a winging overhand right to force his opponents to raise their hands up to block, leaving him a chance to either shoot on their hips or grab a body lock. If the Texas native is able to press his fellow unarmed combatant against the fence, he is good at forcing them to carry a lot of his weight. Thus wearing his opponent down in the process. While dealing with his grinding style, Rosholt uses dirty boxing to batter his foe until an opening to take them to the canvas is presented.

The three-time all-American wrestler at the University of Oklahoma has excellent entries on his opponent’s legs and hips, while quickly cutting a corner to force them to fall to the mat. Once on top, Rosholt often gets criticized for being boring. He loves to blanket his opponent with heavy top pressure while striking them with small punches that usually don’t do much damage. This play it safe style does not make him very popular with fans.

Rosholt’s recent slide brings many doubts about how much he has left to offer. However, when the former Sooner is able to implement his game plan, he is a tough out for anybody.

2. Ante Delija

Ante Delija is a massive heavyweight, who stands 6’5”. He doesn’t enter the season with a lot of buzz around his name because he has only fought once in the last four years. The Croatian missed a lot of time due to breaking his leg in a bout against Marcin Tybura back in 2015. Prior to the injury, “Walking Trouble” showed he had the ability to be one of the best heavyweights in the game, with 12 stoppage wins.

The Rizin and M-1 Challenge veteran is a very intense fighter. The long and lengthy striker stings his opponent with a jab, and hurts them with his big overhand right and right uppercut.

While Delija is the protege of the legendary “Cro Cop,” it is his wrestling and not his striking that is the best part of his game. He loves to shoot in on his opponents and lift his heavyweight counterpart in the air and slam them onto the canvas. He sometimes shoots without setting it up, but when he gets them down, he smashes them with a fury of ground and pound. His seven submission victories show that he is a strong grappler. Though he sometimes becomes too aggressive and loses dominant position trying to end the fight with a finishing hold. Similar to his mentor, the Croatian has stellar takedown defense.

While he has missed some crucial time, Delija is still just 28 and is likely entering his prime. He is well-rounded and likely to surprise most that he is sitting this high on my overall rankings.

1. Denis Goltsov

The top spot in our heavyweight rankings goes to a fighter that is surging at the right time. Denis Goltsov flaunts a 22-5 record with 18 wins by stoppage and has been on an absolute tear. The former Absolute Championship Berkut titleholder has won 17 out of his last 18 encounters including a knockout win over former UFC title challenger Paul Buentello. The gigantic 6’5” heavyweight hopes his success will translate over when he fights on American soil for the first time.

The former Combat Sambo world champion is a technical striker that is light on his feet. The 28-year-old works behind one of the best jabs in all of MMA and has hurt several fighters with the range finding strike. His straight right hand has big power, and his high kick is deadly. “The Russian Bogatyr” uses a step-in knee to keep his opponent back when they try sliding by his long range.

If the fight gets in close, Goltsov has nice trips and throws from the clinch. However, he has found himself on the bottom in the past when trying a throw. He has a very good submission game, which is displayed by his nine submission wins. This can actually can hurt him if he doesn’t get quickly back to his feet against a field full of strong grapplers. This includes his first opponent in Rosholt.

Though every fighter has strengths in their game, Goltsov has the best chance of becoming the season winner. He is well-rounded, reaching his prime¬¬ and might just be scratching the surface of his potential. Advertisement

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