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The Professional Fighters League returns for their second season on Thursday, with Uniondale, New York playing host. The organization’s first event of 2019 will showcase fighters competing in the women’s lightweight and welterweight divisions. The ladies will draw headlines from most of the MMA media outlets due to the fact that the biggest star of the PFL, Kayla Harrison, is fighting in the main event. However, it is the men’s welterweight division that will likely be the more competitive division.
The weight class is absolutely stacked with talent. Season One champion Magomed Magomedkerimov returns to see if he can repeat as the division’s king. The man he defeated in the finals, Ray Cooper III, hopes to build off of his breakout year in 2018 and this time have his hand raised on New Year’s Eve. The rest of the field includes UFC veterans, a DWTNCS standout, an undefeated Russian prospect, a rising Hawaiian star, a tough Brazilian veteran and an outstanding kickboxer.
2018 middleweight champion Louis Taylor was originally supposed to be part of the loaded weight class but had to withdraw from the competition. The organization found a suitable replacement in the heavy-handed Andre Fialho.
All 12 of these fighters have a solid chance to best the competition. In an effort to predict who will reign supreme, we will dig deep into each fighter’s game and rank the fighters from weakest to strongest.
12. Zane Kamaka
Max Holloway’s training partner Zane Kamaka will have a chance to blossom on the big stage. Currently riding a four-fight winning streak, the Hawaiian fighter sports a 13-3 record and is a veteran of both Titan FC and Tachi PF. He competed on Season 16 of “The Ultimate Fighter” but lost his entry bout by submission.
The 29-year-old is a long and lengthy striker, and he loves to work from the distance. He stalks his opponent with constant pressure, working behind an active jab and an accurate straight right hand. The muay Thai practitioner has very good leg kicks and loves to confuse his opponent by switching stances. The former Destiny Na Koa champion is a bit of a point fighter, simply trying to stay busier than his fellow combatant, and this is likely due to lacking true one-punch power.
The largest hole in the game of “Waianae's Bad Boy” is his wrestling. While he has taken down some weaker competition, his overall wrestling is pretty poor. If the Gracie Technics team member is taken down, he struggles to work back up to his feet and has had his back taken during scrambles.
The distant cousin of Ray Cooper III is taking a major step up in competition by joining the PFL and I don’t see him as anything more than a longshot to win the million-dollar prize.
11. Glaico Franca
Glaico Franca impressed on Season Four of “The Ultimate Fighter Brazil,” submitting all three of his opponents to win the show’s title. His stint in the UFC was short-lived, though – after dropping back to back fights to James Vick and Gregor Gillespie, Franca was sent back to the regional scene. Since being cut from the premier MMA organization, the Brazilian has moved up from lightweight to welterweight and has won all six of his welterweight bouts, including capturing the Aspera FC and Pancrase titles.
The Luta Livre fighter has improved his striking on the regional scene but still has a rudimentary game — throwing a basic 1-2 combination and teep kicks to the body. His best strike is his step-in knee to the body, but he rarely uses it. Additionally, the 28-year-old needs to shore up some of his defensive deficiencies. Instead of slipping punches, he tends to duck his head in an effort to turtle up behind his hands and forearms.
The Astro Fight Team member’s bread and butter remains his grappling. He is a strong wrestler who closes the distance well with fast takedown attempts. Once on top, he does well at advancing to a dominant position or taking his adversary’s back — where he has the great ability to finish the fight via submission. The “Brazilian Zombie” is so confident in his grappling that he has even pulled guard in past fights.
The Brazilian has done a great job at learning how to conserve his energy and not drain his gas tank, which he was prone to do earlier in his career.
With 17 of his 19 wins coming by way of submission, Franca is a threat to everybody in the field.
10. Andre Fialho
When Andre Fialho joined the Bellator family back in 2016, he burst onto the scene with tons of potential and in hopes that he could become one of the stars of the promotion. After two quick first-round knockouts, it looked like he was well on his way. Bellator gave the highly-touted prospect a promotional push and matched him against Chidi Njokuani. The Portuguese fighter had a nightmare performance – he was knocked out in just 21 seconds. Suddenly, his bandwagon was empty. The Hardcore 365 team member was demoted to the prelims for his last two Bellator bouts — which he won, albeit with lackluster decisions, putting his record to 10-1.
Now in the PFL, Fialho has a chance at redemption, a chance to show that he is one of the best fighters in the game. He wasn’t originally selected for the season, but he nevertheless finds himself in the mix after being selected as the late replacement for Louis Taylor. The Portuguese fighter is a heavy hitter. His left hook and his straight right pack tons of power. He chooses to slowly stalk his opponents, waiting for the moment to spring at them with combination attacks. He likes to switch chances where he doesn’t lose much power when he strikes. Fialho also loves to throw spinning heel kicks, though I haven’t seen it land on film yet.
The strong striker often takes significant damage due to his lack of head movement. His chin is questionable following his knockout loss to Njokuani and being floored by AJ Mathews. His gas tank is also a question mark; against Mathews, Fialho emptied his gas tank and was forced to endure a late surge by the Alliance MMA fighter, who nearly gave Fialho the second loss of his career.
The budding prospect has nice entries on his takedowns but doesn’t use his wrestling nearly enough, and while he is tough to takedown he struggles to get up off his back if he finds himself underneath his foe.
While Fialho enters the competition as a bit of an afterthought, it would be mistake to write the 25-year-old off.
9. John Howard
Longtime MMA veteran John Howard will enter the PFL cage with almost double the amount of fight experience possessed by any other competitor in the field. “Doomsday” has had two stints in the UFC and has been inside the Octagon 14 times. The 36-year-old has also fought for several other notable organizations including the CFFC, Ring of Combat, the IFL and CES MMA.
Though he is nearing the end of his career, the Dorchester native showed last season that he still has plenty of tread left on his tires — he punched his ticket to the middleweight playoffs, cruised past Eddie Gordon in the quarterfinals and scored a draw against eventual winner Louis Taylor, ultimately being eliminated based on a tiebreaker. Howard will now be dropping back down to welterweight, which is where he has competed for most of his career.
The New Englander is a well-rounded competitor. The powerful striker loves to brawl, inviting his foe to try to crack his granite chin while he responds with short uppercuts and hooks — with which he has floored many top fighters over the years. Howard’s active leg kicking game zaps his opponent’s power. He can often be a little stiff and plodding, which causes him to struggle against strikers who have elusive footwork and who are not willing to stand in the phonebooth and bang it out with him.
Despite being a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, Howard isn’t a big threat in the submission game — though he can win grappling exchanges courtesy of his underrated wrestling. He usually gets his takedowns by either catching his opponent’s kicks or from trips inside the clinch. Doomsday is vulnerable to being taken down himself, however, as he tends to leave himself open in overcommitting on his hooks — though his scrambling ability makes him tough to keep on the ground.
The former CES champion must be considering retirement soon, and cashing a million-dollar check would certainly be a nice way to cap off his career.
8. Chris Curtis
Chris Curtis has a cult following of hardcore fans who have been calling for the UFC to sign him for years. It was a bit of a surprise that they didn’t want him, considering he holds an impressive 20-5 record and is riding a seven-fight winning streak – a mark that would be 11 were it not for the robbery that he suffered at the hands of the judges of his fight against Nah-Shon Burrell. It appeared that the “Action Man” had secured his spot in the UFC after knocking out Sean Lally with a hook kick on “Dana White's Tuesday Night Contender Series,” but for some reason Curtis still couldn’t gain employment in the premier MMA organization. The UFC’s loss became the PFL’s gain.
Curtis, who held the CES MMA, ZP and PMMAC titles simultaneously, is a southpaw who works best on his feet. The Team Quest product stays compact when throwing his punches, which helps him generate decent power. He does his best fighting in the pocket, where his uppercut might be his greatest punch, and he batters his opponent’s body.
The Temecula, California fighter has solid leg kicks, but he doesn’t throw them enough. Being inactive tends to be an issue for Curtis. While he does well when throwing combinations, he often makes the error of throwing one punch at a time.
Curtis is plagued by the same flaw as Franca – backing up to the fence under pressure. Rather than attempt to slip his foe’s punches, cut angles, and get out of the pocket, he covers up and tries to use his arms to deflect the punches. While this leaves him open to being tagged with shots, the Action Man does well to reduce his opponent’s power by rolling with the punches.
Though he trains with some great wrestlers, Curtis’s defensive wrestling is a bit of a liability. He is much better with his offensive wrestling, but he is still an average takedown artist at best. If he does get a takedown, the Action Man has a strong top game. He methodically works to secure the position before moving to strikes or submissions. This helps him maximize the time his opponent stays on the bottom and helps him secure rounds.
Curtis will have a notable cardio advantage over most opponents in the field, as he has shown in the past that he has the ability to fight for 25 minutes. The Action Man contemplated retirement after not getting signed by the UFC, but if he is able to win a million-dollar purse then not being signed by the top MMA organization will turn out to have been a blessing in disguise.
David Michaud has been competing in professional MMA for close to 13 years. The seasoned veteran has fought in many of the top organizations including the UFC, Bellator, Combate Americas, LFA and Titan FC. “Bulldawg” enters the season having picked up a victory in his last four contests.
The South Dakota State University alumnus fights at a frenetic pace. He loves to constantly move forward and cause his opponents to wilt under his pressure. The Next Edge Academy of Martial Arts representative is willing to walk through punches to land his own — which could prove to be a terrible strategy against some of the power strikers in the division. He loves to slide into the pocket, where he dispenses hard hooks and elbows.
The former Division 1 wrestler has strong takedowns both from the outside and in the clinch. Once on top, he uses superb top control before looking to punish his opponent with strikes. He doesn’t fight well from off of his back, though. The South Dakota native tends to look for fight-ending submissions – which he usually doesn’t find – instead of scrambling back to his feet. He does well at landing strikes in transitions and scrambles.
Having formerly competed at lightweight, Michaud will enter the competition as one of the smallest athletes in the field. This could become a major issue seeing as he has been paired with the largest fighter in the field, Sadibou Sy, in his opening matchup.
The 30-year-old appears to have an endless gas tank which could be a major advantage if he is able to reach the finals and battle in a 25-minute bout.
Bojan Veličković’s 16-8-2 record doesn’t tell the real story of how talented this Serbian fighter is. He doesn’t have the most impressive record, but that is due in part to the fact that he has fought against many high-level mixed martial artists including Darren Till, Jake Mathews and Magomed Magomedkerimov. He reached the semifinals last year before his million-dollar dreams were crushed by the eventual Russian champion.
The former RFA champion is a very large welterweight who formerly fought as a middleweight. He uses his length well on his feet, where he works behind an active jab and crisp straight right hand. The southpaw fighter does well at counterstriking with a slip-and-rip approach but backs straight up towards the fence if his opponent attacks him with combinations.
The Elevation Fight Team member is a strong offensive wrestler with great timing on his entries. The UFC veteran is great at winning scrambles. Once on top, he has good control, strong ground and pound and a slick submission game. The lack of urgency sometimes exhibited by “Serbian Steel” when he is defending a takedown has resulted in him being dragged to the canvas on various occasions, but the 30-year-old does well at using submission attempts to create the space to work back up to his feet. Veličković enters the competition as an underdog but don’t be surprised if he pulls off some big upsets.
5. Sadibou Sy
Sadibou Sy was a bit of a surprise addition to the welterweight field. He has never fought in the weight class before and he only went 1-2-1 during last season’s competition. Despite his lack of overall success, the Swedish fighter was able to reach the playoffs, get past Bruno Santos in the quarterfinals and reach the semifinals.
Sy will be an enormous welterweight. He stands 6’3’’ and has a gigantic 80’’ reach. The decorated kickboxer uses his length well by standing on the outside and picking apart his opponent with long strikes. His elusive footwork and slick head movement make him hard to hit. The 32-year-old loves to switch stances and fire off deadly kicks. His teep kick keeps his foes at bay while his high kicks are extremely dangerous — as Caia Magalhaes learned first-hand in Season One. The Swedish fighter loves spinning attacks — though he was the victim of a spinning backfist knockout earlier in his career. He tends to counterstrike, however, and he can sometimes be too cautious for fear of leaving an opening for his opponent to take him down.
Not being taken down is the ultimate goal for the former middleweight. He excels at stopping takedowns from the clinch due to the difficulty of getting him off his long legs. However, if a fighter can shoot on his hips, he has a much harder time stopping the takedown. Once the fight hits the mat, it usually signals Sy’s downfall. While he is difficult to submit, Sy often finds himself stuck on the ground for the remainder of the round.
Sy’s massive height makes him a threat in the division, but unless he’s managed to fill in some of the many holes in his ground game he will have a lot of difficulty with the strong wrestlers in the field.
Handesson Ferreira started the first season as an alternate in the welterweight field but found himself thrown into the competition as the season went on. The Brazilian took out UFC veterans Paul Bradley and Rick Story, dispatching the former in just 20 seconds. Ferreira advanced to the semifinals but fell to the hands of Ray Copper III, whom he had defeated just one year earlier.
“Boy Doido” trains under Patrício Ferreira and his brother Patricky Ferreira. He brings a type of ferocity that no other welterweight does. From his intense staredowns to his relentless fighting style, Ferreira loves the violence.
The 30-year-old is a wild man on his feet, winging volleys of punches with bad intentions behind every blow. He loves to switch back and forth between southpaw and orthodox stances, firing off bone-crushing kicks to the body and the head. He packs power in both legs when he kicks, though sometimes he doesn’t set them up and leaves himself open to counters.
The Brazilian is very good at closing the distance in a hurry and exploding on his foe with a flurry of very fast punches. If he connects on one of his haymakers, he has the power to turn the lights out on any opponent. He loves switch kicks and flying knee attacks, as well.
In the grappling game, Ferreira has really quick entries on his takedowns but has been taken down himself due to overcommitting on his attacks. Fortunately, Ferreira has a very strong submission game. He has notched multiple submissions from off of his back in addition to the number of victories that he has secured courtesy of his vicious ground and pound.
Ferreira might surprise people with how well he does. With his killer instinct, he can take out anybody in this field. When he senses weakness, he is like a shark that sees blood. However, because he throws everything with knockout power, he tends to fade the deeper the fight goes, which leaves him at a disadvantage if he can’t get the early finish.
Gamzat Khiramagomedov is best-known for joining his brother Gadzhimurad in attacking Russian MMA Union Vice-President Radmir Gabdullin after his brother lost a split decision at Fight Night Global in 2017. Gabdullin suffered a broken jaw and a concussion and Gadzhimurad was rumored to be facing a lifetime ban. Despite the controversy, Khiramagomedov is one of the dark horses in the welterweight field.
The undefeated Russian won the 2015 and 2016 WMMMA middleweight championship. Though he is just 25-years-old, he has a ton of experience with a lengthy amateur career. He has competed in top Russian organizations like Fight Night Global and ACB.
The combat sambo practitioner is one of the best wrestlers in the entire PFL. He excels at chaining together takedowns and winning the position in scrambles. Once on top, fighters struggle to get the Dagestani off of them, usually eating a plethora of punches and elbows as they look for a way out. In the clinch, he is usually able to throw his competition to the canvas after battering them with powerful knees.
On the feet, he leaves a lot to be desired. He is a low output fighter who tries to lull his opponents into a slow pace before eventually exploding on them with a flurry of fast punches. He does possess strong kicks, though, with which he goes to the legs and body effectively.
Khiramagomedov doesn’t fight well when being pressured. He has the flaw of backing straight up with his chin in the air and his hands low. While backing up, he throws wild, looping punches with poor technique.
The fighter from Moscow is dropping down to welterweight for the first time; this might zap his cardio, which has yet to be tested. He is likely a surprise pick being this high in the rankings, as he tends to “just” be a wrestling specialist, but his wrestling is that good.
Ray Cooper III entered the first season of the PFL tournament as a relatively Unknown Fighter and a massive underdog to former Strikeforce champion Jake Shields. Cooper defied the odds and battered Shields around the cage on the way to a second-round TKO victory. The second-generation MMA fighter followed that up with three more knockouts including another thrashing of Shields to reach the finals of the season. Unfortunately for the Hawaiian fighter, he fell short to Magomed Magomedkerimov, but he returns as one of the favorites in the sophomore season.
The short and stocky welterweight fights like a bat out of hell. He charges forward towards his opponent, firing off bombs designed to separate them from consciousness. The knockout artist has elite power in his dynamic lead left hook, overhand right, uppercuts, and body punches.
“Bradda Boy” is a former four-time Hawaiian state champion wrestler, and he uses his considerable wrestling skills to lift his adversary in the air and slam them down with tremendous force. If he gets his opponent down, he unleashes his wrath with furious ground and pound from which very few people can escape.
While Cooper is a strong offensive grappler, he still has some flaws on the defensive side of the equation. Due to his overconfidence in his takedown defense, he has been brought to the canvas by lesser opponents in the past. Additionally, if he is taken down he makes the mistake of exposing his back while attempting to work back to his feet. In his six career losses, three have come by way of submission.
Being that the Season One runner-up has just turned 26 years old, he might just now be scratching the surface of his potential. He is one of the favorites to win the season for a reason.
The welterweight champion of Season One, Magomed Magomedkerimov heads into the new season as my top ranked fighter – not because he has already won the competition once before, but because he is simply the best fighter in the field. The 29-year-old Russian is currently on an eight-fight winning streak and he doesn’t look to be slowing down any time soon.
Magomedkerimov is a well-rounded fighter with no obvious weaknesses. He is a crisp boxer who works behind a stiff jab and a powerful right hand. The Russian sits down on his punches, drawing a lot of power, but he isn’t known for having one-punch knockout power. He stays composed when being pressured and can land shots while backing up. He uses good footwork to cut angles and give his opponent different looks. His biggest issue is at times he tends to fight at a slow work rate.
If the Russian gets into a grappling exchange, he usually secures the upper hand. He embraces the grind; he loves to battle in the clinch, where he batters his foe’s body with knees or uses trips and judo throws to get the fight to the ground. He also has nice timing on his double leg entries. Once on top, the Russian shines. He uses great top pressure to keep his opponent on the canvas, a position from which he has secured seven submission victories, included among which is his win in the PFL championship.
On the heels of his 2018 championship, Magomedkerimov comes in this year with a big target on his back. Though his athleticism isn’t as eye-popping as someone like Cooper’s, Magomedkerimov makes up for it with his superior technique. His remarkable skills are the reason why I expect Magomedkerimov to once again win the million-dollar prize.