What we learned at PFL 4

The first two Professional Fighters League playoff brackets are set, with 12 fighters in the welterweight and women’s lightweight divisions still in the running for $1 million paydays.

Glaico Franca is the top seed at welterweight, while defending champion Magomed Magomedkerimov is No. 2. At women’s lightweight, top seed Sarah Kaufman is on the opposite side of the bracket from No. 2 Kayla Harrison, as the PFL hoped.

After a crazy Thursday night in Atlantic City, New Jersey, filled with knockouts and submissions throughout, ESPN MMA panelists Marc Raimondi and Myron Medcalf break down the biggest stories coming out of PFL 4.

Who had the most impressive night at PFL 4?

Marc Raimondi: Don’t look now, but the biggest contender to Magomed Magomedkerimov’s PFL welterweight throne is Glaico Franca. The Brazilian fighter stopped Sadibou Sy by third-round TKO on Thursday night for his second straight finish of the season — good enough to earn him a No. 1 seed in the playoffs. Two judges had Sy winning the first two rounds and Franca needed a finish to win, and he got the job done. That’s the kind of opportunism one needs in this PFL format. Franca has won eight in a row since being released by the UFC after losses to top lightweights James Vick and Gregor Gillespie. In that span, he has finished all but one of those fights. Franca is the real deal, and he’ll get Andre Fialho in the first round of the playoffs.

Myron Medcalf: I’ll go with Larissa Pacheco. After she went three solid rounds with Kayla Harrison at PFL 1, the postfight buzz centered on the Olympic judo champion and dismissed Pacheco’s talent. But she’s only 24 years old. She has fought in the UFC. And she’s a legit jiu jitsu practitioner. She was just a footnote after PFL 1. But her first-round arm-bar victory over Bobbi Jo Dalziel, who was undefeated in her MMA career entering Thursday’s fight, proved that Pacheco is a sleeper in the women’s division. Before we start talking about Sarah Kaufman vs. Harrison for the $1 million, we shouldn’t overlook the young Pacheco’s promise. She was dominant against a strong fighter.

How important was it for the PFL’s playoff format to pay off at PFL 4?

Medcalf: The PFL created a set of rules to separate itself from some of the other MMA organizations. Had Thursday’s fights, all of which had playoff implications, failed to deliver big action and early stoppages (for the highest possible award in the standings), then the rules would have seemed inconsequential. Instead, there were six stoppages and five first-round finishes.

John Howard, David Michaud, Genah Fabian and Larissa Pacheco all entered Thursday’s card with zero points in the standings. They all left with spots in the playoffs. That was the goal for the PFL. The league wanted to create this frenzied push for the playoffs and seeds. On Thursday, you couldn’t play it safe. The stakes, encouraged by the rules, were enough to make PFL 4 one of the best MMA cards of the year.

Raimondi: The thing about what the PFL is trying to do — a purely merit-based, true-sport format — is that it can absolutely blow up in the faces of the promoters. For example: If Kayla Harrison got finished Thursday night, she would have missed out on the playoffs. Her season would have been over. All of those marketing dollars spent to promote her would have been for naught. But that didn’t happy, luckily enough for PFL. Harrison smashed Morgan Frier in the first round via submission and is in the playoffs, on the opposite side of the bracket from Sarah Kaufman — exactly where the PFL wanted her to be. Sometimes things don’t work out in the regular season and the playoffs. This time it did for PFL. Of course, either Harrison or Kaufman could lose in the semifinals, so as far as the women’s lightweight division goes, the PFL is not out of the woods yet.

Kayla Harrison finished Morgan Frier with a keylock to clinch the No. 2 seed in the playoffs. Ryan Loco/PFL

If chalk holds in the women’s lightweight division, whom do you have in a future Kayla Harrison vs. Sarah Kaufman fight?

Raimondi: That’s a really tough question. Harrison will be the much bigger fighter. She’s a natural lightweight, while Kaufman has spent the vast majority of her career competing at bantamweight, which is a 20-pound difference. Kaufman will have the advantage in experience by a mile, though, and is the better striker. Kaufman isn’t too shabby on the ground, either, but Harrison is a two-time Olympic judo champion who was known in that sport for her ground game.

It’s early for this selection, but I’d have to go Kaufman at this juncture. Harrison had some struggles in her first fight this season with Pacheco, and Kaufman is on another level from Pacheco. Kaufman is a former Strikeforce and Invicta FC champion, and if Kaufman were in the UFC right now, she’d be a top-10 — if not top-5 — bantamweight.

Medcalf: Kaufman definitely has the advantage of experience, and if she takes Harrison’s back the way Pecheco did at PFL 1, she’ll get the submission. But I still believe Harrison is the strongest, most athletic fighter in the division, and it’s not close. She has a gear only she can hit.

I actually think Harrison is more vulnerable against Muay Thai world champion Genah Fabian than she is against another grappler like Kaufman. Fabian could knock her out. But Harrison’s skills and power will overwhelm Kaufman, who was fighting at 135 pounds with Invicta a year ago. Harrison won two Olympic gold medals at 170 pounds. That size difference will be a factor in a Kaufman-Harrison fight, too.

Did Magomed Magomedkerimov show he was human by fading a bit in the third round and briefly getting caught?

Medcalf: Yes. Most guys wilt after they take the kind of punishment Chris Curtis endured. But Curtis was excellent in defending against Magomedkerimov’s submission attempts. Any fighter would get tired after working an entire round for a rear-naked choke and failing. That was a new experience for Magomedkerimov. That guillotine Curtis slipped on late in the third round was tight, but Magomedkerimov escaped. It was an odd sight.

The concern shouldn’t be the guillotine, however, but Magomedkerimov’s failure to finish a one-dimensional fighter, whom he’ll see again in the quarterfinals. Now, Curtis knows he can take anything Magomedkerimov brings. He’ll have more confidence and should be more aggressive.

Raimondi: If Magomedkerimov vs. Chris Curtis was a five-round fight, it might have had a totally different outcome. Curtis was the fresher man in the third round, no doubt about that. It’s going to be very, very interesting when those two men meet again in the quarterfinals, which will be a two-round fight. Will Curtis have learned something? Or will Magomedkerimov have a strong start again, like he did Thursday night?

While Magomedkerimov showed some vulnerability for the first time in PFL — he’s a perfect 7-0 in the promotion — he never seemed to be in any real danger of losing. The Russian all-arounder is one of the biggest success stories of the early days of the PFL. He was the 2018 welterweight winner and he’s the favorite again this year. Magomedkerimov, in all, has won 10 straight. There was some trepidation Thursday, but nothing to make you think he’s in any kind of danger come the postseason.

Biggest surprise of the night at PFL 4?

Raimondi: How about the veteran John Howard? “Doomsday” is still ticking and he absolutely crushed heavy favorite Ray Cooper III in the first round with huge blows. Howard is a 15-year MMA veteran who has had two separate runs in the UFC. He’s not as consistent as he once was as a younger fighter, but the 36-year-old Boston native is still clearly capable of the spectacular. Howard was as much as a +400 underdog. Howard is only 3-2-1 in PFL, but he earned a playoff berth with his stoppage of Cooper. In the quarterfinals, he’ll get a winnable matchup in the quarterfinals against fellow UFC veteran David Michaud. Maybe 2019 can be the year of “Doomsday.”

Medcalf: It has to be John Howard’s SportsCenter-worthy knockout of Ray Cooper III. Here’s the thing: Cooper was fighting only for a higher seed. Howard, a veteran in the sport, needed something spectacular — and he pulled it off. The underdog landed a pair of devastating left hooks that ultimately ended Cooper’s night. And now Cooper has to go through Sadibou Sy in the quarterfinals to continue his march toward the title that eluded him last year. When Cooper comes forward the way he did against Howard, he usually ends his opponent’s night with a KO. On Thursday, Howard fired back and changed the look of the PFL’s welterweight playoffs.

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