The Professional Fighters League makes its season debut on Wednesday night (6 ET on ESPN+) with some new faces and returning standouts. Lightweight Clay Collard will welcome Jeremy Stephens to the promotion in the main event.
Eight lightweight fighters and 10 light heavyweights will be in action this week, highlighted by defending lightweight champion Raush Manfio facing top prospect Don Madge, and light heavyweight champion Antonio Carlos Jr. starting his season off against Delan Monte.
ESPN betting analyst Ian Parker breaks down some of the most intriguing fights and offers his predictions.
Lightweight: Clay Collard vs. Jeremy Stephens
Collard vs. Stephens is must-watch. Stephens is well known as a fighter who always welcomes the action and has no problem taking a hard shot to give one back. This could very well be the last opportunity Stephens gets in a major organization and with a million dollars at stake.
I expect Stephens to come out swinging early, but the PFL did him no favors stylistically in this matchup. Instead of giving Stephens someone who will brawl him, he gets Collard, who is a well-rounded mixed martial artist with very technical striking. Look for Collard to have a heavy strike output and pick Stephens apart throughout three rounds. As long as he stays away from the overhand right of Stephens, this should be a clear win for Collard.
Lightweight: Raush Manfio vs. Don Madge
Last season, we saw Manfio get upset wins over Anthony Pettis, Clay Collard and Loik Radzhabov. In all three fights, Manfio let his hands fly and earned a decision victory. But in each of those fights, none of his opponents threatened him with takedowns early, or really at all.
Each one chose to stand with Manfio and allowed him to counter-strike his way to the win. Madge will not take the same approach. Madge will use his striking to get the fight to the floor, where he has the advantage. While Manfio is the defending champ, Madge has more paths to victory and will pull off the upset.
Light heavyweight: Antonio Carlos Jr. vs. Delan Monte
Carlos will face his former training partner and an upcoming prospect in Monte. Monte is a solid fighter and is perfect for the PFL format, as he always looks for the finish. However, he drew the worst possible opponent for his first fight of the regular season. Anywhere that Monte is good, "Shoeface" is much better.
The other factor in this fight is the experience of Carlos. He has fought higher competition across multiple organizations and should avoid the power of Monte early, then take the fight to the floor to get the win.
Lightweight: Natan Schulte vs. Olivier Aubin-Mercier
After missing the playoffs last season, Schulte will take on Aubin-Mercier in what should be a judo chess match. However, the striking of Aubin-Mercier will be the difference.
Aubin-Mercier's stand-up game evolved as last season progressed. He became a more technical fighter and threw out a good amount of volume. If Aubin-Mercier can pressure Schulte and dictate the pace, his striking and physicality will lead to a victory over the former champ.
Lightweight: Emiliano Sordi vs. Cory Hendricks
After falling short of the million-dollar prize last season, Sordi will be looking to bounce back against Hendricks and get back in the win column. Sordi will utilize his striking early against Hendricks, and as long as he can stay off his back and not let his cardio fade in the later rounds, he should be able to dominate.
Light heavyweight: Marthin Hamlet vs. Teodoras Aukstuolis
Hamlet returns to the PFL for another shot at the million-dollar prize in one of the most mismatched fights of the night. Hamlett should be able to charge forward and take Aukstuolis down pretty quickly, dominating on the ground from there. Not many in the PFL can handle the strength and skill set of Hamlet, and I don't see Aukstuolis being the one to solve him.
Light heavyweight: Robert Wilkinson vs. Bruce Souto
Wilkinson will welcome challenger series standout Souto to the PFL in what should be an exciting fight. That said, unless Wilkinson can catch Souto early, I don't see how he wins here. Souto is riding a nine-fight win streak, has excellent Brazilian jiu-jitsu defense, and he is a methodical and explosive striker on the feet.