The second half of the Professional Fighters League season kicks off Thursday, and a handful of competitors are looking at must-win scenarios. Some are jockeying for prime playoff position.
The PFL's welterweight and women's lightweight divisions will be in action in Atlantic City, New Jersey, at PFL 4 (5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN+). That means the return of two-time Olympic judo gold medalist Kayla Harrison and PFL 2018 welterweight champion Magomed Magomedkerimov.
The top eight welterweights make the playoffs, while only the top four women's lightweights survive and move on to the postseason. This card is hugely important for all the fighters involved.
Here's a look at the five things to watch going into the event:
Are Kayla Harrison and Sarah Kaufman on an inevitable collision course?
It sure seems that way, but here's the thing about MMA: There's really no such thing as a foregone conclusion. Harrison has to deal with Morgan Frier on Thursday. Kaufman earned three points and advanced after Roberta Samad missed weight. But let's not forget that Kaufman is a career 135-pounder, fighting 20 pounds heavier than usual.
Only the top four women's lightweight fighters make the playoffs in October, so this PFL 4 card is incredibly crucial. Kaufman is leading the pack with nine points, courtesy of her first-round finish of Frier in May and her most recent bout being cancelled, while Harrison, Samad and Bobbi Jo Dalziel are all knotted at three points. While most expect Harrison and Kaufman to meet in the $1 million final, Harrison has to make the playoffs first -- and it's not inconceivable that they clash in the semifinals. Harrison would really benefit from a finish Thursday after going to a decision in her first fight of the season against Larissa Pacheco.
Is anyone going to push Magomed Magomedkerimov, or is he destined to repeat?
Magomedkerimov was PFL's $1 million welterweight champion last season, and he's the favorite once again in 2019. He's one of the most underrated fighters in the world; if Magomedkerimov was in the UFC, he likely would be a ranked 170-pounder, or close to it. The Russian all-around fighter is well on his way with six points going into his second fight -- against Chris Curtis -- which will be the headliner of PFL 4.
Curtis is no joke, though, and might be one of Magomedkerimov's toughest tests of this season. Curtis has won eight straight, including a third-round TKO finish last year on Dana White's Contender Series. The California native finished veteran Andre Fialho in May and is sitting in fifth place in the welterweight division with four points. Getting a high seed will be key for Magomedkerimov if he wants to avoid the tough welterweights at the top of the division; otherwise, he could see one of them early on in the playoffs, like his PFL 2018 final opponent Ray Cooper III, for instance.
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- ESPN MMA (@espnmma) May 10, 2019
How does Sadibou Sy top a 17-second knockout?
That seems almost impossible. But he doesn't really have to. Sy is a serious contender in the welterweight division after competing in PFL's middleweight division (now on hiatus) in 2018. If his body-kick knockout of David Michaud was any indication, he isn't giving up much in terms of speed or power at 170 pounds. "The Swedish Denzel Washington" is perhaps one of the most dangerous threats to Magomedkerimov's goal of defending his throne.
On Thursday, Sy faces UFC veteran Glaico Franca, who is also coming off a first-round finish and six points after his first fight in May. Franca will present a real challenge for Sy with his experience (25 pro fights to Sy's 13) and grappling ability. Franca has been in the cage with the likes of UFC contenders Gregor Gillespie and James Vick. We'll know a lot more about the flashy Sy and his championship prospects after Thursday evening -- that much is certain.
What fight sticks out as the must-see contest of the night on paper?
The fight you absolutely have to circle on your fight card is John Howard vs. Ray Cooper III, which could really produce fireworks. Howard, a longtime UFC veteran, has sharp striking, knockout power and a willingness to stand and trade. Cooper got to the PFL 2018 welterweight final on the back of his incredible power. Just ask Jake Shields about that.
Not only could this one produce some excitement, but it's hugely important for the standings and playoff seeding in the division. Cooper is in fourth place with five points, coming off a second-round finish of Zane Kamaka. Howard had the unenviable draw of getting defending champ Magomedkerimov in his first fight and he lost via first-round submission. Howard is in a must-win situation with regards to a playoff berth, as he's sitting on zero points. He could really use a finish, but Cooper brings the heat. This will be fun.
Which fighter who lost his or her first fight has the best chance to bounce back?
Pacheco showed guts, durability and more than a little skill on the ground in May when she survived three rounds with two-time Olympic judo champion Harrison. None of those things was enough to get her points -- she lost a unanimous decision. But out of all the women's lightweights who came up empty early in the season, Pacheco has the most growth potential. She has UFC experience and is still evolving at age 24.
PFL is not making it easy on her in this second fight, as she faces Dalziel, who beat Genah Fabian by decision in her first fight. Dalziel is a kickboxer, while Pacheco is probably at her best on the ground. This will be a fascinating clash of styles -- and a fight with major implications in terms of playoff seeding. Pacheco needs at least a win to get in, or she'll be sitting at home in Brazil come October. Remember, Pacheco has finished the likes of Irene Aldana and been in the cage with Germaine de Randamie and UFC champion Jessica Andrade. There won't be anything presented in this fight that she has not seen before.