Entering Thursday night's slate of fights at PFL 5, all eyes were on the defending champions at featherweight and lightweight -- and both men proved worthy of the test, clinching the No. 1 seeds in their respective divisions heading into the Professional Fighters League playoffs.
Defending lightweight champ Natan Schulte coasted to a clear unanimous decision over Jesse Ronson, despite a last-minute switch in opponents due to two fighters in the division missing weight. Later in the night, reigning featherweight champ Lance Palmer earned the first TKO victory of his career over Luis Rafael Laurentino.
Other early front-runners weren't able to take advantage of big results in their first fights, including Movlid Khaybulaev, who settled for a majority draw against Andre Harrison. Akhmed Aliev closed out the night with one of the most entertaining contests on the PFL 5 card, but he ultimately dropped a close decision loss to Chris Wade.
The brackets for each division are set, and the path to $1 million is clear -- three wins in two nights will get it done.
This file was updated in real time.
Chris Wade (6 points) def. Akhmed Aliev (6 points) via unanimous decision (lightweight)
PFL 5 ended with one of the most exciting fights of the night. Both Wade and Aliev put together some great exchanges throughout the bout, and by pulling out the unanimous-decision victory, Wade locked in his playoff spot. He also pushed his journey to avenge last year's playoff loss to Natan Schulte -- a split-decision loss that has haunted Wade -- one step further.
Wade hurt Aliev in the first round with a series of body kicks, which dictated the pace early in the fight and put big points in play. But Aliev is a warrior. He didn't land as many strikes as Wade did, but he certainly held his own by landing a variety of powerful shots that hurt Wade. At the start of the third round, Wade held a 44-14 advantage in total strikes, but Aliev still landed some hard punches; he even knocked out Wade's mouthpiece late in the fight.
Although Wade had never been finished in his career, Aliev seemed determined to end that streak. Even though he absorbed some big shots, including a late series of roundhouse kicks, Wade was too durable. If these two meet again in the playoffs, which would have to happen in the finals, it's likely to be an even better fight the second time around.
Lance Palmer (7 points) def. Luis Rafael Laurentino (6 points) via third-round TKO (referee stoppage, punches) (featherweight)
The defending featherweight champ is back to defend his crown. Palmer's lopsided win over Laurentino helped him earn four points and enter October's playoffs as the top seed in the field -- pushing his overall record in the PFL to 7-0. It's unclear what Laurentino, who shocked everyone with his 23-second finish of Jeremy Kennedy at PFL 2, was trying to do. He seemed content to taunt Palmer and to pursue a weird shin choke from the ground and abandoned any other skills or strategy.
Palmer simply went to work. He took Laurentino down and beat him up for three rounds. He threw hard kicks. He bloodied his face on the ground. No matter where the fight went, Palmer did damage -- and that's why he's the champion of the division. With 2:14 remaining in the second round, Palmer had a 39-7 edge in ground strikes. He also did a great job escaping Laurentino's gogoplata and heel hook attempts. This was a dominant performance against a good fighter, and Palmer finished with a flourish by earning the first TKO victory of his career in the third round.
Andrews had to beat one of the best fighters in the PFL to earn a spot in the playoffs. It was a controversial decision in a close fight, but Andrews got the job done with a unanimous victory.
Some fans booed after the fight, but Andrews was unfazed.
"Hey, you can boo me, but you're still making noise for me," Andrews said after the contentious bout.
Magomedov is a complete fighter who was last year's runner-up in the lightweight tournament. He's also one of the most accomplished fighters in the PFL, having registered a 5-1 record in the UFC before leaving the promotion. Andrews doesn't have that kind of resume, but he was ready against a talented opponent.
Andrews won the first round with constant pressure and consistent combinations; he never threw just one punch or kick. Jab to head kick. Spinning back fist to straight right hand. Body kick to left hook. His energy and pace seemed to surprise Magomedov, but in the second round and beyond, Magomedov went for takedowns and controlled Andrews on the ground. That takedown in the second half seemingly came too late, however, at least in the eyes of the judges.
One of the PFL's key rule differences from other MMA organizations is that you can't throw elbows. When Magomedov had Andrews on the ground, he couldn't quite capitalize because the rules in place to protect fighters with a shorter window between fights limit your options in that position. A fighter in half-guard or full guard knows he can just control his opponent's wrists and minimize the punishment he takes. Andrews didn't have any pop on his strikes in the final minute of the fight after Magomedov controlled him with his grappling. By then, however, he'd done enough to advance to the playoffs with the biggest win of the night thus far.
The stakes were high at PFL 5. Gilpin knew it. Facing Assuncao, a 37-year-old who hasn't competed in three years due to injuries, Gilpin attacked and made sure he controlled the fight from the beginning.
Once he got the takedown in the first round, Gilpin went to work and pressured Assuncao, who was on a nine-fight winning streak entering the fight despite the layoff. Assuncao also has two brothers with UFC experience; they even own a gym together. He's a veteran and he's smart, but that wasn't enough on Thursday night.
Gilpin, 27, used his experience and wits when he locked up a standing guillotine as Assuncao tried to fight back to his feet after the early takedown. It was a beautiful transition, and once Gilpin locked it up, it was tight and it was clear he wasn't going to let Assuncao out. As Assuncao lost consciousness at 2:08 into the first round, the referee stepped in and ended the fight.
Now Gilpin, who lost to featherweight champion Lance Palmer via decision in his first PFL fight, advances into the playoffs, thanks to a strong performance against a veteran.
After an eventful round of prelims on ESPN+, the main card on ESPN2 kicked off with a grueling bout between Kennedy and Siler. Siler had the edge in strikes, thanks in part to an early stretch in which he peppered Kennedy with shots early in the fight. By late in the second round, he had a 34-4 advantage in total strikes. He was finding his spots but Kennedy, who had a 3-1 record in the UFC, won this fight with his grappling.
Kennedy's takedowns throughout the fight were enough to help him win with scores of 30-27, 29-28 and 29-28. He worked hard to secure them, and that clearly impressed the judges. Siler was a finalist in the PFL's first season, losing to Lance Palmer in the featherweight title bout last year.
Now Kennedy, who was on the wrong end of a violent KO in his first PFL fight, has three points and a spot in the playoffs after a performance that was difficult to score. The PFL is full of excellent grapplers, so you tend to get a few slower fights, like this one, but that style can earn you $1 million. Kennedy knew it wasn't pretty, but he saw his chance to advance to the playoffs and took it, and that's what matters.
Natan Schulte (9 points) def. Jesse Ronson (0 points) via unanimous decision (lightweight)
Schulte, the PFL's defending lightweight champion, put together a clinical effort against Ronson, a late addition to the PFL field. Neither fighter was up against an opponent they were prepared for, as Ronson got matched up against Schulte after Ramsey Nijem, Schulte's original opponent, and Carlao Silva, Ronson's scheduled foe, missed weight.
After Schulte got caught in the first round with a body kick that hurt him. Ronson poured it on until Schulte hip-tossed him and put Ronson on the mat, regaining control. He wouldn't give Ronson another opening for the rest of the fight.
Schulte's hip tosses continued throughout the bout, as Ronson failed to find the same momentum in the second and third rounds he'd accrued with that early attack. Still, one has to wonder about the reaction if Schulte had lost, given the late opponent change.
"They changed my opponent in the last minute, and I really didn't have time to prepare for that," Schulte said after the fight.
He would have received a lower seed in the playoffs, and in the PFL's quarterfinals, you have to win two fights in one night to advance. That could have changed things for Schulte, a guy who is intent on winning $1 million again and defending his belt.
Andre Harrison (4 points) fights Movlid Khaybulaev (7 points) to a majority draw (featherweight)
This might be one of the most exciting draws in MMA history, and a wild fight, to say the least. Khaybulaev, who is still undefeated, nearly pulled off another SportsCenter-worthy flying knee to win the fight in the closing moments of the first round. At PFL 2, he broke the promotion's record with a 10-second finish of Damon Jackson, who caught a vicious flying knee in a clip that went viral that night.
Against Harrison, a former All-American wrestler with just one defeat on his resume, Khaybulaev showed the diversity within his game via head kicks, strikes, grappling and fluid movement. Then, with just seconds to go in the first round, he hit Harrison with another of his patented, devastating flying knees -- and the only thing that saved Harrison was the bell.
"I thought it was the end of the round because I heard the blocks," Harrison said about the late flurry. "So I figured 10 seconds left, and it was happening toward the end."
Khaybulaev initally thought he'd won the fight and climbed the fence to celebrate. But he was wrong. In the second round, Harrison recovered and hit Khaybulaev with a hard right hand. Khaybulaev stumbled, and when he emerged from the ensuing scramble, had a bloody eye to show for it. Harrison clearly won that round, and then they danced a bit in the third round -- but Harrison once again pulled out enough of an edge.
Two judges scored the fight 28-28, with Khaybulaev winning the first round 10-8 and losing the next two rounds, and the third judge gave Harrison the 29-28 edge. Those scores collectively led to a majority draw, handing both fighters one point each for their efforts. As both won their first bout, they're both in the featherweight playoffs -- and we'd love to see a rematch, should the brackets line up right.
This fight and its result raises a simple question: Why aren't we talking about Mamedov as the guy who could shake up the entire PFL lightweight tournament?
His dominant win over Yincang, who lost after he was trapped in the crucifix position while taking dozens of left hands, extended a 10-fight winning streak. Mamedov hasn't lost since 2009. He's also the last fighter to beat Natan Schulte, the 2018 PFL lightweight champion. Mamedov missed last year's playoffs only due to injury. He's methodical and strong.
Yincang is young and he didn't come into the fight with a shiny résumé, but Mamedov simply took care of business and just ran through him. He's a decorated fighter and a true threat to win the $1 million prize, now that's he's in the playoffs.
This fight was a great example of why the PFL's points system is unique. You can have a guy in Petties, who calls his style "Wu Tang Shaolin," lose two lopsided rounds to Almeida, only to land a right hand in the third, steal the momentum in the fight and chase a last-minute shot at the playoffs.
But Petties didn't ultimately pull out the win. Almeida, a semifinalist in last year's PFL featherweight tournament, is the superior and more experienced fighter, and he proved that Thursday night. The jiu-jitsu expert locked up a triangle choke and an arm bar in the first round, and was seemingly on the way to an early finish. Then he had Petties trapped via arm triangle in the second round, and Petties made it through again.
After surviving the first two rounds by the narrowest of margins, Petties landed a hard right hook that put Almeida down and hurt him. Petties also landed a flying knee that was partially deflected, but he couldn't do enough to follow up and secure the finish, but it made for an exciting third after one-sided scoring in the first two rounds.
With three points, Almeida preserves his shot at the playoffs, and if he gets in, his grappling could be a problem for any other fighter in the featherweight division.
Both Radzhabov and Djiroun entered Thursday's lightweight eliminator bout scoreless and desperate to secure a spot in the playoffs. There was solid action throughout the bout, as Radzhabov seemed to control the fight with his power and grappling -- but a bloodied Djiroun stayed active throughout. A finish would have guaranteed a playoff spot for the winner, and while Radzhabov dropped Djiroun with a strong right hand midway through the fight, he couldn't secure the early stoppage.
Simply put, it was a good matchup without much to separate either fighter. Both guys understood the stakes and aimed to end the fight rather than allow it to go to the scorecards, but those early pushes meant they were gassed after two rounds. After winning by split decision (30-27, 29-28, 28-29 on the judges' cards), Radzhabov must wait to see how the night develops to know his future in this season's PFL playoffs.
First-round matchups -- PFL featherweight playoffs
No. 1 Lance Palmer (7 points) vs. No. 8 Gadzhi Rabadanov (3 points)
No. 2 Movlid Khaibulaev (7 points) vs. No. 7 Daniel Pineda (3 points)
No. 3 Luis Rafael Laurentino (6 points) vs. No. 6 Jeremy Kennedy (3 points)
No. 4 Alex Gilpin (6 points) vs. No. 5 Andre Harrison (4 points)
First-round matchups -- PFL lightweight playoffs
No. 1 Natan Schulte (9 points) vs. No. 8 Ramsey Nijem (3 points)
No. 2 Islam Mamedov (9 points) vs. No. 7 Loik Radzhabov (3 points)
No. 3 Chris Wade (6 points) vs. No. 6 Nate Andrews (3 points)
No. 4 Akhmed Aliev (6 points) vs. No. 5 Rashid Magomedov (3 points)