The defending PFL champions at featherweight and lightweight are the No. 1 seeds heading into the playoffs. Chris Wade ended his losing streak against Russian fighters in an impressive showing to close out PFL 5. The audience was thrilled by a fight that ended in a majority draw.
It was a night of ups, downs, and a couple of tight judges' decisions that provoked a lot of conversations. With two more playoff brackets locked down, let's break down the biggest lessons we learned Thursday night in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Who changed your mind at PFL 5 with their performance (good or bad)?
Marc Raimondi: Without a doubt, Alex Gilpin. He lost to Lance Palmer by unanimous decision at PFL 2 and was durable in that bout. But it was hard to expect what he did Thursday by submitting a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt in Freddy Assuncao with a standing guillotine choke. Perhaps I underestimated Gilpin. The Wisconsin native had six choke submission victories coming in. He is definitely dangerous when he gets hold of an opponent's neck. It'll be interesting to see how he does against a wrestler like Andre Harrison in the lightweight quarterfinals.
Jeff Wagenheim: Alex Gilpin showed little in his first fight of the season, getting grinded into powder by Lance Palmer's relentlessness. But Thursday was a different story, and a relatively short one, as Gilpin led the dance from the opening note and efficiently won by a guillotine finish in the first round. Now, he was in with Freddy Assuncao, who had not fought since 2016 and is not to be confused with his twin brother, Raphael Assuncao. Still, a well-crafted victory is a nice momentum builder.
Myron Medcalf: Islam Mamedov is a serious contender in the lightweight division. Bao Yincang didn't pose much of a threat, but he had the most violent effort of the night, quickly putting Yincang in the crucifix position and landing dozens of left hands. Mamedov hasn't lost in a decade, and he's the last guy to defeat Natan Schulte, the 2018 PFL lightweight champion. He could win this tournament and win via multiple finishes. I was impressed.
What was the fight of the night at PFL 5?
Medcalf: I know a majority draw probably doesn't win many fight of the night bonuses for its participants, but PFL 5's best fight didn't end with a winner. Andre Harrison and Movlid Khaybulaev entered Thursday's fight with only one career loss between them. Harrison is fighting to get another shot at Lance Palmer, who beat him in the PFL last year after Harrison won their first fight in 2017.
Khaybulaev's 10-second flying knee KO of Damon Jackson at PFL 2 went viral, and then, in the closing seconds of the first round Thursday, he landed another flying knee against Harrison. Harrison was wobbly after he was saved by the bell, but then he hurt Khaybulaev in the second round and secured the draw with a win in the third round. It was a crazy fight.
Raimondi: I enjoyed Andre Harrison vs. Movlid Khaybulaev as well. Khaybulaev had Harrison in massive trouble after a jumping knee -- he's pretty good at those -- and a combination right at the end of the first round. Harrison was essentially saved by the bell. Yet the New York native was able to mount a nice comeback and win the next two rounds on the scorecards of two judges for a majority draw. This was not your typical Harrison performance. He was not as conservative and his game plan was not as wrestling-heavy as we've seen previously.
Meanwhile, we now know Khaybulaev is the real deal, hanging every step of the way with one of the best featherweights in PFL. Khaybulaev knocked out Damon Jackson in just 10 seconds last month with a knee and almost added Harrison as another notch on his belt with the same technique. Not bad at all for the dynamic Russian fighter. He'll be a hard out in the playoffs.
Wagenheim: Andre Harrison vs. Movlid Khaybulaev. It ended up as a majority draw, which tells you all you need to know about how well-matched these guys were. And how about the heart of Harrison? He was wobbled and on the verge of being finished at the end of Round 1, and I was seriously questioning whether referee Keith Peterson should have ended it right there before the horn. But then Harrison came out and controlled the rest of the fight. Gotta love those momentum swings.
Which fight did the judges miss with their decision?
Wagenheim: I'm kind of numb to judges' decisions, in part because I watch fights in a different way than judges do. I'm not keeping an accounting of points scored by strikes, takedowns, and other well-established factors. I simply draw a conclusion after each round on who won, based on what I observe. That might or might not jibe with judging criteria.
That said, I thought the judges got a couple wrong Thursday. The Jeremy Kennedy win over Steven Siler was the biggest head scratcher. I thought it was Siler's fight through the first two rounds, with Kennedy's third round being too little, too late. I'm not crying robbery, though -- just maybe a misdemeanor petty theft.
Medcalf: Let's be honest. Nate Andrews didn't beat Rashid Magomedov. Even if he did, I'm not sure how that could have been a unanimous decision. Here's the thing: Andrews won the first round. He was active and his combinations were effective. But I felt like Magomedov's takedown in the second round and his activity on the ground were the most impactful maneuvers of the round. And he definitely won the third. Fine, let's say you saw it differently. You can't tell me three judges saw that the same way. It doesn't make sense. I'm happy for Andrews. He's a great story. But I don't think he earned a unanimous decision over last year's PFL lightweight runner-up.
Raimondi: The judges had Nate Andrews beating Rashid Magomedov in a unanimous decision. I did not agree with that call. Andrews came out aggressive in the first round and looked great for the first few minutes. He definitely won that first frame, but Magomedov had some momentum and seemed to have figured things out by the end. Andrews pressed forward most of the rest of the way, which is likely what the judges saw. But I felt Magomedov was more effective and landed the better shots in the second and third. It wasn't the most egregious decision ever, but I had Magomedov winning.
Which first-round fight are you looking forward to most in the lightweight and featherweight divisions?
Medcalf: Daniel Pineda showed up to fight as a late addition to PFL 5, and then his opponent missed weight. I talked to him. He's upset about that. I like the idea of Pineda facing Khaybulaev because they're both aggressive featherweights who will look for a KO. Khaybulaev's flying knees are must-see TV now, and all of Pineda's wins have been finishes. At lightweight, Nate Andrews and Chris Wade should be a great clash of styles that could lead to some exciting exchanges. Andrews is all action, and Wade is "obsessed" with getting another chance to win the $1 million.
Wagenheim: At featherweight, Andre Harrison vs. Alex Gilpin. Both guys showed resilience Thursday, and if Gilpin can handle Harrison's wrestling better than he did Lance Palmer's in May, we could be in for a good fight. As for lightweight, Akhmed Aliev vs. Rashid Magomedov. Like Harrison vs. Gilpin, this is a matchup of a No. 4 seed and a No. 5. That suggests that it will be competitive. Both Aliev and Magomedov lost Thursday, but both impressed me nonetheless.
Raimondi: At lightweight, it's Akhmed taking on Magomedov. What's better than two technically sound Russian strikers going at it? That should be extremely interesting. And the winner will more than likely next get Natan Schulte, the top seed and defending champ. Very intrigued by that half of the bracket.
I'm also fascinated by Khaybulaev vs. Pineda at featherweight. Khaybulaev, to me, is one of the best success stories of this PFL season so far. Pineda is a grizzled veteran of the U.S. regional scene, and he's on a four-fight winning streak. Pineda is an action fighter -- he hasn't been to decision since 2016. We now know Khaybulaev can produce fireworks, too. I imagine we'll see some in that fight.
Looking at the brackets as they played out, who's your favorite in each division? What about a dark horse?
Wagenheim: Featherweight favorite is Lance Palmer. Nothing he does is spectacular, especially with PFL rules eliminating elbows from his ground-and-pound, but go ahead and try to stop him from imposing his will on you. Dark horse has to be Andre Harrison. His comeback against Khaybulaev to earn a majority draw says a lot about this guy and his unbending will. Resilience like that can carry you a long way when playoff push comes to playoff shove.
In the lightweight division, I'll go with Islam Mamedov. It doesn't get much better than his no-sweat destruction of Bao Yincang on Thursday. More important than that, though, the second-seeded Mamedov also owns a submission win over No. 1 seed and defending champion Natan Schulte. That could be a heck of a final on New Year's Eve. As far as a lightweight dark horse, it would be Chris Wade for me. His first-round opponent is someone he handled without a lot of struggle earlier this season at PFL 2, and while that doesn't mean Nate Andrews will be a pushover, it has to boost Wade's confidence level heading into the playoffs.
Medcalf: Lance Palmer remains the favorite in the featherweight division, in my opinion. A lot of folks thought Luis Rafael Laurentino could pull off the upset after he ran through Jeremy Kennedy, but Palmer toyed with Laurentino before he earned the finish in the third round. The dark horse is Kennedy. Other than the 23-second loss to Laurentino at PFL 2 and a loss to Alexander Volkanovski, one of the top featherweights in the world during his time in the UFC, Kennedy's had an unblemished run. He overcame early adversity to beat Steven Siler, the tournament's runner-up last year, on Thursday.
At lightweight, I think Schulte maintains the spot as the favorite as well. He didn't have much time to prepare for Jesse Ronson, a late replacement after multiple fighters missed weight, but his hip tosses and grappling controlled the bout. The dark horse is Andrews. He throws a lot of combinations, and they come from awkward angles. He's just an unorthodox guy who could make things interesting in the playoffs.
Raimondi: I'll have to go chalk in the featherweight division. It's not out of the question, of course, but I don't think anyone will dethrone Palmer, the defending champion. At lightweight, I've been extremely impressed with Islam Mamedov. He could be the kryptonite for defending champ Natan Schulte. Mamedov has won 16 in a row and has not lost since 2009. Great wrestler and grappler.
For a dark horse, at featherweight I'd say Luis Rafael Laurentino. We saw how explosive he could be in his first fight when he knocked out Jeremy Kennedy with a head kick. He was able to defend pretty well against Palmer off his back for a while Thursday, too. He is fairly well-rounded. At lightweight, I'd have to go with Magomedov. He is good at neutralizing wrestlers for the most part and is a technical, tactical striker. It'll be interesting to see a rematch between him and Schulte, who beat Magomedov in last year's final.