PFL 2021 lightweight preview: Will Anthony Pettis surpass two-time champ Natan Schulte?

Anthony Pettis hopes to carry his success in the UFC over into his debut season in the PFL. Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Anthony Pettis has been a champion in two MMA promotions, most notably the most star-studded in the world, the UFC. He has defeated many of the greatest lightweights in the sport, including others who also have worn the gold. The man has been on the cover of a Wheaties box! And Pettis has done all of this in swashbuckling style, embodying the nickname "Showtime."

But when he makes his PFL debut on April 23 at the opening event of the organization's 2021 season, Pettis might as well take on a new moniker: "Litmus Test."

The former UFC and WEC champ's main event against Clay Collard at Ocean Casino Resort in Atlantic City, New Jersey, will of course be a proving ground for the 34-year-old Pettis, but it also can be perceived as a measuring stick for the PFL, which has been idle since 2019 because of the coronavirus pandemic. Pettis is one of six new faces in the lightweight division alone.

The company has leaned heavily into hyping a narrative that this season's addition of Pettis, former UFC heavyweight champion Fabricio Werdum and ex-Bellator welterweight champ and UFC title challenger Rory MacDonald, among other notables, has elevated the PFL into the position of No. 2 fight organization in MMA, behind only the UFC.

It feels like a shot fired directly at the bow of longtime second-fiddle promotion Bellator.

The performances of Pettis, Werdum, and MacDonald, plus the showings of other new additions fresh off the UFC roster, will go a long way toward establishing where the PFL belongs in the MMA landscape. How will the new blood stack up against the iron of the PFL, such as lightweight Natan Schulte and featherweight Lance Palmer, both of whom won the $1 million prizes at the end of each of the first two seasons?

If the imports walk right in and take over, or if they are cut down to size, what will that tell us about where they now stand as fighters? Still elite? Best days behind? Or will what these veterans show on their new playing field say more about the level of competition?

It's time to find out what's real and what's hyperbole, starting with the lightweight division.

Season favorite: Anthony Pettis

At 34, "Showtime" is not as showy as he once was. His UFC dethroning by Rafael Dos Anjos six years ago set him off on a bumpy ride during which he dropped eight of 12 fights. But those losses came against championship-level talent -- Eddie Alvarez, Max Holloway, Dustin Poirier and Tony Ferguson.

Pettis enters his new workplace riding a two-fight winning streak. Within the past three years, during a detour to welterweight, he defeated Stephen "Wonderboy" Thompson and Michael Chiesa, both of whom are in the ESPN top 10 for that weight class. Pettis also beat Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone last May. He will not encounter fighters of that caliber inside a PFL cage.

There's no guarantee that Pettis will win this season's championship, but the expectation going in is that he is going to be looking for a bank that's open late for a $1 million deposit on New Year's Eve.

Leading contender: Natan Schulte

Schulte should feel insulted. Why should he accept that he's being perceived here -- and probably most anywhere this season is being assessed -- as something other than the top guy? The PFL's lightweight division is his domain. The 29-year-old Brazilian is two for two in taking home season-ending $1 million prizes as the PFL lightweight champion. But if Schulte has spent any of that $2 million on a UFC Fight Pass subscription, he has seen what Pettis is capable of. That's the challenge before him.

Schulte has won nine straight fights. He hasn't lost since 2017, back when the PFL was still branded as the World Series of Fighting. In his most recent championship season, 2019, Schulte had submissions in two of his three victories, including one against former UFC fighter Ramsey Nijem. Of course, not all Octagon veterans are created equal, as he will learn when he crosses paths with Pettis.

Fight to watch on opening night: Natan Schulte vs. Marcin Held

Held has the résumé to provide Schulte with an early-season test. He spent several years in Bellator where, after losing his debut to Michael Chandler, he won 11 of his next 12 fights. He also had a cup of coffee in the UFC, going 1-2. He has not competed since June 2019, so there might be rust, but Schulte hasn't fought since December of that year, either. Held has won multiple medals in submission grappling at a world championship level, so if the fight goes to the canvas, he'll be a threat. This April 23 co-main event promises to be more competitive than the headline bout, in which Pettis faces Collard, whose calling card is his participation in both MMA (1-3 in the UFC) and pro boxing (lost his last two, after gaining cult status for a five-fight win streak in 2020).

Lightweight division at a glance

How to watch the PFL fights

Watch the main card on ESPN2: Download the ESPN App | WatchESPN2 | TV

Don't have ESPN2? Get instant access.

Watch the prelims on ESPN+. If you don't have ESPN+, get it here.

There's also FightCenter, which offers live updates for every PFL card.

PFL 2021 Night One - Friday, April 23

ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET
Anthony Pettis vs. Clay Collard | Lightweight
Natan Schulte vs. Marcin Held | Lightweight
Movlid Khaybulev vs. Lazar Stojadinovic | Featherweight
Lance Palmer vs. Bubba Jenkins | Featherweight

ESPN+, 5:30 p.m. ET
Brendan Loughnane vs. Sheymon Moraes | Featherweight
Joilton Lutterbach vs. Raush Manfio | Lightweight
Akhmet Aliev vs. Mikhail Odintsov | Lightweight
Chris Wade vs. Anthony Dizy | Featherweight
Jo Sungbin vs. Tyler Diamond | Featherweight
Loik Radzhabov vs. Alexander Martinez | Lightweight