The Professional Fighters League trotted out its prized new signee on Friday night, putting him in the headline slot of a season-opening card that also featured a pair of two-time defending season champions. The stars were out, ready to shine.
Then Anthony Pettis, the former UFC lightweight champion, got knocked down twice and lost his PFL debut, the final bout of a 10-fight card of lightweight and featherweight fights at Ocean Casino Resort in Atlantic City, New Jersey. And earlier in the evening, featherweight Lance Palmer and lightweight Natan Schulte, each of whom won his weight division's $1 million season championship prize in both 2018 and 2019, fell victim to upsets as well.
A disastrous start to the season for the PFL? Not necessarily. Instead of this night tarnishing three of the promotion's presumed best fighters, it might prove to be the beginning of something big for Clay Collard, who took down Pettis, or Marcin Held, who beat Schulte, or Bubba Jenkins, who got the best of Palmer.
And those who lost on Friday night could still earn playoff spots, considering that all but one of the night's fights went to decision and therefore did not bring an abundance of points to the winners. Under PFL rules, fighters earn extra points for knockouts and submissions, especially early finishes. Only featherweight Brendan Loughnane took advantage of that, scoring a first-round KO of Sheymon Moraes to earn 6 points. The other winners earned just 3, giving them a not insurmountable lead in the standings.
That the season remains highly competitive is clearly a glass-half-full perspective on a night when the PFL stars did not shine. But once the promotion announces its next matchups, which will be held in June, no fighter who fought on Friday other than perhaps Loughnane will consider himself safe in the race to each weight division's four playoff spots. That is a positive.
The overall competitiveness of Friday's fights also was a positive. A night of nine decisions does not sound sexy, but there were no boring bouts, and there will be interest in seeing everyone who competed step into the cag -- including Moraes, who was finished in less than three minutes.
Also a positive: the entire production. Play-by-play man Sean O'Connell, who was the $1 million winner at light heavyweight in the PFL's first season in 2018, and former two-division UFC champion Randy Couture are back, and their cageside rapport is fun to listen to. New addition Kenny Florian, the former UFC lightweight contender, fit right into the banter. Not a bad way to spend a Friday night -- although the next four cards take place on Thursdays, before switching back to Friday for PFL 6 on June 25.
The one confounding thing was a new Fighter Performance Rating, which was billed as an "objective" assessment and was mentioned throughout the night. I never caught an explanation of how the broadcast came up with the numbers, although they did generally line up with the final results.
In all, a strong return for the PFL. Between the points system, ratings, playoffs, a ref cam and a cool million, the PFL is sure shaking things up -- Friday's fights simply fit the same theme.
Held's martial arts background is in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and Schulte's is in judo. So naturally the two grapplers stood in front of each other for three rounds and traded punches and kicks.
Held, a PFL newcomer, landed more and avoided damage, which was enough to hand Schulte, a two-time season champion, his first defeat in the PFL.
Neither man had a distinct advantage, but Held was busier early on, and once Schulte got his offense going, Held kept up the pace with him to earn three 29-28 scores from the judges.
Held, a 29-year-old from Poland who formerly competed in both the UFC and Bellator, had 14 submissions coming in but never got the fight to the canvas. Still, he bettered his record to 27-7.
Schulte, who is 29 and from Brazil, fell to 20-4-1, with a 9-1-1 PFL record.
Khaybulaev is from Dagestan, and you didn't need to look at the 30-year-old's bio to know that. Just watch his dominant wrestling, which uses a ferocious combination of positional control and steady damage, similar in style to many fighters who have trained in Dagestan, including retired UFC star Khabib Nurmagomedov.
During the 2019 PFL season, Khaybulaev scored the fastest knockout in PFL history, using a flying knee to finish Damon Jackson in 10 seconds. But on this night he threw nothing flashy, instead going to his wrestling again and again to dominate Stojadinovic from start to finish and run his record to 16-0-1 (2-0-1, 1 NC in the PFL).
Khaybulaev got takedowns in all three rounds and proceeded to drop ground-and-pound the whole way to earn 30-27 scorecards from all three judges. Khaybulaev landed 137 strikes to Stojadinovic's 23.
Stojadinovic, a 32-year-old born in the Bronx, New York, who represents Serbia and fights out of Las Vegas, saw a two-fight winning streak end in his PFL debut, a fight he took on short notice. He is 14-8.
Palmer is a two-time defending PFL featherweight champion. Jenkins is new to the PFL. But these two were familiar with each other heading into their matchup at PFL 1, having been rivals in Big Ten collegiate wrestling a decade ago, Palmer at Ohio State and Jenkins at Penn State.
Jenkins, who was a 2011 NCAA Division I national champion after transferring to Arizona State, got the better of Palmer several times back then. And he did it again on Friday, using superior wrestling in all three rounds to hand Palmer his first PFL defeat and his first overall loss since 2017, ending an 11-fight winning streak.
Jenkins (15-4), a 33-year-old former Bellator competitor who fights out of Las Vegas, has won four in a row. All three judges scored the fight 30-27 in his favor.
After the two stalked each other for the opening couple of minutes, exchanging the occasional punch and kick, Jenkins seized the wrestling edge, trapping Palmer against the cage and landing knees to the leg before taking dominant back position. Palmer had difficulty escaping, both then and in Round 2, when Jenkins gained a similar position. In Round 3, when they again clinched, Palmer grabbed a front choke but Jenkins used hand fighting to stay out of peril of a submission.
Palmer (22-4, 10-1 PFL), who is 33 and from Ohio, but trains in Toms River, New Jersey, was never able to get his offense on track and could not fend off Jenkins' wrestling.
Loughnane started fast, remained poised and never let up. He staggered Moraes with an overhand right hand out of a clinch in the middle of the cage, then finishing him with another right that dropped the Brazilian against the fence.
Loughnane, a 31-year-old Englishman who signed with the PFL after the UFC declined to sign him despite a strong performance on Dana White's Contender Series, was making his debut in PFL season competition after taking two showcase fights with the promotion in 2019.
He came out flashing a crisp jab and landed it on the face of Moraes again and again in the opening minutes, then connected with a straight right hand, after which Moraes clinched with him. Loughnane (20-3) broke out of the clinch with the damaging right hand, and he pounced for the finish at 2:55 of the round. It was his sixth win in a row.
Moraes, 30, has lost his past three fights, dropping his record to 11-5. He was making his PFL debut, although he previously competed in the World Series of Fighting -- which later would be rebranded as the PFL -- and in 2015 made an unsuccessful challenge of then-champion Marlon Moraes.
It came down to Round 3. Actually, it came down to one moment midway through that final round, when Manfio, taken to the canvas and seeing the fight slip away, used his legs to push Lutterbach off of him so he could climb back to his feet. That allowed Manfio to go back to work in the standup, where he was most comfortable. And that allowed Manfio to eke out the decision.
Manfio, who is 29 and from Brazil, was making his PFL debut and competing for the first time since February 2018, after having several bouts canceled. He did not show much rust. His striking output was not impressive, but when he landed, he made it count.
All three judges scored the bout 29-28, with two favoring Manfio (12-3), who was making his PFL debut.
Manfio staggered Lutterbach midway through Round 1 with a left hook, but Lutterbach took over in Round 2 with his grappling. He appeared poised to do the same in the final round, until Manfio pushed him away and stayed in the fight.
Lutterbach, a 28-year-old native of Brazil who fights out of Germany, fell to 34-9, 1 NC in what was also his PFL debut.
Aliev was a winner of 3 points before the fight even began, because Odintsov had missed weight. Then Aliev went out and earned a decision -- but no additional points.
Aliev (20-6, 3-2 PFL), who is 31 and from Russia, was a 2019 season semifinalist. He started strongly, not just with his flashy strikes but also with a big takedown throw midway through Round 1 and with strong takedown defense throughout. But he did not sustain his offense in the other two rounds.
Osintsov, a 29-year-old from Belarus, missed weight by 4/10ths of a pound on Thursday, making him ineligible to earn points in this fight, his PFL debut. But he fought well, especially in Round 2, when he was the aggressor in the standup. But he did not land enough to eke out a decision and fell to 18-3.
All three judges scored the bout 29-28 for Aliev.
Dizy had some flashy moments in the fight's opening seconds -- dropping Wade twice with jabs in the first 20 seconds -- but the bulk of his work was gritty and relentless, as he used his Greco-Roman attack to take Wade to the canvas and control him there for the better part of two rounds.
But Wade used his own wrestling to remain out of serious danger, and in Round 3 he took over. It started with him nailing the 32-year-old Frenchman with knees to the face twice, a few seconds apart -- the first of which opened a cut on the bridge of Dizy's nose. By then, Wade also was looking like the fresher fighter, but Dizy's incessant pursuit of takedowns was the equalizer. By fight's end, Dizy's face was covered in blood.
It appeared that Dizy would escape with a decision win, but all three judges scored the bout for Wade, 29-28.
Wade (18-6, 6-3 PFL), who is 33 and from Islip, New York, competed at lightweight in the 2019 season. He looked strong at 145 pounds.
Dizy, new to the PFL, fell to 13-4.
Diamond had a hold of a leg, and he was not going to let go, because it was all that was keeping him in the fight. Jo had just floored him with a right hand less than a minute into Round 3, and when Diamond staggered to his feet, Jo nailed him again, with a knee. Then Jo trapped him against the cage, looking to finish.
But Diamond, using the instincts of a lifelong wrestler, grabbed Jo's left leg, and Diamond used that grip to take the 28-year-old South Korean fighter to the canvas. Diamond then moved into dominant position and rained down punches for the rest of the round, with the referee hovering nearby, imploring Jo to defend himself. Jo did make it to the horn, but by then his fate was sealed.
Diamond earned 30-27 scorecards from all three judges in this battle of PFL newcomers. He is 12-1 and a winner of three straight fights.
It was a fiery fight. These two didn't waste time before getting after it, each hoping to score a first-round finish and earn the bonus points that come with it. Diamond, who is 30 years old and from Sacramento, California, knocked down Jo (9-2, 0-1 PFL) in the opening seconds with a calf kick. Then Jo got up and dropped Diamond with a right hand. The fight was 10 seconds old, and it was a sign of what was to come.
Martinez spent much of the fight on his back, taken down seven times by Radzhabov. But Martinez was the aggressor, landing punches and locking in submission attempts, and that was enough for him to get the nod from two of the three judges to remain undefeated.
Radzhabov (13-3-1, 2-3-1 PFL), a lightweight finalist in the PFL's 2019 season, had the early grappling advantage, getting two takedowns before the first round was halfway through. But the 30-year-old from Tajikistan did little with the positional advantage, as Martinez (8-0, 1-0 PFL) defended well on the ground. Then Martinez reversed position, got on top and advanced to full mount.
When the fight was standing and being contested from striking range, Martinez had a clear advantage. But the fight mostly took place in clinches against the cage and on the canvas, and even there, the 26-year-old, who was born in Paraguay and fights out of Canada, always seemed able to stay out of trouble. He also remained fresher to the final horn.
One judge gave Martinez a 30-27 scorecard, and the other two were split, each scoring the fight 29-28.