PFL 2: Rory MacDonald and Ray Cooper III grab early finishes, top spots at welterweight

Rory MacDonald once came within a round of becoming UFC welterweight champion. He later did win the Bellator title. And on Thursday night, he had a successful start to his quest to capture the 2021 PFL welterweight championship and the $1 million prize that comes with it.

MacDonald (22-6-1) systematically broke down Curtis Millender in the main event of the second PFL event of the 2021 regular season, getting a first-round submission to close out an eight-fight card of welterweight and light heavyweight bouts at Ocean Casino Resort in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

The 31-year-old fighting out of Montreal earned 6 points for finishing Millender (18-7) inside one round. MacDonald had to work in a clinch for nearly a minute to get the takedown, but once he did he seized dominant position on his opponent's back, with a body triangle controlling Millender.

But it was only after MacDonald let go of the body triangle and started hitting his opponent's left thigh with heel strikes that the choke became available. MacDonald seized the opportunity and got the tap out at 3 minutes, 38 seconds.

"Just an old-school technique I've been training since I was a kid," McDonald said. "When you get on the back and can't work that choke in, you just hammered that thigh -- or the liver or whatever -- with the heel, and that opens up the choke."

MacDonald reigned in Bellator from 2018 to 2019. Prior to that, he challenged Robbie Lawler for the UFC belt in 2015 and was ahead on all scorecards before being knocked out in the fifth round of a classic fight. Now he is looking to become the PFL's welterweight king, an honor held by Ray Cooper III, who won in the co-main event, also by first-round finish.

"He's the champ here," MacDonald said, "so I'm sure we're going to cross paths."

Cooper and MacDonald hold the top two spots in the welterweight standings after the first round of fights.

MacDonald came into Saturday night having won just one of his last four fights, going back to January 2018. Millender (18-6), a 33-year-old from Fullerton, California, also is a veteran of both the UFC and Bellator. He, too, was making his PFL debut.

Light heavyweight note: Due to Vinny Magalhaes' issue with making weight, he had one point deducted from his season total. Jordan Young, Magalhaes' scheduled opponent, received 3 points for a walkthrough.

Welterweight: Ray Cooper III (6 points) def. Jason Ponet (0 points) by first-round submission

Cooper is known as a devastating knockout puncher. But he did not land a single punch in this fight. He did fine without one.

The 2019 PFL welterweight champion turned a Ponet clinch against the cage into a slam takedown a minute into their fight, and Cooper went right into half-guard position. From there, Cooper immediately clamped on an arm-triangle choke to secure the submission victory at 1:23.

Cooper (21-7-1), who is 28 years old and from Pearl City, Hawaii, earned 6 points for the first-round finish. It was the eighth PFL win for Cooper, who along with his $1 million championship in 2019 was a 2018 finalist.

Ponet (20-13-1), a 32-year-old from France, saw a three-fight winning streak end in his PFL debut.

Welterweight: Joao Zeferino (3 points) def. Gleison Tibau (0 points) by unanimous decision

Tibau and Zeferino found out just a few days ago that they were fighting each other, as they were matched up after both of their original opponents had been forced out of this night's event. A few days prior to that switch, Tibau and Zeferino, who are both from Brazil, had worked out together -- and maybe their sparring section a week ago used up all the action they had to offer.

They apparently got to know each other's games pretty well, because neither was able to surprise the other. They threw plenty of punches and kicks at each other, but nothing that landed had a game-changing impact. Zeferino was the busier and more efficient fighter, and he got the nod from all three judges by 29-28 scores.

For the 35-year-old Zeferino (25-9), it was his fourth straight victory. He remained undefeated in PFL season competition, after winning twice in 2018 and once in 2019 before bowing out with injuries.

Tibau (34-15), who is 37, saw a two-fight winning streak end in his PFL debut.

Light heavyweight: Emiliano Sordi (3 points) def. Chris Camozzi (0 points) by unanimous decision

Sordi had rolled through the 2019 PFL season on the way to a championship, winning each of his last four fights with first-round finishes. Getting used to a short night's work nearly came back to bite him.

The 30-year-old Argentine had a strong first round, but as Round 2 began he looked exhausted and Camozzi took over, making it an even fight going into the third.

Sordi (23-8) had not been in a third round since 2011, but he knew what to do once he got there. He summoned up enough energy to land a straight right hand that dropped Camozzi, and Sordi rode out the rest of the fight on top, securing the victory.

Two judges scored it 29-28 and the other had it 28-27, all for Sordi. It was his sixth straight victory but the first decision win of his career, after scoring 16 knockouts and six submissions.

Camozzi (25-15), who is 34 and from Denver, is a former UFC fighter who was making his PFL debut.

Light heavyweight: Antonio Carlos Junior (6 points) def. Tom Lawlor (0 points) by first-round submission

Two minutes into this meeting between two former UFC fighters making their PFL debuts, Carlos got a takedown, but fell right into a Lawlor guillotine choke. A problem for the 31-year-old Brazilian? Not at all.

Carlos (11-5, 1 NC) is a two-time Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champion. He calmly lingered inside the submission attempt, gradually working his neck out of danger. That put Lawlor in danger, as he was losing control with a jiu-jitsu master on top of him.

Within moments, Carlos had fluidly advanced to full mount position, and when he could not sink in a submission from there, he started throwing punches. That led to a grappling scramble, which produced another guillotine, this time with Carlos clamping it on. And it took only a few seconds before Lawlor was tapping out.

That gave Carlos the win at 4:43 of Round 1, good for 6 points in the PFL standings. The victory ended a three-fight skid.

Lawlor (10-8), who is 37 and fights out of Las Vegas, had not fought since November 2018 and has not won since 2015.

Light heavyweight: Cezar Ferreira (6 points) def. Nick Roehrick (0 points) by first-round TKO

Ferreira showed in his PFL debut that he is not one to waste his time, or his energy.

The 36-year-old Brazilian, who fights out of Boca Raton, Florida, hurt Roehrick with a body kick in the opening seconds, followed up with a flurry of pinpoint punches that backed the American against the cage and then finished him at 37 seconds.

It was as efficient as performances get, as the former UFC middleweight landed practically every strike he threw, leaving Roehrick no escape on the way to being left slumped against the cage. For Ferreira (14-8), the 6-point win ended a two-fight losing streak.

Roehrick (9-2), who is 33 and fights out of Denver, also was making his PFL debut. He came in having won two in a row.

Welterweight: Sadibou Sy (1 points) vs. Nikolay Aleksakhin (1 point) ended in a no-contest (accidental eyepoke)

Aleksakhin's aggression controlled Round 1. Sy turned his own offense up a notch in Round 2, and he was getting the better of the exchanges. But before either man could put a final stamp on the bout, a Sy eye poke to Aleksakhin ended it prematurely.

The end came after Aleksakhin (24-5, 1 NC), who is 30 and from Russia, came forward with punches. Sy retreated toward the cage, but as he did so he extended his right hand, and a finger went into his opponent's left eye. Aleksakhin, who came in having won seven in a row, was examined by a doctor inside the cage before referee Keith Peterson waved it off at 1:56 of Round 2.

"I felt better in the second round than in the first round," said Sy (8-5-2, 1 NC), a 34-year-old from Sweden, "so I was just hoping for him to be able to continue."

Light heavyweight: Marthin Hamlet (5 points) def. Dan Spohn (0 points) by second-round technical submission

Fifteen seconds, then five seconds. That's how long it took Hamlet to get a takedown in each of the first two rounds of the opening bout of PFL 2 against Spohn.

After the first takedown, he spent the rest of the round -- the last 4:55 -- on top of Spohn, landing short punches but nothing that did significant damage. Hamlet appeared content to just maintain his controlling position.

In Round 2, however, the 29-year-old from Norway got right to work after his early takedown, quickly securing an arm-triangle choke. That rendered Spohn unconscious at 52 seconds of the round, giving Hamlet (7-1) a 5-point victory in his PFL debut.

Spohn (18-8), who is 36 and from Columbus, Ohio, never got going, suffering his third straight loss.

The final first-round bout in the welterweight division, between Magomed Magomedkerimov and Aleksei Kunchenko, will take place at PFL 3, on May 6.

How things stand after PFL 2

Welterweight: The defending champion (Cooper) and the prized new signee (MacDonald) both could not have been more impressive. Their first-round submissions were things of beauty -- efficient and opportunistic, results that let the rest of the 170-pound field know that even the smallest mistake can get you choked out. But watch out for one of those other welterweights -- one of two who did not fight on Thursday.

Magomed Magomedkerimov, the 2018 champion, had to have his season debut pushed back to next Thursday because he was dealing with visa issues. He will be hard-pressed to outdo either Cooper or MacDonald, but he is fully capable of making this a three-man race and the most competitive weight division in the PFL.

Light heavyweight: If anyone in this division made a statement on Thursday, it was Ferreira, who swarmed his opponent right from the start and knocked him out in 37 seconds. His fellow Brazilian, Carlos, also had an efficient first-round finish. Now both of them surely have their sights set on defending champion Sordi, who looked vulnerable. After not getting the first-round finish that has become expected of him, Sordi looked tired the rest of the way. He did show resilience in taking over the final round to secure the decision victory, but the rest of the 205-pounders will be wondering whether this was a signal that surviving Sordi early can be a path to victory.