A strange night for the PFL ended with its most bizarre moment.
After prize signee Rory MacDonald had put on an efficient performance to neutralize the power of Gleison Tibau for three rounds in the welterweight main event of PFL 5 Thursday night in Atlantic City, New Jersey, the verdict came in -- and somehow, it was a split-decision victory for Tibau.
All three judges scored the bout 29-28, with two of them going for Tibau -- despite the fact that MacDonald, a former Bellator champion and UFC title challenger, landed more than twice as many strikes, scored a takedown and controlled the flow of the fight from start to finish.
MacDonald still earned a playoff spot, on the strength of points earned in a first-round submission victory in his season opener back in April. But the loss made MacDonald the No. 2 seed, putting him in a semifinal matchup with 2019 season champion Ray Cooper III -- one of three former champions who made the playoffs after Thursday night opened with their spots in question.
The others: 2018 welterwweight champion Magomed Magomedkerimov, who had been unable to compete in his season-opening bout in April and needed Thursday's first-round submission of Curtis Millender to earn 5 points; and 2019 light heavyweight champ Emiliano Sordi, who fought Dan Spohn to a draw to put him in a tie for the final 205-pound playoff spot, and advanced because of a tiebreaker.
There were odd moments throughout the night, including a round in which referee Vitor Ribeiro allowed Sordi to land dozens of unanswered punches, many of which were to the back of the head. The ref neither waved it off as a TKO nor stopped the fouls for over a minutes, then suddenly deducted a point. There was also a fight that ended in the first round following an accidental low blow.
But the MacDonald loss was inexplicable. He led the dance the whole way, using smooth footwork to get out of the way of every home-run bomb Tibau launched his way. MacDonald did get away with two fouls, poking Tibau in his right eye a couple of times. But referee Keith Peterson did not deduct a point, making it a non-factor on the scorecards.
MacDonald, who is 31 and from Montreal, fell to 22-7-1. Tibau, a 37-year-old Brazilian, is 36-15.
Cooper secured an opportunity to defend his 2019 PFL welterweight championship, but he did not make it easy on himself. The 28-year-old Hawaiian missed weight on Wednesday, which left him unable to gain points during this fight. But by defeating Aleksakhin, Cooper prevented the Russian from passing him in the standings.
It was a grueling three rounds with a lot of give and take, especially in a Round 1 that played out evenly. But Cooper built a narrow advantage in the second and third rounds, utilizing strong wrestling to immobilize Aleksakhin and neutralize his striking threat for much of the final five minutes.
The scores were 30-27, 29-28 and 29-28, all for Cooper (22-7-1).
For the 30-year-old Aleksakhin (26-6), it was his first loss since 2016 and ended a seven-fight winning streak.
Sordi will get to defend his 2019 PFL light heavyweight championship in the 2021 playoffs, but that opportunity came by the slimmest of margins.
His bout with Spohn ended in a 28-28 draw on all three scorecards, and the 1 point each man earned gives Sordi 4 points for the season -- the same amount that Cory Hendricks had earned earlier in the evening with a third-round submission of playoff-bound Marthin Hamlet. Sordi and Hendricks finished in a tie for the final playoff spot, and Sordi advanced on a tiebreaker because he fought twice this season, compared to just once for Hendricks.
Sordi (23-8-1), a 30-year-old from Argentina, nearly won Round 1. Actually, he almost lost first, after Spohn (18-8-1) had him down on the canvas. But Sordi reversed position and unleashed a fury of strikes from top position.
However, the story of Round 1 was not either fighter, but rather referee Vitor Ribeiro, who missed two clashes of heads and then allowed Sordi to land approximately a hundred unanswered blows while on the ground -- a good third of which connected to the back of Spohn's head. Then, suddenly, Ribeiro paused the action and took a point from Sordi -- the key factor in the eventual scores from all three judges.
From there, it was mostly the 36-year-old Spohn's fight, although the action slowed considerably as both men became tired.
There were two losers in this fight.
Camozzi put on a strong performance and got his hand raised Thursday night, but a decision win was not good enough to put him in the playoffs. He earned 3 points for the unanimous decision, which came via scorecards of 29-28, 29-28 and 29-27.
As for Ferreira (14-9), he is in the playoffs on the strength of 5 points earned in a first-round knockout in his season-opening bout. But while he looked explosive in that 37-second knockout back in April, this time he lost steam as the bout went on. No doubt his playoff opponent will take note of that information.
Playoffs or not, it was a rejuvenating win for Camozzi (26-15), a 34-year-old from Lakewood, Colorado. He dominated the last two rounds, especially the second, in which he dropped Ferreira, who hails from Brazil, with a left hook. Camozzi came in having lost five of his last six bouts.
Carlos Junior and Magalhaes are both multiple-time jiu-jitsu world champions from Brazil. One came in with 15 submission wins in his MMA career, the other nine tapouts. So naturally, they engaged in a kickboxing bout for the short time this fight lasted.
After an exchange of Carlos Junior punches and Magalhaes leg kicks, the two finally engaged in grappling, clinched against the cage. From there Carlos Junior threw a knee toward his opponent's midsection, but the strike landed hard to the groin.
Magalhaes dropped to fetal position and remained there, even after a doctor was brought into the cage. Finally, after a five-minute wait, referee Keith Peterson declared the bout a no contest at 2:45 of Round 1.
That gave each man 1 point, pushing Carlos Junior to 7 points for the season. After Hendricks' win secured Carlos Junior a playoff spot, the point put Carlos Junior ahead of Cezar Ferreira in the race for the No. 1 spot, pending Ferreira's fight against Chris Camozzi.
Hamlet entered the night in good position to advance to the playoffs, after earning 5 points from his season-opening finish in April. He did not come out with the same urgency as some other fighters earlier in the card, but Hamlet put on a steady performance early on by utilizing his Greco-Roman wrestling background, and looked to be in control.
Then it all fell apart.
Hendricks, fighting for the first time this season in the PFL, dropped Hamlet with a leg kick midway through Round 3. Then he hurt Hamlet with a 1-2 punch combination and put him back on the canvas. Hendricks got Hamlet's back, and then finished the fight with a rear-naked choke at 4:09.
That earned Hendricks 4 points. With a lot of fights still to come, it put the 33-year-old from Las Vegas in fourth place and eliminated the playoff hopes of his teammate Tom Lawlor, who was seen on the broadcast cheering on Hendricks from backstage.
Hamlet (7-2), who is 29 and from Norway, remained in third place.
Zeferino clearly wanted an early finish, which he knew would clinch a playoff spot. He charged across the cage at the start -- and promptly ate a counterpunch from Ponet. He then got hurt by Ponet's punches and had to switch to survival mode for half of the first round, before recovering and picking up the pace in the closing moments of Round 1.
In the end, Zeferino got his finish -- in the second round -- and secured his place in the welterweight playoffs.
Zeferino (26-9), a 35-year-old from Brazil, struggled against the better striker in Round 1 but made Round 2 all his. Zeferino got a takedown in the first 30 seconds, immediately secured half guard, then side control, then full mount. From there he clamped on an arm triangle choke to get the tapout at 2:16.
It was the 16th career submission for Zeferino, good for 5 points.
Ponet (20-14-1, 1), who is 32 and from France, lost his second in a row after coming into the season on a three-fight winning streak.
Magomedkerimov took forever to make it back to the PFL cage, but once he got there he wasted little time in scoring 6 points and giving himself a shot at a welterweight playoff spot.
The 2018 season champion saw his 2019 playoffs come to a premature end when he fell ill between his two scheduled fights, forcing him to pull out ahead of the semifinals. Then the 2020 season was canceled by the pandemic, and then the Russian was unable to make it to Atlantic City for his opening bout of the 2021 season.
So he had work to do on Thursday. And he did all that he could do.
It wasn't easy for Magomedkerimov (27-5). The 31-year-old absorbed two front kicks to his left knee and appeared compromised from that point on. But he was able to get Millender to the canvas and immediately set up an Ezekiel choke, which elicited the tapout at 1:57.
That was the ninth career submission for Magomedkerimov, who also has 10 knockouts.
Millender (18-8), who is 33 and from Fullerton, California, has lost five of his last six bouts, including both of his appearances in the PFL.
The last time Lawlor won a fight, he was competing in a prelim fight on a card headlined by TJ Dillashaw title defense during Dillashaw's first of two reigns with the UFC bantamweight belt. That was back in July 2015. Lawlor knocked out Gian Villante that night.
Since then, Lawlor had lost three in a row -- including his opening bout of the 2021 PFL season -- and had gone through long spells of inactivity in MMA while focusing on a pro wrestling career.
Lawlor (10-8, 1 NC), a 38-year-old fighting out of Las Vegas, sure didn't look rusty on this night, though, dominating Young in all three rounds. Lawlor avoided a submission try in Round 2 and then turning the tables with an attempt of his own in the closing seconds. He didn't get the finish, which would have come in handy for his playoff pursuit, but Lawlor earned the nod of all three judges by 30-27 scores for 3 points.
Despite taking off his gloves and laying them down in the middle of the cage, seemingly indicating his retirement, Lawlor was still mathematically in contention for the fourth and final playoff spot in the light heavyweight division.
Young, who is 26 and fights out of Coconut Creek, Florida, has lost two in a row after starting his career 11-0. His season-opening bout was canceled when his opponent missed weight, although Young did earn three points for that result.
Sy was a winner in the opening fight of PFL 5, and maybe not a winner. He got the better of Kunchenko in all three rounds, but the fact that his opponent was still standing after 15 minutes was not good news for Sy's hopes of securing one of the four playoff spots currently hanging in the balance at welterweight.
Sy, a 34-year-old from Sweden, was a clear decision winner (29-28, 29-28, 29-28). But the 3 points that Sy earned for his effort give him just 4 for the season, following a no contest in his opening bout that netted him just 1 point. Three fighters already had at least that many points going into the night.
Sy's best shot at a finish came in the second round, when he used a 1-2 to stagger Kunchenko, followed by another 1-2 to put Kunchenko on the canvas. But the Russian survived. Sy (9-5-2) did get back on track after suffering a loss, a draw and the no contest in his previous three fights.
Kunchenko, who is 37 and from Russia, lost his third fight in a row after starting his career 20-0. He was making his PFL debut, after his previously scheduled PFL bout against Magomed Magomedkerimov failed to happed as scheduled back in April.