Ray Cooper III, the PFL welterweight champion in 2019, the promotion's most recent completed season, earned an opportunity to win a second $1 million in a row by dominating former Bellator champion and UFC title challenger Rory MacDonald in the playoff semifinals Friday night in Hollywood, Florida.
Cooper, who won the 2019 title but did not have a chance to defend his title in 2020 after the PFL canceled the season because of the coronavirus pandemic, also earned the chance to avenge a loss in the 2018 finale. That season's champ, Magomed Magomedkerimov, defeated Sadibou Sy in the other welterweight semifinal to set up the rematch.
In the PFL's lightweight division, top-seeded Loik Radzhabov avenged an earlier loss in the season against Alexander Martinez by winning the rematch, and locked up his second straight trip to the PFL lightweight finals. He'll face Raush Manfio, who squeezed out a decision over Clay Collard to lock up the other spot in the 2021 PFL lightweight finals.
Among the four playoff fights, which were all decided by unanimous decision, Cooper's performance was the most impressive -- and another shot at Magomedkerimov helped fuel Cooper to that win.
"This was my plan. I was gonna run through everybody and I get him next," said Cooper, a 30-27 winner on all three scorecards. "He's not gonna be able to get away this time."
Cooper did indeed run through MacDonald, who came out looking to wrestle early on. He initiated a clinch against the cage, but he could not get Cooper to the mat. Then, midway through Round 1, Cooper was the one getting a takedown. He kept the fight there until the horn, advancing to half guard and eventually threatening a submission with an arm-triangle choke.
MacDonald survived, but within a minute into Round 2, he was on his back again. He remained there until, inexplicably, referee Gary Copeland stood the fighters up with a minute and a half to go in the round. Cooper was in half guard at the time, landing punches. Undeterred, the Hawaiian fighter then took MacDonald back to the canvas and controlled him there until the round ended.
In Round 3, the fighters exchanged punches early on, and Cooper used the aggression to take MacDonald back to the canvas, where the fight remained.
MacDonald's elimination marked the final strike for the high-profile trio of offseason signees for the PFL. The promotion brought in three major free agents with title pedigrees and long UFC resumes to beef up their roster, and two of them -- heavyweight Fabricio Werdum and lightweight Anthony Pettis, both former UFC champs -- did not even make the playoffs. MacDonald did make it in, but his performance on Friday night was lackluster. The $1 million at welterweight will go to the 2018 champ or the 2019 champ, and thus, the old guard wins.
First look at the 2021 PFL lightweight and welterweight finals
Welterweight: Ray Cooper III vs Magomed Magomedkerimov
This is the fight Cooper has talked about since before the season. He didn't take aim at MacDonald; all he wanted was another shot at Magomedkerimov. Now he has it, and Cooper poses a big threat to Magomedkerimov.
Cooper's wrestling will be tested by the Russian, but he doesn't have to be as dominant on the ground as he was against MacDonald. He just needs to keep the fight standing, where his heavy hands give him his best chance to walk away with another $1 million check.
Lightweight: Raush Manfio vs. Loik Radzhabov
Neither of these fighters put on a star-making performance in the semifinals. I thought Manfio lost his bout to Clay Collard, although it was close. And while Radzhabov was a clear winner, he had some treacherous moments.
Manfio has the kind of power that can allow him to take advantage of a forward-moving grappler like Radzhabov.
Twelve seconds. That's how long it took for Magomedkerimov to take down Sy, a dangerous kickboxer, and put him out of his element. Magomedkerimov controlled the rest of the round from top position, and he also had the better of the action in the two rounds that followed.
Ultimately, Magomedkerimov earned his 13th straight victory and a spot in the PFL welterweight final, where the Russian will attempt to become a two-time PFL champion.
Magomedkerimov did not get an immediate takedown in Round 2 -- the bout didn't go to the canvas until there was just over a minute left in the round -- and he never got Sy to the mat in the final round. That was a positive for Sy, but the 34-year-old Swede -- an alternate entry in this semifinal because top seed Joao Zeferino was unable to compete -- was so focused on takedown defense that he did not manage much offense.
All three judges scored the bout 30-27 for Magomedkerimov, the 2018 PFL welterweight champ. He is 9-0 in the promotion and has not lost a fight since 2015.
As the verdict was being read, it was announced that all three judges had scored the bout 29-28. Collard raised his right arm triumphantly, waiting to hear his name. Manfio stood there with head bowed -- or he did, until he heard his name. Then Manfio exalted.
Manfio was a lightweight finalist. Still alive was his dream of following in the footsteps of his close friend and training partner, Natan Schulte, the 145-pound season champion in the PFL's previous two seasons.
"I have to keep this belt in the family," Manfio said. "It's gonna stay at American Top Team, and I will bring one more belt to Natan's house."
It was a close fight that, to this observer, appeared to be going Collard's way. He seemed to get the better of a close Round 1 and he was a clear winner of the second round. When Manfio surged back to control Round 3, but didn't get a finish, it seemed to be too little, too late. But that was not the case.
The 29-year-old from Brazil, who trains alongside Schulte in South Florida, earned a spot in the final against Loik Radzhabov, who had won his semifinal bout just prior to this fight.
Collard landed a greater diversity of strikes and with more volume, and while Manfio was throwing with more power, he was the one whose face was bloodied and more bruised at the end of three rounds. But as neither man put a beatdown on the other, scorecards, as they often can, went in an unexpected direction.
Radzhabov and Martinez fought each other less than four months ago. One judge scored the bout for Radzhabov that night, but the other two were the deciding majority in a split-decision win for Martinez, and the reason why Martinez qualified for the playoffs.
Both lightweights made adjustments for the high-stakes rematch, and Radzhabov's relentless wrestling was the difference, producing six takedowns and long spells of ground control to secure the victory and a spot in the PFL lightweight final for the second straight time.
"I'm putting big hopes on the final fight," Radzhabov said. "This is the time that I have to take the title. I have to make the million. And I have to bring the belt and the title to my home country, Tajikistan. People are watching, and I want them to be proud of me."
Radzhabov, 30, was a 2019 PFL lightweight finalist, ultimately losing to back-to-back champ Natan Schulte.
In the rematch against Martinez, Radzhabov landed the bigger punches -- one of which bloodied Martinez in the first round. But grappling is what won Radzhabov the bout. He did have to fend off a couple of Martinez submission attempts, though, including a tight standing guillotine in the closing minute of the fight.
The verdict was clear this time, as the judges' scores were 30-27, 30-27 and 29-28.
Tibau showed off his submission grappling once the fight hit the canvas two minutes in, quickly securing an arm triangle choke and getting the finish seconds later. Terrill appeared to be ready to tap out, but then his arm went limp and referee Gary Copeland stepped in to end the bout at 2:17 of Round 1.
Tibau, who has 15 submissions in his career, looked comfortable on his feet in the early going, trading punches before grabbing Terrill, a late-replacement opponent, and throwing him to the mat. Tibau, a 38-year-old Brazilian, immediately gained top position in side control, and 17 seconds later he had the finish. He won his second straight fight in the PFL, pushing his record to 36-15.
Aubin-Mercier put on a clinic in this battle of UFC veterans, dominating all three rounds to claim a clear decision. He immobilized Horcher with more than a dozen calf kicks in Round 1, then finished the round on top, landing a barrage of punches. That ground-and-pound beatdown continued in the other two rounds as well.
Horcher had no answer for the grappling, but he did have one brief moment of success on the feet in the first round, catching an OAM punch and countering with a flurry of punches that dropped Aubin-Mercier. That apparently impressed two judges enough that they scored the round for Horcher -- the scores were 30-26, 29-28 and 29-27 -- but Aubin-Mercier recovered quickly and seized control in Rounds 2 and 3. Aubin-Mercier moved to 2-0 in the PFL, bumping his career record to 13-5. Horcher, making his PFL debut, dropped to 14-5.
Cooper came into the bout with more career knockouts (17) than Hill had fights (15), and the disparity of experience quickly showed in a dominant performance. Cooper, whose 43-fight career has included a Bellator title fight and tournament final, was all over Hill from the start, staggering Hill with an aggressive attack and finishing him brutally on the feet. In his first fight in nearly two years, the win moved Cooper to 28-15 in his career.
Cooper packed a lot of punishment into just 2:32, getting three takedowns and landing 47 strikes (to Hill's seven) before referee Keith Peterson mercifully stepped in to wave off the barrage. With the loss, Hill fell to 10-6.
This meeting between Umalatov, who is primarily a wrestler, and Silva, a jiu-jitsu practitioner, ended up playing out almost entirely on the feet, and Umalatov used busy, all-angles striking and swift, unpredictable footwork to remain unbeaten.
It was, however, the first time the now 11-0 Russian has gone the distance -- all 10 of his previous wins had been finishes, with seven of them coming in the first round. Silva dropped to 25-10-1 in his pro career.
At 6-foot-2, Bowen is tall for a welterweight. But Lombardo chopped him down to size, first landing several overhand rights upward to Bowen's head, and then hobbling Bowen with kicks to the left calf.
The first made him limp backward, the second dropped him and made Bowen yell and grab his leg. Lombardo grabbed Bowen's compromised leg with one hand and then punched it with his other hand, before landing a third kick to a grounded Bowen's calf. That last kick, and Bowen's painful yell, brought referee Copeland in to wave off the fight at 3:42 of Round 1. Lombardo moved to 12-2 with one no contest in his career, while Bowen dropped to 9-7.
The card opened with a matchup of two Miami-based fighters both making their PFL debuts, and the unbeaten Espinoza was in control from the start. Espinoza got an early takedown and worked for a rear-naked choke, which he was able to lock in. The choke rendered Stewart unconscious, and referee Keith Peterson stepped in to end the fight at 2:45 of Round 1.