Twice before during their years in the PFL, Larissa Pacheco had competed against Kayla Harrison, the fight promotion's dominant two-time women's lightweight champion, and had come away with the so-called moral victory of going the distance -- in a pair of losses.
On Friday night in New York, Pacheco got her third crack at Harrison, and this time she came away with a real victory, and a stunning one at that. The 28-year-old Brazilian earned a unanimous decision over the previously undefeated 8-to-1 favorite to capture the 2022 PFL women's lightweight title to cap an evening of six season championship bouts inside Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden.
Pacheco withstood a difficult first round in which Harrison (15-1), a two-time Olympic gold medalist in judo, easily took her to the canvas and controlled her there, while threatening a submission. But Pacheco (19-4) fought back in the second, using powerful stand-up and strong takedown defense to turn the tide.
The fight appeared to be tied going into the fifth round, and Pacheco was the fresher fighter at that point, landing some heavy strikes and tying up Harrison after being taken down.
Pacheco credited her opponent, who had rolled through every other fight in her career. "Just like Kayla said before: I've always made her a better competitor," Pacheco said through an interpreter. "Well, she's always made me a better competitor. She drove me to this moment."
The result left Hulu Theater stunned, considering the odds. And Pacheco recognized that few in the building expected her to take the title. "I knew today that I was fighting not just Kayla but everyone in here," Pacheco said. "So I'd like to thank everyone because in putting [forth] this performance, I earned fans."
Men's featherweight: Brendan Loughnane def. Bubba Jenkins by fourth-round TKO
Loughnane used an unrelenting attack of lower leg kicks to immobilize Jenkins, then picked him apart with straight punches. The final punch dropped Jenkins, who was severely compromised, for the finish at 2:38 of Round 4.
The kicks transformed the bout from a style-vs.-style matchup to essentially a striking contest, for which he had an advantage. Jenkins, a 2011 NCAA Division I national champion in wrestling, made several tries to get the fight to the canvas, but Loughnane's takedown defense was stout, aided by Jenkins having little drive off his damaged front leg.
But Jenkins did land some good strikes, especially early on, bloodying the nose of his opponent. But Loughnane, who is from England, always had the edge in stand-up, landing more strikes and at times getting into a rhythm in which he hardly missed.
As Loughnane was about to be interviewed afterward, he noticed that Jenkins was leaving the cage, and he called him back in. "I really like this guy," Loughnane said. "It's unfortunate that we had to fight in the final. I love this guy from the bottom of my heart, I really do."
"Congratulations on the victory," Jenkins told him as they embraced.
Heavyweight: Ante Delija def. Matheus Scheffel by first-round TKO
Delija opened the 2022 season by knocking out Scheffel. He ended it the same way.
The 32-year-old from Croatia, who lost in last year's heavyweight final, got the job done this time by landing a left hook that wobbled Scheffel, followed by a flurry against the cage that dropped and finished the Brazilian at 2:50 of Round 1.
His season-opening win over Scheffel came in the first minute of the second round.
For Delija, going from a loss in last year's final to a championship this year was quite a journey. "It was hard," Dedlija said through an interpreter. "But tonight I am back, and I am so grateful."
For as long as the fight lasted, it was a fiery exchange of big punches, until the left hook by Delija. And when he wobbled Scheffel, he did not hesitate in going for his third finish of the year.
Scheffel saw the end of a two-fight 2022 winning streak, which included a win over 2021 champ Bruno Cappelozza.
Women's featherweight: Aspen Ladd def. Julia Budd by split decision
Ladd arrived in the PFL for her debut and received a welcoming gift from two judges, who scored the only nontitle fight on the main card her way.
Ladd, a 27-year-old Californian who came over from the UFC, did control Round 1 after catching a Budd kick and taking the fight to the canvas, where she threatened a submission for an extended period.
But in the second and third rounds, she was unable to seize back control, and nearly every time the fighters were in a clinch, Budd was blasting her with knees to the body. When the fighters were competing on their feet from distance, Budd was landing the better strikes as Ladd's punches were wide and often far from their mark.
Nonetheless, two judges scored the bout 29-28 for Ladd, while the other gave it to Budd by the same score.
Ladd came in having lost three of four fights. Budd, a 39-year-old former Bellator champion from British Columbia, Canada, has dropped two in a row.
Men's lightweight: Olivier Aubin-Mercier def. Stevie Ray by second-round KO
Left low kick. Left low kick. Left low kick.
Using the same technique repeatedly was giving Aubin-Mercier the edge by gradually tenderizing the right calf of Ray. But then the 33-year-old from Montreal unleashed a right hook, and there was nothing gradual about the finish. The shot dropped Ray, his head bouncing off the mat, and Aubin-Mercier was champion.
"It was a crazy experience," Aubin-Mercier said. "I don't tell anybody to do that, but when you do it and you're on top at the end, the feeling I have right now is the closest thing to joy."
Aubin-Mercier controlled the first round and the early portion of the second with the leg kicks, which left Ray's right calf bruised and compromised his movement. Twice, Aubin-Mercier knocked him down with kicks. But when Aubin-Mercier tried a high kick, Ray took him to the canvas and seized back control, threatening a rear-naked choke. Aubin-Mercier eventually escaped, and as the final seconds of the round ticked off the clock, it looked like the fight was headed to the third tied at a round apiece.
But Aubin-Mercier didn't allow it to get there. His right hook ended the fight in an instant at 4:40 of the second, extending his winning streak to six in a row.
Welterweight: Sadibou Sy def. Dilano Taylor by unanimous decision
Sy has been part of all four PFL seasons, but never before had he made the playoff final. In his first shot at a championship, he took home the oversized $1 million check.
The 35-year-old from Sweden utilized his long wingspan to keep Taylor at a distance, attacking mostly with kicks, including some thudding shots to the midsection. Taylor kept coming but was unable to find a place for his big punches.
"This moment is just overwhelming," Sy said after three 49-46 scorecards were announced. "I've been working for all the years since 2002 for this moment, to be here with this belt, five-time world champion."
The first three of those championships came in kickboxing, and Sy utilized that pedigree to his advantage in this bout.
Taylor was looking to be the season's Cinderella story. He earned his way into the welterweight season via the Challenger Series, and he lost one of his two regular-season fights to Magomed Magomedkerimov. But in the playoffs, he knocked out Rory MacDonald to make the final.
Light heavyweight: Robert Wilkinson def. Omari Akhmedov by second-round TKO
The bell sounded to end the second round, and Wilkinson turned to head back to his corner. Akhmedov stayed on the mat.
It took three of the Dagestani's cornermen to get him to his feet and lead him back to his corner, where they went to work on a face bleeding from a large cut over his right eye. But when the cageside doctor came over -- it was his second time examining Akhmedov's cut -- the fight was waved off.
And thus, Wilkinson became the evening's first winner of a $1 million championship.
"The million dollars is awesome, but this belt is something I've been dreaming of," said Wilkinson, a 30-year-old from Australia who finished 2022 with four PFL knockouts. He is 7-0 overall since a loss to Israel Adesanya in a 2018 middleweight bout in the UFC.
Wilkinson controlled the fight the entire way, stalking his opponent and hurting him with jabs and uppercuts. Akhmedov has heavy hands to pose a danger, but once he began to fade from the damage sustained, he couldn't keep Wilkinson from walking him down.
Men's featherweight: Sheymon Moraes def. Marlon Moraes by third-round TKO
Marlon Moraes was true to form.
He has a history of starting strongly and then either fading or getting stopped, and that happened in a big way in this fight. After dominating the first two rounds and looking fresh to start of the third, he was dropped by an overhand right and finished by Sheymon Moraes (no relation) at 58 seconds of the final round.
Before the PFL was the PFL -- back when the promotion was known as the World Series of Fighting -- Marlon Moraes was its bantamweight champion. But that was a long time ago -- his reign was from 2014 until 2016. More recently, he has struggled. This was either his PFL debut or his return, depending on how you view the WSOF rebranding, and he came in having lost five of his last six UFC bouts. Add one more defeat.
For Sheymon Moraes, who like Marlon is from Brazil, the win gives him four wins in his past five fights.
Men's lightweight: Natan Schulte def. Jeremy Stephens by second-round submission
How do you say "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again," in Portuguese?
Schulte, the two-time PFL lightweight champion from Brazil, needed just two or three hard kicks to the calf from Stephens, who throws everything hard, to decide that the best way to fight "Li'l Heathen" was on the canvas. So Schulte took the fight there immediately.
Within the fight's first minute, Schulte took a dominant position on the mat and locked in a head-and-arm choke, which he held for much of the rest of the round. But Stephens survived that submission attempt and a rear-naked choke near the end of the round.
When Round 2 began, Schulte took the fight back to the canvas within 10 seconds and quickly secured a head-and-arm choke. This time it was tighter, and Stephens tapped out at 1:32. Schulte, 30, has won two in a row.
Stephens, a 36-year-old from San Diego, has just one win in his past eight fights.
Catchweight (175 pounds): Magomed Magomedkerimov def. Gleison Tibau by unanimous decision
The fighters hugged at the center of the cage at the start, which was about as close as they got for three rounds. Tibau's takedown defense kept Magomedkerimov off of him, but the Brazilian offered little offense in losing all three rounds on all three scorecards.
Magomedkerimov, the 2018 PFL welterweight champion, stalked his opponent for nearly all of the 15 minutes and landed with frequency, but while he marked up Tibau's face, he never had him in serious trouble.
In addition to being a past champion, Magomedkerimov also made it to last year's final. But the 32-year-old from Dagestan has seen his PFL run stalled by chronic visa issues. This season, he competed only once, scoring a second-round knockout of Dilano Taylor, who went on to make the playoff finals.
Tibau, who is 39 and from Brazil, has lost two in a row.
Women's flyweight: Dakota Ditcheva vs. Katherine Corogenes by first-round KO
Ditcheva scored her second first-round knockout in the PFL and showed off a more well-rounded arsenal of skills.
She came in looking to strike, while Corogenes closed the distance, hoping to take the fight to the canvas. But Ditcheva, a 24-year-old from England, held her own in clinches while landing knees to the body. And when she had some space, Ditcheva landed a flurry of punches, punctuated by a right hand that gave her the knockout at 4:20.
"I woke up this morning," Ditcheva said, "and I choose violence every single day."
Corogenes, who has the atypical MMA background of Ivy League Ph.D., is a 33-year-old from Philadelphia. She falls to 3-1.
Men's lightweight (amateur): Biaggio Ali Walsh def. Tom Graesser by first-round KO
Biaggio Ali Walsh needs just one solid punch to drop opponent Tom Graesser in the PFL World Championship prelims.
Ali Walsh, the grandson of "The Greatest," Muhammad Ali, kicked off the evening in a pretty great way, blasting Graesser with straight punch after straight punch, bloodying him and then dropping him for the finish just 45 seconds in.
Ali Walsh was busy from the get-go, throwing 25 punches and kicks in the short fight and landing 20. He looked sharp for an amateur who is now 2-1.
Along with his overmatched opponent, Ali Walsh had to deal with the pressure of being the grandson of a legend. "The pressure, it's going to be there," he said. "But I talk to myself a lot, I meditate, I visualize. There's certain things I do to deal with that pressure. It's always going to be there, and I think I handled it pretty well."