The biggest and baddest of the Professional Fighters League roster will return to the MMA league for a heavyweight showcase Thursday
- The biggest, baddest athletes on the
PFLroster return to the MMAcage on Thursday.
- PFL CEO
Peter Murraysaid this was by design: The league wants to showcase its big men and women.
Fabricio Werdumand Kayla Harrisonare both expected go far in the 2021 league.
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The showcase involves 18 fighters in nine separate bouts, with the heaviest athletes in the PFL stable: Heavyweight for men (206 to 265 pounds), and lightweight for women (up to 155 pounds).
PFL CEO Peter Murray told Insider that the structure of the MMA event is intentional. The company wanted to restart its live-events business with big-name athletes like Anthony Pettis and Rory MacDonald in the earliest events of its 2021 season - PFL 1 and PFL 2 - before leading into PFL 3, where the company's strongest and heaviest athletes do battle.
"We wanted to build up to the big guns for the men and women, and that's the exciting thing about seeing two weight classes on the same night," Murray said. "The similarities and differences, the story, the experience. For sure, this was all by design."
PFL 1 and PFL 2 were the first live shows since 2019, since the PFL postponed its 2020 season due to the pandemic. The current season's events are being held behind closed doors, at a quarantined studio inside the Ocean Casino Resort in Atlantic City.
The PFL is unlike other combat-sports promotions that operate in MMA, since it adopts a structure similar to the NFL and NBA: Athletes navigate through a regular season, a playoff, and a lucrative tournament final. By contrast, firms like the UFC construct fight cards that feature multiple standalone matches in which the winners advance in the rankings of their respective weight classes. Then eventually, they might challenge for a title.
So far, the PFL's 2021 season has produced a stunning upset - boxing cult hero Clay Collard out-pointed the former UFC champion, Pettis, in April. The league also offered a lesson in pure dominance, when MacDonald, the former Bellator ruler, submitted PFL 2 opponent Curtis Millender with a rear-naked choke on April 29.
On Thursday, the male heavyweights and female lightweights - a weight class unofficially regarded as the heavyweight division for women - take center stage.
It's an event that will be of special interest to PFL President Ray Sefo, a former fighter in multiple combat disciplines. He stands 6-foot-1 and weighs 265 pounds.
"Ray Sefo - he's a big fella," Murray told Insider. "He loves all the fighters, weight classes, but there's a special place for the heavyweights for Ray. He always has an added wink and extra smile when it comes to male heavyweights and women's lightweights."
Thursday's event offers 9 PFL fights
"There's a lot of really great fighters on display," PFL analyst and commentator
Here's the full slate:
- Fabricio Werdum vs. Renan Ferreira - heavyweight
- Kayla Harrison vs. Mariana Morais - women's lightweight
- Muhammad Usman vs. Brandon Sayles - heavyweight
- Genah Fabian vs. Laura Sanchez - women's lightweight
- Denis Goltsov vs. Justin Willis - heavyweight
- Larissa Pacheco vs. Julija Pajic - women's lightweight
- Ante Delija vs. Bruno Cappelozza - heavyweight
- Cindy Dandois vs. Kaitlin Young - women's lightweight
- Olena Kolesnyk vs. Taylor Guardado - women's lightweight
Werdum and Harrison could win this season's $1 million checks
Florian singled 0ut Denis Goltsov as a fighter to keep an eye on because of the Russian's movement and skills in the sambo discipline. But Florian seemed most excited about Fabricio Werdum, who makes his debut for PFL at age 43.
A black belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu, judo, and Muay Thai, Werdum is a former UFC champion. He left the Las Vegas-based promotion with a win after submitting Alexander Gustafsson with an armbar on Fight Island in Abu Dhabi in July. Months later, he signed a deal with the PFL.
"A motivated Fabricio Werdum is capable of defeating any heavyweight in the world," Florian said. "Yes, he's a little bit older, but it seems when he's motivated, his striking and his wrestling go to new heights. This opportunity to fight all these guys who don't have the same kind of experience he has presents a great opportunity for him to not only look good but make a heck of a lot of money this year."
In the women's bracket, Florian foresees a second successive championship win for Kayla Harrison. That would mean she'd take home another $1 million check on top of her other fight payments. Harrison is a two-time Olympic gold medal-winning judoka.
"I don't see how anyone can really defeat her at this point," Florian said.
He added that Larissa Pacheco could provide a challenge, "as she's tough as nails." But ultimately, he thinks "it's Kayla's tournament to lose."
"She's such a strong favorite, and with her mindset and physical skills, she's going to be even better this season," he said of Harrison, adding, "this season, she could prove that she is [a superstar]. I think she's pretty much there. I see her being so dominant that she's the best 155-pounder in the world. Easily."
Over the course of this season, Florian said, he's curious to see how Harrison has evolved, as well as "what tricks she's got."
PFL's event on Thursday will be broadcast on ESPN+ from 5.30 p.m. ET before transitioning to ESPN for 7 p.m.
The event will also be on ESPN Deportes.
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