As the Professional Fighters League kicked off its light heavyweight and heavyweight seasons at PFL 3 in Uniondale, New York, on Thursday night, we learned that one division is stacked with intriguing talent while the other seems wide open as it looks for a star or two to emerge.
The 205-pounders impressed at times, with Emiliano Sordi finishing Vinny Magalhaes — last season’s light heavyweight runner-up — in the second round with a series of body shots, uppercuts and right hands.
But Bozigit Ataev, the 40-year-old who is the oldest competitor in the tournament, Ronny Markes and Viktor Nemkov also impressed with their efforts on a night that wasn’t exactly action-packed and saw the majority of fights end by decision.
The heavyweights weren’t as polished, with just two stoppages in six fights. Denis Goltsov stunned UFC veteran Jared Rosholt with a first-round, ground-and-pound finish, and Kelvin “Mama’s Boy” Tiller got a submission win via first-round kimura over Muhammad Dereese.
Overall, the heavyweights earned just six bonus points at PFL 3. Here’s how the rest of the night played out.
This story was updated in real time.
Emiliano Sordi def. Vinny Magalhaes via second-round TKO (referee stoppage) (5 points) (Light heavyweight)
Last season, Vinny Magalhaes won his first four fights in the PFL via first-round stoppages. He was the headliner Thursday as a result of that rally, which ended with a loss in the title fight to Sean O’Connell.
But Emiliano Sordi, who lost in the quarterfinals in 2018, reminded us that last season is in the past with a dominant win over Magalhaes. The referee stopped the fight in the second round after Sordi had peppered Magalhaes with body shots, right hands and uppercuts throughout the fight.
It was the right call by Dan Miragliotta, as Magalhaes continued to take punishment and fail to defend himself until Miragliotta called the fight at 2:45 into Round 2.
Kelvin Tiller def. Muhammed Dereese via first-round kimura submission (6 points) (Heavyweight)
The most exciting fight of the night was staged between a pair of fighters nicknamed “Mama’s Boy” and “Mo Muscle.”
Muhammad Dereese was the busier fighter on the feet early in the first round as Kelvin Tiller tried to gauge his opponent and control the distance. But when the fight went to the ground, Tiller immediately began to work for the kimura, which he secured and never released.
Dereese, an alternate in the PFL last season who won a pair of fights via first-round knockouts, was courageous as he tried to fight through the submission attempt. Tiller, who was a No. 2 seed in last season’s heavyweight playoff tournament, would not stop until he finally secured the submission win and the full six points at 3:22 into the first round — and he looks like he’s back to win this thing.
After last year, we knew Tiller had a lot of power, but if he’s also a threat on the ground, he could be dangerous. On a night without a lot of action, Tiller secured the best finish of PFL 3; it was really impressive work by the “Mama’s Boy.”
Satoshi Ishii’s split decision victory over Zeke Tuinei-Wily showcased the value of the PFL’s diverse talent pool. It’s a place where veterans who still have that hunger to fight and ambitious up-and-comers can compete in the same cage, all for the ultimate $1 million champion’s prize.
Tuinei-Wily is a former Division I college football player who had four pro MMA fights on his résumé entering Thursday’s matchup, while Ishii is a 2008 Olympic gold medalist in judo who has fought Mirko Cro Cop (who he now trains with in Croatia), Tim Sylvia, Fedor Emelianenko, Rampage Jackson and King Mo Lawal in mixed martial arts.
Although it didn’t seem like a balanced matchup on paper, with Tuinei-Wily coming in as a late replacement for defending champion Philipe Lins, the underdog used his durability and strength to make the fight interesting on the scorecards. Entering the third round, the two fighters had landed 70 punches combined (41 for Ishii, 29 for Tuinei-Wily). Ishii bloodied Tuinei-Wily with hard left hands, but Tuinei-Wily returned fire multiple times in the fight.
The rounds were difficult to score, but Ishii’s pressure gave him the edge in the fight and, ultimately, three key points.
Denis Goltsov def. Jared Rosholt via first-round TKO (6 points) (Heavyweight)
Denis Goltsov secured the heavyweight division’s first finish of the season when he earned a first-round TKO win over Jared Rosholt at 2:03, a UFC veteran who reached the PFL semifinals last season.
Rosholt came forward early in the fight. But Goltsov timed his rush and caught him with a check left hook akin to the shot Floyd Mayweather Jr. used to fight off the ropes against Manny Pacquiao.
It was a beautiful shot. Goltsov, a former world sambo champion who still competes in the sport, ended the bout by landing blows to a downed Rosholt, who seemed completely stunned by the rapid momentum shift in the fight. It was a quick finishing sequence, but one that proves Goltsov is a legit threat in this tournament.
There will be takedowns in the PFL’s heavyweight division this season, it seems. The division witnessed its third consecutive decision victory on Thursday when Ali Isaev controlled the action throughout his fight against Valdrin Istrefi. Istrefi, who only missed the PFL playoffs a year ago after suffering an injury in training before his quarterfinal matchup, had to deal with Isaev’s superior wrestling skills and spent most of the fight on his back..
Isaev finished the fight with eight takedowns, in fact, and ran away with what was ultimately a 30-27 decision on all three judge’s cards. He took Istrefi down whenever he wanted to. He threw a few hard leg kicks while on top, and a knee to Istrefi’s back that you could almost feel through your TV.
Isaev never relented through three rounds, and he earned the three points for the decision win.
Viktor Nemkov def. Rakim Cleveland via unanimous decision (3 points) (Light heavyweight)
Another fight at PFL, and another decision — but this one featured a fair bit more action than many of the other fights to this point on the card.
Viktor Nemkov was more active throughout his unanimous decision win (29-28 on all three scorecards) over Rakim Cleveland, although Cleveland proved that he has enhanced his grappling skills after losing two fights via submission last season.
Nemkov nearly finished the fight in the first round with a pair of anaconda choke attempts that Cleveland defended well. A takedown in the third round by Nemkov likely sealed the win for him.
Cleveland, who broke Rashid Yusupov‘s jaw in last year’s PFL, has improved as a grappler, and despite falling short in a fight in which Nemkov entered as the clear favorite, Cleveland had Nemkov in a tight guillotine in the final minute of the fight. But Cleveland, a boxer, failed to take advantage of his opportunities in the center of the cage — a mistake he couldn’t afford against a veteran like Nemkov.
Ronny Markes def. Sigi Pesaleli via second-round KO (0 points) (Light heavyweight)
Sigi Pesaleli is 25 years old, the youngest fighter in the PFL’s light heavyweight division. Ronny Markes entered his fight against his inexperienced opponent with 25 fights on his résumé.
Markes got the TKO victory in the second round after taking Pesaleli’s back and finishing him with numerous punches, and Pesaleli was defenseless.
None of it mattered. Markes missed weight and therefore could not earn any points in the PFL format, so Pesaleli automatically received the three points for a victory before the bout began, with a chance to earn bonus points. But Markes is a legit jiu-jitsu black belt and veteran who stayed aggressive with his submission attempts and eventually overwhelmed Pesaleli, who had fought only three times prior to Thursday’s fight. The gap in experience showed.
It could have been a big, five-point win for Markes if he had made weight.
Rashid Yusupov def. Mikhail Mokhnatkin via unanimous decision (3 points) (Light heavyweight)
In the first two PFL cards of the second season, 40 percent of the bouts ended with first-round finishes. On Thursday, fans in Uniondale, New York, booed light heavyweights Rashid Yusupov and Mikhail Mokhnatkin as they fought to the fourth consecutive decision of the night at PFL 3.
The two fought at a distance, with Yusupov being more active throughout the fight. That was reflected in the judges’ final scores, which were 30-26, 30-27 and 30-27
Entering the third round, only seven punches had been landed between the two fighters, but Yusupov hit Mokhnatkin with a powerful left hook that dropped his fellow Russian combatant. The crowd got excited, but Yusupov couldn’t finish Mokhnatkin by the final horn.
Ultimately, Yusupov did win the three points. Last year, his PFL campaign was derailed when he suffered a broken jaw in his first fight. He’d been undefeated prior to that. Perhaps he can regain the momentum he lost last season.
Overall, the fans in Uniondale continued to wait for a fight that will wake them up with the kind of knockout that the light heavyweight and heavyweight divisions are typically known for.
Both Alex Nicholson, the aggressive fighter who saw all four of his fights end via KO last season, and Francimar Barroso, the former UFC light heavyweight and the No. 1 seed entering last year’s heavyweight playoffs, pushed the pace early in their fight, which closed out the preliminaries on the ESPN2 portion of the PFL 3 card. But neither had the energy to maintain that action through three rounds. Barroso’s takedowns likely secured the victory, although Nicholson used multiple escapes and threw hard punches even when he was fatigued.
One judge gave the fight to Nicholson, 29-28 and the other two judges scored the bout 29-28 for Barroso, who earned three points for the split decision win.
Barroso had some heavy punches of his own in the matchup, too, but he nearly saw the fight get away from him in the third. After a slower second round, an actual fight broke out again in the opening moments of the third round when the two exchanged hard punches and Nicholson mounted Barroso for a ground-and-pound attack — but Barroso escaped and spent the bulk of the round on top, trying to smother his opponent as both men breathed heavily. At times, the two staged a solid bout. Barroso simply had a little more energy down the stretch than his opponent.
In the closing seconds of their bout, Maxim Grishin put Jordan Johnson on the mat with a heavy right hand — but the Russian veteran failed to follow up with a meaningful attack. That was the story of the fight, it seemed. But the judges picked Grishin’s occasional combinations and strikes over Johnson’s consistent wrestling-heavy pressure through much of the fight. Grishin would throw a high kick or right hand in spurts, but couldn’t match the pressure of Johnson, the former Iowa wrestler who arrived in the PFL following a 4-0 stint in the UFC.
Johnson, who trains with Bellator two-division champ Ryan Bader, suffered his first loss as a pro despite landing 51 of 107 strikes, compared to 26 of 69 strikes for Grishin. He was more effective and active throughout the fight. And his grappling was the overwhelming skill in the matchup.
Grishin had a chance to finish the fight in the final seconds, it seemed, but he didn’t pounce on a stunned Johnson. He didn’t have to, per the judges, who gave him three points and a win in one of the most controversial results thus far in the second season of the PFL.
That’s a message to the other fighters in the PFL: go for the finish. Johnson didn’t do that.
Both Ante Delija and Carl Seumanutafa fought as if they had little interest in the bonus points available to them in the opening heavyweight bout of the night at PFL 3. It wasn’t pretty. But Delija, who had fought just once since suffering a broken leg in a TKO loss to Marcin Tybura in 2015, continued his comeback with a decision win over Seumanutafa, a late replacement for the injured Ben Edwards.
Delija was active in the first round, taking his opponent down and throwing some heavy hammerfists from top and controlling the fight. But he played it safe in the second and third rounds, securing the win by smothering Seumanutafa against the cage. It was enough to earn the lopsided decision and three points with the win.
Bozigit Ataev def. Dan Spohn via first-round TKO (6 points) (Light heavyweight)
Last year, Bozigit Ataev was winning his light heavyweight fight against Dan Spohn during the first season of the PFL when Spohn threw a vicious combo late in the third round of the fight and secured the victory. It appeared that Spohn might be poised to repeat that feat again on Thursday in the rematch, which was the opening bout of PFL 3
But the 40-year-old Ataev — the oldest fighter in the division — weathered an early one-two combo and then finished the fight at 3:25 into the first round. He put Spohn down with a hard right hand and ended the bout with aggressive ground-and-pound, avenging last year’s result and earning six points for the first-round stoppage.