Maybe more than any other major mixed martial arts promotion, the Professional Fighters League was the hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic. With the pandemic starting right before the 2020 season was set to begin, the league chose to postpone their entire schedule until 2021. However, major positives came out of the lost season. With no events to promote, the league made good use of its yearlong off-season and scooped up some of the best free agents on the market in last year. Packing this revised season with their most star-studded roster to date. If the league wants 2021 to live up to its potential, here are five fights the PFL needs to make during season three.
Anthony Pettis vs. Johnny Case
In December, the league made a massive free agent splash when they signed former World Extreme Cagefighting and Ultimate Fighting Championship lightweight king Anthony Pettis. He of Wheaties box fame has a fan base and resume second to none in the league. And at 33, there is more than enough excellence left in him for the PFL to get fair value for their money.
Yet for “Showtime” to shine brightest, he must be allowed to display his striking brilliance. Hence, why I am not going the predictable route of some contemporaries, and calling for a fight with two-time league lightweight champion Natan Schulte. That fight has serious relevance in the division, but let’s not kid ourselves. When things get hairy on the feet, “Russo” is going to “Russo” and take Pettis to the ground. The league can hold off until the playoffs for that, and have the season be about the Milwaukee native’s return to his highlight reel making best version.
That’s why a fight with fellow free agent addition Johnny Case is a must in 2021, and the earlier the better. “Hollywood” has traveled the globe for 14-years knocking foes out in 70% of his wins, and wracked up an underappreciated 27-7 record. He won four of six in the UFC. Earned his league contract after becoming a sensation in Rizin with three knockouts in four appearances, and he is the only man to step into the PFL cage with Schulte and not leave with an L. Case has the moxie and experience to walk into the cage and be unimpressed by any perceived UFC aura other PFL lightsweights may feel Pettis has. He will go in there and scrap with the 155-pound star and try and prove who was the true best addition to the division in 2021.
Emiliano Sordi vs. Chris Camozzi
If you missed Emiliano Sordi’s dominant 2019 run to the light heavyweight championship, then you missed a hell of show. After a crushing loss to Bozigit Ataev in the 2018 playoffs ended his season, the Argentinian absolutely wrecked shop in season two. Outside of 2018 finalist Vinny Magalhaes surviving the first round in their season opener, Sordi was an opening frame destruction machine in his run to winning PFL gold and $1 million. The division culling even included two slices of revenge against Ataev. What made Ray Cooper III a must see fighter in season one, “He-Man” took to a whole other level in the league’s follow up. Not seeing him compete last year was one of my biggest let downs in 2020 MMA.
To make good on the lost time, and let Sordi highlight his filthy boxing in his title defense campaign, you have to put him in there with another fighter not looking to find out the texture of the PFL cage mats. One man in particular fits the bill. That being UFC and Glory Kickboxing vet Chris Camozzi. Another season three addition to the roster. Granted, the 34-year-old has a bunch of losses on his record. However, in a 39-fight MMA career, the man’s only been stopped via strikes once, and that was a 2019 doctor stoppage. He’s tough as nails and down for any kind of brawl you can offer. A stand-up war plays to both fighters’ strengths and could be a bout that ends up on league highlight reels for years to come.
Ali Isaev vs. Fabricio Werdum
Not to slight the talented athletes in the PFL’s heavyweight division (especially since they could fold me up with just a look), but there is only one fight that needs to happen in 2021. Last year’s champion Ali Isaev versus–another major free agent pick-up–former UFC heavyweight champ Fabricio Werdum.
I don’t need to run off at the keyboard on Werdum’s resume. He’s a first ballot hall-of-famer who is in the discussion as the best heavyweight grappler who has ever lived. However, “Vai Cavalo” will turn 44-years-old midway through the season. This can’t be overlooked. Yet, he is not a fighter who left the UFC on a losing streak looking worn and weathered. On the contrary, he dominated his way into free agency by submitting former light heavyweight title contender Alexander Gustafsson, and his recent losses were to top-10 UFC talent.
Isaev is an unbeaten and still unproven Dagestani bear of a man. If the 37-year-old is seen as a building block for the league’s future, there is no better way to verify that than a match-up with Werdum. It’s why the fight is a must in 2021, and the league should not wait until the playoffs. That strategy did not work in 2019 when eventual women’s lightweight champion Kayla Harrison and talented veteran Sarah Kaufman were kept away from each other during the season. With the hopes of marketable bout in the playoffs or championship. Neither happened. The league can’t let another profitable match-up slip away this year.
Ray Cooper III vs. Rory MacDonald and Joao Zeferino
When UFC vet, and former Bellator welterweight champion, Rory MacDonald signed with the PFL, a booking against Ray Cooper III seemed like a fun idea. It became an absolute season three necessity when the Hawaiian avenged his 2018 shortcomings, and became the league’s new welterweight champion. The best 170-pound talent to grace the league’s cage versus its most popular star is easy booking, and I am sure you will see it on other lists.
However, the fight you might not see, and one that was a hope for many in 2018, is “Bradda Boy” versus Joao Zeferino. “The Brazilian Samurai” has long been a solid MMA talent. Having competed in the UFC, and PFL predecessor World Series of Fighting. However, in the league’s first year, the Brazilian made a shift from dangerous submission artist to a legitimate striking threat. He went unbeaten, earned the second seed in the playoffs, and then a knee injury derailed his $1 million hopes. The bad luck continued in 2019 and he was only able to compete, and win, once.
If Zeferino can show this undefeated PFL version of him is real, then the leagues welterweight division could have a nasty quartet at the top. With MacDonald, Cooper III, Zeferino and 2018 champion Magomed Magomedkerimov. You have to let these men mingle before they get to the playoffs, and Cooper III in a fire fight on the ground or feet with Zeferino would be a great way to start season three.