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The Professional Fighters League returns this Thursday for their third event of the season as the organization invades the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, New York. This event showcases the heavyweights and light heavyweights. Tomorrow, we will look at the big men. Today, we are digging deep into the dozen light heavyweights who will be battling for the million-dollar prize.
The Light Heavyweight division includes five Russian standouts, four Ultimate Fighting Championship veterans, a Pride Fighting Championships alumnus, two undefeated fighters and so much more.
Here is how I rate the talent in the field and their chances of becoming the season champion. This field is deep and several of the fighters have a strong chance of being the eventual king of the season.
12. Sigi Pesaleli
It is nearly impossible to get a grasp on Sigi Pesaleli’s game as he has had only one fight in MMA. The 25-year-old is a decorated kickboxer who has come up through the same circuit as current UFC interim middleweight champion Israel Adesanya. The Shuriken Fight Series standout is everything that you would expect from a professional kickboxer. He has great power in both his punches and kicks. He loves to slide into the pocket and work his devastating hooks and uppercuts. The New Zealand native’s best skill might be his commitment to constantly work the body on his opponents.
I can’t even venture a guess as to Pesaleli’s ground game. However, with a field of light heavyweights that includes an All-American wrestler and a Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champion, chances are his grappling will get tested, and it is very likely that it isn’t on an elite level. Based on his having only one professional MMA fight under his belt, Pesaleli is relegated to the bottom spot.
11. Ronny Markes
When the PFL announced their selections for the 2019 field, the pick of Ronny Markes was a surprising choice. The Brazilian has lost six out of his last 10 appearances, was stopped five times during that run, and lost both fights in the PFL last year. Regardless, the fighter holds wins over the likes of Paulo Filho, Karlos Vemola, Aaron Simpson and Andrew Craig. At just 31-years-old, the UFC veteran wants to show that he has a lot of tread left on his tires.
Markes can be a bit of a Wildman on the feet. He loves throwing winging power shots with bad intentions and his best strikes may be his chopping leg kicks, but his willingness to brawl leaves him open to being hit a lot and tends to empty his gas tank pretty fast.
The Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt is a pretty solid wrestler with quick entries and drive to get his opponents to the canvas. He attacks with a strong submission game and is good at sweeping his opponents when on the bottom.
Markes is a bit undersized for light heavyweight. He spent a large portion of his career at middleweight until missed weight cuts forced him to move up a division.
The veteran fighter has the skills to become the season champion, but, due to his recent slide, he shouldn’t be viewed as anything more than a longshot lottery ticket.
10. Emiliano Sordi
Emiliano Sordi heads into the 2019 PFL season with the chance to become the first Argentinian champion of a major MMA organization. The 17-8 professional is a well-rounded fighter who doesn’t really excel anywhere but who also doesn’t have any glaring weaknesses.
“He-Man” fights at a high pace, using constant movement to look for different angles of attack. He has nice power in his strikes, but he usually defeats his opponents by gradually building up his volume. When an opening presents itself, he will attack with a large combo of strikes. The Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series veteran can get a little wild in his technique when he decides to brawl with his foes. He often overthrows his punches, leaving him in compromised positions.
The 28-year-old is a serviceable offensive wrestler who prefers holding a dominant position to looking for a finish. His defensive wrestling leaves a lot to be desired and will need some work if he is matched with any of the strong wrestlers in the field.
Sordi’s heart has been questioned by critics after he quit against AJ Mathews – in a fight that he was easily winning up to that point – back in 2015.
American Top Team export Rakim Cleveland returns to the PFL cage with the hope that 2019 will be his season. The southpaw fighter isn’t very technical but he makes up for it with the best raw power in the field.
The Texas native can separate his opponents from consciousness with a single blow. His right hook and straight left hand are both devastating strikes and his ferocious kicks to the legs and body are more than any fighter can take over an extended period of time. However, he drains his own gas tank by throwing wildly and putting everything he has into every shot.
“The Boogeyman” makes the mistake of standing up too tall and backing straight up against the cage. He is strong in the clinch, where he uses powerful knees to the body and head to break down his opponents.
Cleveland’s weakness is his grappling. He loves to jump on a guillotine instead of defending the takedown, and this often leaves him on the bottom underneath his opponents. The 30-year-old also makes the mistake up giving up his back while trying to get to his feet, which is how he got submitted by Maxim Grishin last season.
Cleveland is likely a longshot to win the season, but his thunderous power makes him a threat to flatten anybody who steps into the cage with him.
8. Dan Spohn
Former UFC and Bellator veteran Dan Spohn had a nice run during the 2018 PFL season. The 34-year-old fighter defeated Bozigit Ataev and Artur Alibulatov before falling short in a playoff matchup against season champion Sean O'Connell. He returns to build off of his solid run and improve his 18-6 record.
Standing at 6-foot-4, Spohn is the tallest fighter in the light heavyweight field. He is a former heavyweight who uses his length well. The southpaw has fast hands and explodes on his foes with effective combinations. Even though he often keeps his hands low, preferring to throw from his hips, his left straight delivers some nice pop. The former CFFC champion dispenses a lot of kicks, as well, though he sometimes throws them without setups, which leaves him open for counterattacks.
“The Dragon” loves to battle in the clinch, where his height helps him fire off hard knees on his adversaries. He will sneak into a takedown but he isn’t a very strong wrestler. He does have some good back takes if the fight hits the canvas, though he often makes the mistake of throwing up submission attempts from off his back instead of scrambling to his feet.
The biggest issue for Spohn might prove to be his chin. He keeps it up high when fighting in the pocket and has been rocked several times in past fights. He fights best when he is the one moving forward rather than being backed up.
Though Bozigit Ataev did not win the 2018 PFL heavyweight title, he was the only one to defeat the eventual champion – he knocked out Sean O’Connell in the first round of their opening round matchup. The Russian fighter is the oldest fighter in the competition, having just hit the fourth decade mark. Ataev has been a professional since 2000 but didn’t compete in the sport for 11 years between 2006 to 2017. “Volk” is a veteran of both Pride FC and Rings. He has also competed in Combat Sambo, Sanshou kickboxing, professional kickboxing and won the world championship in Wushu.
The 2018 semi-finalist is a well-rounded fighter with good power in his hands. He is excellent at quickly closing the distance with a flurry of hooks. The Russian loves to work in the clinch where he batters his opponents with dirty boxing. Ataev loves to surprise his adversaries with spinning back kicks or spinning wheel kicks.
Ataev is a serviceable wrestler but he isn’t known for his takedowns. If he ends up on top, the Russian keeps his opponent on his back with blanketing ground control.
Volk would be higher on this list if it weren’t for his age. It is pretty hard to trust the durability of the 40-year-old over a five-fight stretch during a six-month period. The floor falls out quickly on fighters at Ataev’s age.
Maxim Grishin enters 2019 as one of the hottest fighters in the division, as the Russian has gone 16-1-1 over his last 18 fights. The 35-year-old captured the number two seed in last year’s playoffs but drew with Smealinho Rama and failed to advance after losing the tiebreaker in the quarterfinals. He returns this year to make amends for falling short last season.
Grishin is called a kickboxer during his in-cage introduction but he is a truly well-rounded fighter. “Maximus” loves to counterstrike on the feet, where he uses great head movement to avoid punches and then fires back with powerful strikes of his own. The former WAFC champion does have some nice power in his strikes and loves to set them up after attacking his opponents’ bodies with punches and kicks.
He is a really solid wrestler in the clinch, where he takes his foes down with trips and high-level judo throws. The Akhmat Fight Team member has been taken down by lower-level competition in the past, which could be a major problem with him battling an All-American wrestler in Jordan Johnson.
Another big issue with Grishin is that he tends to be a slow starter, which causes him to lose valuable rounds like he did against Rama. He will have to start faster this season if he wants to go deep into the playoffs.
When Mikhail Mokhnatkin burst onto the MMA scene, he was a highly-regarded prospect. While he has amassed an impressive 11-3-2 record, he appears yet to have reached his potential. The former Fight Night Global standout, who has competed at both light heavyweight and heavyweight, has the chance to get over the hump and be the next Russian MMA star.
The 29-year-old is a long and lengthy fighter who likes to work his technical striking game from range. He uses his hard kicks to chop at the legs and bodies of his opponents and help him win rounds. Mokhnatkin can be an extremely patient fighter, sometimes working at a snail’s pace, but his low output can become a problem due to his lack of one-punch knockout power.
Mokhnatkin will mix in a takedown to keep his opponent guessing. Once he is on top, he tends to secure his position and ground and pound as opposed to chasing the submission finish.
The older brother of Bellator star Vadim Nemkov, Viktor joins the PFL Light Heavyweight division with some of the best skills in the field. He is a former Combat Sambo world champion and is one of the main training partners of the legendary Fedor Emelianenko. The 32-year-old fighter is an experienced veteran who holds a win over former Bellator champion Attila Vegh.
The Alexander Nevsky (Stary Oskol) team member is a strong counterstriker who works behind a pumping jab. He tends to stay on the outside until he finds an opening to spring forward with a one-two combination. He has some nice pop on his punches but lacks true one-punch, fight-ending power. The Russian has good kicks but uses his striking to set up his takedowns.
The former M-1 Challenge champion is one of the best wrestlers in the field. He usually gets his takedowns shooting from a distance and is good at changing angles when attacking the hips. Once he gets an opponent down, Nemkov has arguably the best ground and pound in the division. He gives his opponents a real shellacking with his ground strikes. The former Combat Sambo champion also has a very active submission game and has shown that he has the ability to go a full 25 minutes if he can reach the finals on New Year’s Eve.
There are not many people picking Nemkov to win the season, but he has the skills to be the dark horse of the competition.
Vinny Magalhaes’ dream 2018 season came to a disastrous end when he was defeated in the finals by Sean O’Connell. Prior to that, the Brazilian quickly finished all four of his opponents en route to the finals. The UFC veteran returns as one of the favorites to win the million-dollar purse this year.
Though the Xtreme Couture team member won’t ever be confused with Mirko Filipovic, he doesn’t get enough credit for his striking. He is usually viewed as a one-dimensional fighter, but the 34-year-old throws hard punches and has a very underrated kicking game. He combines his kicks and punches well and finds openings as a result of his opponents’ wariness of being taken down.
The reason his opponents are worried about his grappling is because it is elite. In fact, that might be an understatement. Magalhaes is a former Abu Dhabi Combat Club and a no-gi world champion in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. His grappling is as good as anybody’s in the game. While he isn’t a strong offensive wrestler, he gets his opponents down often by simply pulling them into his guard. Once it hits the ground, the Brazilian is a master. He will either quickly find the submission from his back or sweep his opponents and work from the top. While he is likely to lock in a fight-ending submission, the Brazilian jiu-jitsu blackbelt uses some strong ground and pound to create opportunities for his submissions.
Magalhaes’ Achilles’ heel is his cardio. He often uses all his energy early in the fight. While he will continue to fight hard while tired, he isn’t nearly as dangerous late in fights as he is in the beginning.
The PFL made a big splash when they added free agent Jordan Johnson to their roster. The UFC veteran is still undefeated and notched four wins in the organization before his contract expired. The last RFA champion heads into the competition as one of the clear-cut favorites. “Big Swingin” is moving back up to light heavyweight from middleweight, where he competed in his last fight.
The 30-year-old is a bit slow and stiff on his feet, although he does have a strong chin and is a serviceable striker in the clinch. He tends to make the mistake of throwing one strike at a time and avoids punches by constantly leaning his head to the right, which could leave him open for a left high kick. He uses a long jab, which is starting to develop into a solid strike in his arsenal.
Though his striking has a long way to go, the MMA Lab product’s wrestling is phenomenal. The All-American wrestler has great level changes, slick trips, and beautiful throws. The University of Iowa standout smothers his opponents with heavy top pressure and is good at using his grinding style to win rounds.
Former M-1 Challenger champion Rashid Yusupov returns to the PFL cage for the first time since suffering the lone defeat of his career – a doctor stoppage against Rakim Cleveland. The 27-year-old looked good early in the contest until he injured his jaw. The Gorets FT member will be returning with a vengeance and is my pick to be crowned the light heavyweight champion on New Year’s Eve.
The Russian is a technically sound striker who utilizes his great footwork and vision to avoid attacks from his opponents while picking them apart from range. The southpaw has fast hands and one of the best jabs of any fighter on the PFL roster. He can be a slow starter but when he finds his range he builds up the volume of his attacks. He doesn’t have huge knockout power but he does a lot of damage with a cumulation of accurate shots. Yusupov has excellent kicks but he doesn’t throw them nearly enough.
The Russian fighter is a strong wrestler and can get takedowns from the clinch and from the outside. His takedown defense, however, is truly sensational, and he relies on it to keep the fight standing where he is at his strongest and most dangerous.
Yusupov has the experience of fighting for 25 minutes, which will be a large advantage over most of his competitors in the event that he reaches the finals.