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The Professional Fighters League introduced a different concept in running an MMA organization during its first season in 2018. It mirrored its product after the stick-and-ball sports in America by having fighters compete in two regular-season matches, with competitors scoring points based on performance. The top eight fighters in each weight class punched tickets to the playoffs: a three-round single-elimination tournament in which the winner was awarded a million-dollar purse.
The promotion has thus far exceeded expectations and will return for its second season on Thursday in Uniondale, New York. The most notable changes? Events are set to air on various ESPN outlets instead of NBC Sports, and the PFL has replaced men’s middleweights with women’s lightweights.
Over the next six weeks, Sherdog.com will rank competitors in each PFL weight class, from least likely to most likely to win a tournament. It starts with women’s lightweights, their division highlighted by a multi-time Olympic gold medalist, a decorated former MMA world champion and a former “Ultimate Fighter” cast member.
8. Genah Fabian
Fabian is a New Zealand native who trains out of Phuket, Thailand. She is a current WMC muay Thai world champion and has fought once in MMA -- a victory over Joanne Obolevics in September 2015. Fabian is what you expect from a muay Thai practitioner. The southpaw has a powerful straight left hand and lead right hook. She throws an abundance of kicks and steps into them to deliver power. The AKA Thailand product chops at the legs and can quickly bring the kick to her opponent’s head. She won her muay Thai world title by knocking out Charmaine Tweet with a high kick in February 2018. No one knows how she will handle herself on the ground, a fact that makes her something of a wild card in the tournament. Remember, she has not fought as a mixed martial artist in nearly four years, so there are real concerns about whether or not she has grown in all facets. This weight class features former world champions in major organizations and a two-time Olympic judo gold medalist, so it is impossible to feel good about her chances if her fights hit the ground.
Charneski operates out of Cooper MMA and Perazim Boxing in Austin, Texas, having moved there from her native Wisconsin in 2017. The 29-year-old has elected to step in for Svetlana Khautova, who was removed from the PFL’s first Season 2 event for undisclosed reasons. Charneski has yet to find her footing as a professional, as evidenced by a sub-.500 record. She made her Professional Fighters League debut on New Year’s Eve, when she succumbed to first-round punches from Kayla Harrison in the first stoppage loss of her career. Charneski’s three pro wins have come against Sarah Patterson, Trisha Clark and Katie Ross Scharmer -- women with a cumulative record of 8-15.
6. Morgan Frier
A United States Army veteran, Frier enters the 2019 PFL season with a 4-1 record. The California native dropped her first professional bout but regrouped and has run through her competition ever since. “Mad Dog” has stopped all four of her victims in less than a minute while fighting exclusively under the Gladiator Challenge banner. Frier wants to turn every fight into a grappling bout. As soon as the referee gives the command to fight, the former soldier rushes her adversary to try and get into a clinch. The Houdini Grips product works well in close quarters and often looks for a body lock, a position from which she is deft at taking her opponents to the mat with trips and throws. Once Frier gets her opponent to the ground, she smells blood. She uses an active ground-and-pound game to advance her position and attempt to get to full mount. Once she secures the dominant position, she pummels her opponent with hard shots until the referee stops the contest or she sinks a submission. Striking remains the most concerning aspect of the 28-year-old’s game. During her brief career, her standup has been virtually non-existent, as she is known to just throw a wild single strike to close the distance and work from the clinch. Frier is taking a major step up in competition by joining the field. Not one of the fighters she has beaten has a single professional win. This could be a major issue, as she has been pitted opposite Sarah Kaufman, who has 20 wins to her credit.
When Pacheco entered the Ultimate Fighting Championship, she was the youngest fighter on the roster at only 20 years of age. The Brazilian’s stay in the UFC was brief, as she went 0-2 before being shipped back to the regional scene. Pacheco got something of a raw deal from the organization, which paired her with Jessica Andrade and Germaine de Randamie in her two Octagon appearances. The Rio de Janeiro native was later cast on “The Ultimate Fighter 28,” but her time on the show was short-lived: She lost by first-round technical knockout to Macy Chiasson, the season’s eventual winner. Pacheco has enjoyed tremendous success away from the UFC, going 11-0 with 11 finishes. Though she figures to give up some size in her transition from featherweight to lightweight, she enters the PFL season as the second-most experienced fighter on the roster. The former Jungle Fight champion has proven to be quite aggressive and benefits from a deep gas tank, which could improve with her ditching the weight cut. Pacheco profiles as a solid athlete who loves to brawl and tends to engulf her opponents by throwing wild, powerful shots. However, her aggression comes at a cost, as she often abandons her defensive principles, leaves her chin high and keeps her head on the centerline. While Pacheco’s chin has yet to crack, she has absorbed plenty of damage in her 13-fight career. Submissions remain her primary strength. Pacheco prefers to enter the clinch, at which point she attempts to ground her opponent with throws or body-lock takedowns. She finds a way to get the fight on the mat despite not being a strong wrestler. The Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt has a lot of weapons at her disposal but tends to lose dominant positions in a bid to land fight-ending maneuvers. It has left Pacheco in compromising situations int he past. She enjoys working from the bottom, and while she has secured some submissions off of her back, she has been known to wander into trouble against other distinguished grapplers.
Samad will step back into the cage for the first time in nearly four years, as the Brazilian took a break from the sport to give birth to a child. She is 4-1 as a pro, with her only loss coming to current Bellator MMA featherweight champion Julia Budd in a November 2015 unanimous decision. Samad is an unorthodox striker who uses her herky-jerky motion to close the distance instead of doing damage to her opponent. In the clinch, she appears to be powerful but limited by subpar wrestling. She usually looks to grab a body-lock and drop down on a single-leg to get her counterpart to the ground. Her distance wrestling entries are mediocre at best, but Samad thrives on the ground. She won two Brazilian jiu-jitsu world championships as a brown belt. Having graduated to black belt, Samad uses ferocious ground-and-pound to advance to a dominant position, where she has a plethora of submissions at her disposal. Though she does not find herself on her back often because of stellar takedown defense, Samad actively attacks with submissions when such situations arise. She may be the worst athlete in the field and her inactivity is disconcerting, but she has the submission chops to end any fight at any moment.
Dalziel enters the season as one of the best strikers in the field. The 6-foot undefeated Canadian is the tallest fighter in the division by three inches and would tower over Sarah Kaufman by seven inches in the event of a meeting. The long-and-lengthy southpaw has quick hands, with nice snap on her shots. Her best strike is her straight left, and while she uses her long limbs to maintain distance, she often makes the mistake of leaving her hands too low. Another glaring weakness: She tends to pull her head straight back with her chin in the air, leaving her susceptible to a powerful overhand punch. Dalziel’s best tools are her kicks. She can chop at the legs or work the body with her powerful blow strikes, but her deadliest weapons are head kicks. She took out Andria Wawro with a high kick in 2016 and broke Moa Palmer’s arm in an amateur bout when the Team Oyama rep attempted to block one of her kicks. Dalziel also excels in the clinch. Because of her height, she often finds a perfect angle to grab the Thai plum and bludgeon her adversary with knees to the head and body. She finished Tamikka Brents with knees and enjoyed great success with them against the seasoned Jozette Cotton. She will also close the distance with a flying knee. Her defensive wrestling remains a significant weakness. Dalziel has been taken down in multiple fights but has shown some improvement in the area over the years. She does a fairly good job of not playing the guard game and instead tries to work back to her feet as quickly as possible. One of Dalziel’s primary weapons will be taken away from her during the PFL season. The organization does not allow fighters to throw elbows, a strike the Canadian often uses to punish opponents who are trying to take her down. She also likes to throw elbows from the bottom position.
A former Strikeforce and Invicta Fighting Championships bantamweight titleholder, Kaufman moves up two weight classes with the hopes of capturing another major championship to her collection and to chase the biggest payout of her career. During her 13 years as a pro, she has beaten a number of high-level opponents, from Alexis Davis (twice), Valerie Letourneau, Miesha Tate, Shayna Baszler and Roxanne Modafferi to Leslie Smith (twice), Jessica-Rose Clark, Pannie Kianzad and Katharina Lehner. At 20-4, her only four losses have come to Davis, Marloes Coenen, Ronda Rousey and Valentina Shevchenko. Kaufman enters the PFL regular season with the most experience of any competitor in the field and does so on a three-fight winning streak. She is a well-rounded fighter and strong in every area of the game. Kaufman is a volume fighter who fights well by setting a fast pace and swarming her opponent with strikes; or she can sit back and pick apart her opponent with a slip-and-rip counter game. The Canadian has never been the best athlete, but she makes up for her physical deficiencies with technical prowess. Kaufman is a strong boxer who loves to battle in the pocket, and she works behind an active jab. With that said, her most lethal strike comes in the form of her overhand right, which she can slide around her opponent’s blocks. When she finds her rhythm, Kaufman explodes with combinations. However, she tends to make the mistake of compartmentalizing her attack when she finds success with her hands, oftentimes leading her to completely abandon her strong clinch game, underrated takedowns and potent kicks to the inside and outside of her opponent’s legs. This has also resulted in her being taken down by opponents with weak wrestling credentials, though she is quite good at working back to her feet quickly. If the Zugec Ultimate Martial Arts export does get to the clinch, she loves to grind her opponent against the cage, where she usually wins the battle of grit by draining her opponent’s energy with knees and elbows and an occasional trip or body-lock takedown. From top position, Kaufman flashes her Brazilian jiu-jitsu skills with strong positional control. Kaufman will be giving up a lot of size against the rest of the field, which might affect her most in the clinch, where she usually has the advantage. Plus, if she gets taken down, she might struggle with a heavier woman on top. Another impressive stat that stands out about Kaufman’s career: In 25 professional appearances, she has never suffered a knockout loss.
While the PFL crowned six champions at the conclusion of the organization’s inaugural season, none rank as the biggest star in the promotion. Harrison is the face of the PFL. The promotion banked on the idea that the most decorated American judoka in Olympic history would have some of the same success that former training partner Ronda Rousey enjoyed in the UFC. The organization is so on board with Harrison that it created an entire division with the hope of ultimately crowning her as the Season 2 champion at 155 pounds. The two-time Olympic gold medalist remains inexperienced in MMA, with only three professional fights on her resume, but she has the skills to make her the clear-cut favorite in the field. Over her short career, the southpaw has already showed improvements in her striking. In her most recent appearance against Moriel Charneski, Harrison showed a willingness to throw hands, displayed good head movement and used feints to find the right angle to land shots. She hit Charneski with a few kicks and even went high with one. She still has some work to do, as she can lose some technique while wildly throwing haymakers to close the distance. She also tends to be a little flatfooted and makes the mistake of pulling her head straight back when avoiding counterstrikes. It should come as no surprise that the Ohio native dominates in the grappling department. The American Top Team representative offers world-class trips and throws from the clinch and also has excellent timing on her blast double-leg. Once the action spills onto the mat, Harrison is in her world. The 28-year-old fighter is a patient grappler who focuses on securing top position before looking for a submission. She likes to control her opponent’s head, at which point she unleashes damaging ground-and-pound. Like Rousey, her favorite technique is the armbar, and like Rousey, Harrison can execute the maneuver from nearly any position. Harrison enters the season with enormous pressure on her shoulders. The organization wants and plans on her winning, and anything short of her being presented with a giant check for one million dollars on New Year’s Eve would go down as a giant disappointment. Those are some high expectations for a fighter with such little experience.