PFL 4: Playoff format fuels deluge of first-round finishes

play
Harrison takes down Frier, throws heavy punches (0:32)

Kayla Harrison is in control throughout the entire first round and delivers big punches to Morgan Frier's face. For more PFL, sign up for ESPN+ http://www.espn.com/watch/espnplus (0:32)

PFL 4 was everything the Professional Fighters League hoped for when it established its playoff format. Six out of eight fights Thursday ended before the final horn, with five first-round finishes dramatically altering the composition of the playoff brackets in the welterweight and women's lightweight divisions.

Preseason favorites Magomed Magomedkerimov and Kayla Harrison settled for No. 2 seeds in their respective divisions, and the playoff brackets are littered with intriguing matchups.

Here's how the second night of fights at welterweight and women's lightweight played out in Atlantic City, New Jersey:

Magomed Magomedkerimov (9 points) vs. Chris Curtis (4 points) via unanimous decision (welterweight)

Magomed Magomedkerimov still looks the toughest competitor at 170 pounds in the PFL's welterweight division and a strong contender to defend his championship (and the $1 million prize that comes with it). Magomedkerimov used a variety of leg kicks to control the distance against Chris Curtis, a boxer who shocked the field with a win over Bellator veteran Andre Fialho at PFL 1. Magomedkerimov beat his opponent everywhere en route to a unanimous decision victory.

On the feet, he landed clean punches and damaging kicks. On the ground, he controlled the action, too. Late in the third round, however, Magomedkerimov seemed to tire after spending the entire second round going for a rear-naked choke. Curtis sensed it and went for a guillotine, but Magomedkerimov flipped himself over and survived the sequence. Overall, Magomedkerimov landed 79 strikes to Curtis' 22. But the two will fight one another in a rematch in the quarterfinals. Hard to imagine another outcome, as the scores were 30-27, 30-27 and 30-26.


Kayla Harrison (9 points) def. Morgan Frier (0 points) via first-round submission (key lock) (women's lightweight)

After Kayla Harrison won a decision over Larissa Pacheco at PFL 1, she cried because she was disappointed with her performance. The PFL built a women's 155-pound division around Harrison, the two-time Olympic gold medalist in judo, and the skilled grappler wanted to put on a better performance. She preached "perfection."

She clearly had a different mindset in her second bout, against Morgan Frier on Thursday. Harrison was violent. She took Frier down and hit her with 28 ground strikes. And then, when she saw the slightest opening, she went for a key lock and earned a submission victory late in the first round. More than anything, Harrison proved that once she has you on the ground, you're not getting up.

The win sets up a semifinal matchup against Muay Thai specialist Genah Fabian and a possible title fight against UFC veteran Sarah Kaufman, who did not fight Thursday but earned three points and the No. 1 seed after scheduled opponent Roberta Samad missed weight.

"Sarah and I are gonna meet in the final," Harrison said after the fight. "It's gonna be the PFL's dream. And I'm gonna be a millionaire!" Kaufman then entered the cage and challenged that idea: "That million dollars is gonna be mine," Kaufman said.

Joao Zeferino (3 points) def. Bojan Velickovic (0 points) via unanimous decision (welterweight)

This was billed as an "elimination" bout, but after David Michaud and John Howard (who were both scoreless prior to PFL 4) earned big stoppage wins, both Joao Zeferino and Bojan Velickovic have been eliminated. Zeferino won a unanimous decision in a sloppy fight against Velickovic, who was competitive throughout the matchup.

Zeferino qualified for last year's playoffs but got hurt before the quarterfinals. He was injured when he missed PFL 1 and qualified for PFL 4 only due to the injury of another fighter. He used his grappling skills to control Velickovic, but couldn't get the stoppage he needed by the final horn to guarantee a spot in the playoffs. It was the first decision victory at PFL 4, six fights into the night.


John Howard (6 points) def. Ray Cooper III (5 points) via first-round TKO (punches) (welterweight)

Oh my! What are you doing right now, PFL 4? To this point in the night, PFL 4 is legitimately one of the best MMA cards of 2019. A desperate John Howard, 0-1 in the PFL this season, entered Thursday night with a fight against Ray Cooper III, who lost in last year's welterweight title bout against Magomed Magomedkerimov after rattling off four consecutive knockouts. Howard is a veteran with some UFC experience who added some weight to the field. Few picked him to advance against these young monsters in the welterweight division, though.

But Howard had other plans.

With Cooper coming forward early in their fight Thursday, Howard floored him with a powerful left hook. It stunned the crowd. Howard threw some shots while Cooper tried to recover on the ground, but after last year's welterweight runner-up rose to his feet, Howard hit his wobbly opponent with another tremendous left hook before finishing him with a few more shots on the ground. It was the most stunning result of the season in the PFL. Howard advances to the playoffs now, and he might just see Cooper again when he gets there, depending on how the rest of the night plays out.

Glaico Franca (10 points) def. Sadibou Sy (6 points) via third-round TKO (punches) (welterweight)

By all accounts, Sadibou Sy versus Glaico Franca seemed to be a likely candidate to extend the excitement at PFL 4, which began with three consecutive first-round stoppages. Sy, who beat David Michaud at PFL 1 after throwing a vicious liver kick early in the fight, and Franca, who also picked up a first-round finish at PFL 1, entered the fight tied atop the welterweight standings with Magomed Magomedkerimov, the reigning welterweight champion.

Ultimately, Sy threw heavy leg kicks early but couldn't stop Franca, who forced his opponent to fight from his back in the second and third rounds before his ground and pound led to a stoppage in the final moments of the fight. It wasn't the exciting fight many anticipated, but it allowed Franca to showcase his grappling skills against an elite contender. "We are very happy with that result," Franca said afterward.

While both fighters had already locked up playoff positions, Franca set himself up to fill one of the top spots in the bracket.

David Michaud (6 points) def. Handesson Ferreira (3 points) via first-round TKO (punches) (welterweight)

The PFL 4 card began with two first-round stoppages in the women's lightweight division. And then it got even better. The bout between David Michaud and Handesson Ferreira featured a groin kick, an eye poke and wild exchanges. All of that came before Michaud landed a left-right combo that stunned Ferreira, who lost to Ray Cooper III in the semifinals of last year's PFL welterweight tournament.

While Ferreira controlled the action throughout the round, Michaud's camp protested after its fighter got hit in the groin with a kick, minutes after he'd been poked in the eye. But Michaud, who needed an early stoppage to get into the playoffs, pushed the pace after absorbing those fouls. Once he hurt Ferreira with the combo, Michaud finished him in the crucifix position, where he landed multiple blows before the bout was stopped by the referee. "It was all about making the playoffs," Michaud said after the victory, which followed his 17-second loss to No. 1 seed Sadibou Sy via liver kick in PFL 1. Now Ferreira must wait to see if he can slip into the playoffs with three points.

Larissa Pacheco (6 points) def. Bobbi Jo Dalziel (3 points) via first-round submission (armbar) (women's lightweight)

Fights like this are why the PFL put together a collection of some of the most fascinating rules and structure in MMA. The league wanted its fighters to reach this stage, with a playoff spot and another step toward $1 million on the line -- fighting with urgency and passion. That's what Larissa Pacheco, who is just 24, did when she sealed a first-round finish via armbar against Bobbi Jo Dalziel, who suffered her first professional MMA loss.

Dalziel had a significant height and reach advantage, and the elite kickboxer's leg kicks controlled the action in her PFL 1 win over Genah Fabian. But Pacheco didn't give Dalziel a chance to use those tools, because she secured an early takedown and never allowed Dalziel to get to her feet. Pacheco established full mount position after softening Dalziel up with punches early -- and then she went for the arm bar. At 2 minutes, 31 seconds of the first round, that resulted in six points and a playoff spot for Pacheco, who gave Kayla Harrison trouble in their PFL 1 bout after taking the fight on short notice. Pacheco is a sleeper in this division.

Genah Fabian (6 points) def. Moriel Charneski (0 points) via first-round TKO (punches) (women's lightweight)

Genah Fabian entered her bout against Moriel Charneski knowing she needed a first-round stoppage (before the 2:21 mark) to secure a spot in the women's lightweight playoffs. She fought with a sense of urgency, and ultimately dropped Charneski with a crisp, heavy left hand. Fabian followed Charneski down and finished the fight with a ground-and-pound attack that forced a referee stoppage at 1:42 into the first round.

Fabian is a former Muay Thai world champion, but she's still new to the MMA scene. She showed a lot of heart, pushing through a broken nose against Bobbi Jo Dalziel at PFL 1 in a decision loss. Against Charneski, she showed poise and immediately dictated the action in the fight by avoiding a Charneski takedown. The heavy left punch she used to secure the win is a weapon she could use to shock the world now that she's in the playoffs. It's clear to the eye that Fabian is rapidly improving.