It’s time for the big boys.
PFL will debut its 2019 heavyweights and light heavyweights Thursday night in Uniondale, New York, (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET) which probably means a heaping helping of knockouts and quick finishes. The first two PFL events of this season have provided some serious action and PFL 3 probably will be no different.
Here’s a look at the five things to watch going into Thursday’s card:
Is 2018 finalist Vinny Magalhaes the favorite at light heavyweight?
It definitely seems that way. There’s a reason why Magalhaes is getting headline billing Thursday night against Emiliano Sordi. The Brazilian jiu-jitsu monster had one heck of a run to the 2018 finals in December, where he fell to Sean O’Connell. O’Connell, by the way, will be at NYCB Live on Thursday night, but as the lead play-by-play man, not a fighter. So Magalhaes is the light heavyweight who went the furthest in 2018 back on PFL’s 2019 roster.
And again, that was a tremendous four-fight winning streak last year for Magalhaes. All of those victories were stoppages. His absurd flying triangle-kimura combination win over Rakim Cleveland was a Submission of the Year candidate for 2018. If you haven’t seen it yet, check it out on ESPN+. Magalhaes’ otherworldly grappling will probably make him the favorite over everyone else in the field. He’s likely to be there at the end in some respect.
Who is the heavyweight favorite in the absence of Philipe Lins?
That distinction probably goes to Jared Rosholt. Yes, that’s right — the former UFC fighter and three-time collegiate wrestling All-American. Rosholt faces Denis Goltsov at PFL 3. The Oklahoma State wrestling stud went to the semifinals last year, where he lost to Lins, the eventual 2018 champion. Lins had to pull out of this season due to an injury, which leaves the door open for Rosholt, whose wrestling presents a tall task for everyone in the draw.
However, Kelvin Tiller is still around and he had a win over Rosholt last season. Satoshi Ishii is a newcomer to PFL (we’ll get to him in a second) with a skill set to make a run. Plus, Alex Nicholson is always explosive at heavyweight and he can rack up first-round TKO points very quickly. Rosholt is probably the favorite, but things will be very interesting.
Is the hype around Jordan Johnson real?
Yes, but more so at middleweight. Johnson will be competing at light heavyweight for PFL, because there is no middleweight division in 2019. Johnson is absolutely legitimate, though. He left the UFC, not because the promotion didn’t want him, but because he was seeking out PFL’s $1 million season-winning prize. The former All-American wrestler has a chance to win it too.
Johnson is 10-0 as a pro MMA fighter and won all four of his UFC fights, including a second-round submission win over Adam Yandiev at UFC Moscow in 2018. “Double J” is going to be a problem for anyone in the light heavyweight division with his wrestling, though he won’t have the size and strength advantage he did at middleweight. A future matchup between Johnson’s wrestling and Magalhaes’ grappling will be a sight to behold.
Is it time for Satoshi Ishii to finally make his mark on U.S. MMA?
It seems preposterous that Ishii is only 32 years old. He already has been a pro MMA fighter for 10 years and won an Olympic gold medal in judo. Ishii has fought for the likes of Rizin, Dream, Bellator and Antonio Inoki’s IGF but has yet to really put his stamp on United States MMA. Ishii has fought in the states only once and that was a 2016 loss to Quinton “Rampage” Jackson.
This is a good time for Ishii to truly break out. He has won six in a row and recently moved full time to Croatia, where he is training with former opponent Mirko Cro Cop. If Ishii, who fights Zeke Tuinei-Wily on Thursday, brushes up on his striking with Cro Cop and adds that to his already world-class judo, his PFL heavyweight peers could be in for a rude awakening.
Will any unknowns rise up and surprise people?
Like last year, this is a very good possibility. PFL is rife with fighters not known to even hardcore MMA fans, especially some of the impressive athletes coming from Eastern Europe. Who saw Magomed Magomedkerimov coming in 2018 when he won the welterweight season and $1 million? There will surely be a Magomedkerimov this year and he could be fighting Thursday night.
One fighter to keep an eye on is heavyweight Muhammed DeReese, who had two TKO wins last year in PFL. Officially, he is undefeated at 7-0 and has won the last five via finish, some of them rather violent. DeReese fights Kelvin Tiller on Thursday in what is sure to be a barnburner. Ante Delija, a 6-foot-5 Croatian heavyweight, also has a chance to make some noise. His lone loss dates to 2014 against UFC veteran Marcin Tybura in M-1 and that was only because of an injury.