12:48 AM ET
Mike Coppinger and Jeff Wagenheim
HOLLYWOOD, Fla. — After a full season of PFL fights in six divisions, and a playoff win for each fighter remaining, six $1 million champions were crowned on Wednesday at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, culminating with Kayla Harrison‘s successful defense of her women’s lightweight title.
Harrison’s second-round armbar submission made her one of two fighters who went back to back as PFL champion. Ray Cooper III fought back from the brink in his welterweight title fight against Magomed Magomedkerimov and avenged his 2018 final loss to Magomedkerimov with a stunning third-round KO.
Three fighters locked up 2021 championships with decision victories. Heavyweight Bruno Cappelozza elevated his record to 4-0 on the season in his unanimous decision over Ante Delija, but both fighters had a chance at finishes at multiple points in their bout. Raush Manfio, an alternate to start the season at lightweight, pushed forward for five rounds and defeated Loik Radzhabov to win the PFL crown at 155 pounds. And at featherweight, Movlid Khaybulaev remained undefeated as a professional in a takedown clinic against Chris Wade.
In non-tournament action, we saw a preview of what 2022 and beyond could look like in the PFL. Former Bellator women’s featherweight champion Julia Budd won in her PFL debut. Two-division undisputed boxing champion Claressa Shields wasn’t so fortunate, as she suffered the first loss of her professional combat career in her second MMA fight. And men’s lightweight Don Madge returned from a two-year hiatus to win his seventh straight fight in his own PFL debut.
Ray Cooper III wins his second PFL title with a beauty of a knockout vs. Magomed Magomedkerimov.
One thousand thirty two days. That’s how long Cooper’s loss to Magomedkerimov in the 2018 PFL final had gnawed at him. Even when Cooper won the 2019 championship, there was a bittersweet element to the finale because the victory did not come against Magomedkerimov.
Cooper wanted to make his comeback a memorable one. He sure did on this night.
After absorbing a terrible beating in Round 3 that put him on the threshold of being finished, Cooper mounted an inconceivable comeback — nailing Magomedov with a right hook that stood him up, directly in the path of a Cooper haymaker that laid out the Dagestani at 3:02.
Wooow what a comeback finish #PFLChampionships
— KAMARU USMAN (@USMAN84kg) October 28, 2021
Each man — each champion — had his way for significant stretches. Magomedkerimov controlled the first round with kicks and a late takedown, and Cooper took charge in the second with his wrestling and ground-and-pound. Then, early in the third, Magomedkerimov hurt Cooper with a right hand, landed several more punches as Cooper went on retreat, and appeared to be on the verge of finishing the Hawaiian when that crushing right hand changed everything — and made Cooper a back-to-back champion.
Abigail Montes picks up her third professional MMA win vs. boxing great Claressa Shields at the PFL championship.
Shields suffered the first defeat of her professional fighting career, as a fast start wasn’t enough to make up for Montes’ takedowns and ground control in Rounds 2 and 3.
In her second MMA fight, Shields was outpointed by an opponent who came in at 2-0. One judge scored the fight for Shields, 29-28, while the other two judges scored it for Montes, 29-28.
In a bloody battle, Cappelozza unleashed tremendous damage on Delija and ultimately won by unanimous decision.
Cappelozza (14-5) mauled Delija (19-5) in the opening round and appeared close to grabbing the finish, with the blooded fighter from Croatia flat on his back, absorbing punches. But Delija survived the round. Even as Cappelozza opened strong in Round 2, midway through that round, Delija stung Cappelozza and put him on the ground. There were several moments, as Delija dished out some ground-and-pound of his own, where it seemed he was only a moment or two from referee Keith Peterson stepping in to stop the fight.
But Cappelozza also refused to yield, and by the end of Round 2 he was back on top. Delija had brief moments throughout the rest of the fight, but Cappelozza controlled the majority of the action from there on out. Despite several other moments in which Cappelozza seemed to be on the brink of a finish, this heavyweight clash lasted all five round.
After the final bell, judges scored the fight 49-45, 49-45 and 48-46. It was the first time in 2021 that Cappelozza didn’t finish a fight, but he ended the PFL season the same way he started it — by defeating Delija.
Khaybulaev outwrestled Wade for the entirety of their five-round fight to win in dominant fashion. The fight was scored a 50-45 shutout by all three judges.
When they were standing, Khaybulaev landed 110 strikes to 79 from Wade, spread evenly between Wade’s head, body and torso. But more importantly, he took Wade down eight times, while Wade, a wrestler by background, had no takedowns.
The 31-year-old Russian remains undefeated in his MMA career, moving to 19-0-1. Wade, a 34-year-old from Long Island, New York, falls to 20-7.
Antonio Carlos Junior dominates the first round of his fight vs. Marthin Hamlet and submits him via rear-naked choke to win the PFL’s biggest prize.
Carlos Junior capped a life-changing eight-month stretch that started with his release from the UFC with a first-round tapout victory over Marthin Hamlet to claim the 2021 PFL light heavyweight championship.
The 31-year-old Brazilian connected with a powerful right hand and then jumped on Hamlet’s back, wrapping his legs around Hamlet’s body as he tried to position himself for a choke. Hamlet tried to shake Carlos, but as Hamlet spun towards his back and fell backwards, landing with his full weight on Carlos’ torso, Carlos was able to slide his arm underneath Hamlet’s neck, sinking in the rear-naked choke.
Hamlet quickly tapped out, ending the fight at 3:49 into the opening round.
Carlos won “The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil 3” heavyweight tournament, and fought 12 times in the UFC. He strung together a five-fight winning streak from September 2016 through April 2018, but a three-fight losing streak ended his tenure with the promotion. He’s now 13-5 after a 3-0 (1 NC) run in the 2021 PFL season. Hamlet, a 29-year-old from Norway, falls to 8-3 overall in his pro career.
Raush Manfio is announced as the 2021 PFL lightweight champion and is visibly emotional, embracing his wife and son.
In a back-and-forth slugfest, Manfio edged out Radzhabov by unanimous decision to claim his $1 million prize.
Manfio, a preseason alternate, pummeled Radzhabov in the fourth round of a fight mostly contested on their feet, as he continuously moved forward while Radzhabov moved slowly — his body showing the damage Manfio had inflicted, and his energy lagging. Overall, Manfio outlanded Radzhabov 112-106, and he won on all three judges’ scorecards (49-46, 48-46 and 48-46).
The 29-year-old Brazilian improved to 15-3 and finished the 2021 PFL season at 4-0. Radzhabov, a 31-year-old from Tajikistan who was also the lightweight runner-up in 2019, fell to 15-4-1 and concludes the season at 2-2.
In a tremendous comeback (and upset), Jordan Young scored a third-round TKO of Omari Akhmedov.
Young (12-2) was dominated over the first two rounds and down 20-18 on all three judges’ scorecards, before he finally let his hands go in the third. The 26-year-old from Urbandale, Iowa, unloaded with punches that landed cleanly before a stunned Akhmedov was dropped hard by a right uppercut.
Young immediately jumped on Akhmedov and landed a few more shots before the referee called it off at 1:32 of Round 3.
Akhmedov (21-7-1) landed at will over the first two rounds and, in Round 2, attempted to sink in a rear-naked choke. The 34-year-old from Russia was making his PFL debut after a lengthy run in the UFC and was a considerable betting favorite pre-fight at -550.
The buildup to Budd’s PFL debut had little to do with the former Bellator champion’s PFL debut. It was more focused on a hypothetical Budd matchup against the PFL’s biggest star, Kayla Harrison.
First things first, Budd did not exactly buzz through Young like she was an unchallenging stepping stone. Young got the better of the striking early on, in fact, but once Budd took the fight to the canvas late in the first round, it was her fight from that point on.
Budd, who is 38 and from British Columbia, spent the better part of the second and third rounds in control from top position on the mat, although she did not threaten a finish until the final seconds. Budd cruised to victory, sweeping all three rounds on all three judges’ scorecards (30-27, 30-27, 30-27) for her third win in a row.
Young, a 36-year-old from Shoreview, Minnesota, has lost two straight.
Madge is a former Muay Thai world champion, so obviously the way to beat a striking specialist like him is to take him to the canvas and … oh, wait.
Williams succeeded in getting Madge to the mat in Round 2, after the two had spent most of the first round on their feet. Williams was on top, starting to go to work, when Madge reversed position and efficiently put his opponent in a rear-naked choke to get the tapout at 2:15.
Both men were making their PFL debuts. Madge, a 30-year-old South African who came over from the UFC but had not competed in over two years, has won seven in a row. Williams, who is 34 and from Stone Mountain, Georgia, has lost two of his last three.