When eight welterweights and four women's lightweights walked into the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas for Night 1 of the 2019 Professional Fighters League playoffs on Friday, there were at least a handful of plausible possibilities for how the night could play out.
The result, once everything played out inside of the PFL "smart cage" and backstage, was anything but expected.
Both No. 1 seeds flamed out in the semifinals, the defending welterweight champion was forced to drop out of the tournament between fights due to illness, and two fighters retired on the same night. One of those fighters, Chris Curtis, was forced back into action, while the other, Glaico Franca, turned his retirement into a wedding proposal.
In the midst of all of it, David Michaud and Ray Cooper III each set themselves up for major redemption and a shot at $1 million, all rolled into one. In the women's lightweight bracket, Kayla Harrison, the face of the PFL, isn't getting the fight she might have expected in the finals, but it's a fight that will likely show how much she's learned over three fights this season.
But before we get into each of these finals matchups, a look into the downright bizarre night that Curtis lived through.
Chris Curtis forced to unretire, suffers further consequences
It's risky enough when MMA promotions put on tournaments, which can unravel in so many ways. But going full-on old school by building your playoffs around fighters taking multiple bouts in a night is inviting chaos into the equation.
On Friday, the most chaotic scenario was that of Magomed Magomedkerimov, last year's PFL welterweight champion. He earned a spot in the semifinals, but fell ill between fights and had to drop out. That set off the dominos on a wild chain reaction.
Curtis, who had lost to Magomedkerimov, was tapped as the replacement, even after he had indicated inside the cage after his fight that he was retiring. After posting a heartfelt message on Instagram, he was backstage settling down for a postfight meal when the call for a reinforcement came. Back to the cage he went.
I know MMA retirements never seem to last, but this was ridiculous.
It was not an ideal situation for countless reasons. A fighter who has been eliminated from the playoffs might not be in the proper mental space to be called in to compete again on the same night, no matter how aware they are of the rules in play. And what if Curtis had defeated Cooper? The PFL would have been one fight away from having a welterweight champion who lost in the quarterfinals. And really, while I appreciate the fight against attrition that the PFL playoffs set up, it just doesn't seem right that Magomedkerimov won all of his fights this season, including his lone playoff bout, and yet he will have little to show for it.
The two-fight-in-one-night thing is a cool gimmick, for sure, but it can set up fights that do not take place on a level playing field. There was no glaring example Friday -- no scenario in which one person entered the semifinals coming off a quick, easy win while his or her opponent was put through a war. But we saw firsthand what the chaos of the format can bring: in this case, a retired, then unretired, Curtis hopping back into the cage on short notice and eating a devastating KO from Cooper.
Still, the first night of the PFL playoffs set up some good matchups for New Year's Eve, with more to come in the next three weeks. And in the end, that's a win.
Welterweight final: No. 5 seed David Michaud vs No. 6 Ray Cooper III
The 2019 PFL season is one fight away from ending a whole lot better for Michaud than it started. Back in May, he made his PFL debut against Sadibou Sy, and he didn't get much time to make a good impression. Sy knocked him out with a body kick in just 17 seconds. But then Michaud earned a playoff spot by scoring a first-round KO of his own, and on Friday, in both of his fights, he showed off his well-roundedness and the discipline to stick to what is working.
Against the explosive Cooper, he is going to have to control distance and find safe entry points to make it a rugged clinch and grappling battle. He's going to have to wear down Cooper, and take some of the oomph off of those power punches. That will test how well-rounded and disciplined Michaud (18-5) truly is.
Cooper (20-7), who lost in last year's final to Magomedkerimov, had been aiming for a rematch with the Dagestani fighter, but that matchup fell apart when Magomedkerimov became sick after his quarterfinal victory. Cooper adjusted well to a change of opponent and the letdown that comes with learning that a shot at revenge isn't coming after all. The prospect of a cool $1 million payday can soothe feelings like that in a hurry.
Cooper showed poise and maturity in both of his fights Friday. That's a good sign for a guy who sometimes, in the past, has been a wild man in the cage, for better or worse. If this disciplined approach carries over to Dec. 31, Cooper is going to be a handful.
Women's lightweight final: No. 2 Kayla Harrison vs. No. 4 Larissa Pacheco
This is not the finale the PFL had been banking on all season, but it's a fitting one. First of all, Pacheco earned her spot by beating up No. 1 seed Sarah Kaufman, who was finally exposed as a bantamweight in a lightweight's domain. Who's to say if Harrison would have done the same if a much-anticipated matchup with the UFC veteran had come to be? But the more important question now is not a hypothetical. It has to do with what's real: Harrison vs. Pacheco, a rematch of the only fight this season Harrison did not finish in the first round.
You might remember the video clips of Harrison (8-0) having her arm raised on that night back in May, a winner by unanimous decision, and then leaving the cage red-faced and sobbing. She was heartbroken by her performance. She expected so much more. And truth be told, there was and still is a lot of pressure on the two-time Olympic gold medalist in judo, who is the face of the PFL. But did that fight go the way it went because of Harrison's failings, or is Pacheco (13-3) a serious threat?
The latter appears to be the case, based on Friday night. Of course, Kaufman was undersized, but she has experience on her side, having been in the cage with the likes of Valentina Shevchenko, Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate. Harrison, by contrast, has the size to handle Pacheco -- as we saw the first time -- but little experience. Then again, she now has two more fights under her belt than she did going into her first meeting with the Brazil native.
Pacheco beat up Kaufman everywhere, but against Harrison, she will need to keep the fight standing. Perhaps her three rounds in the cage with the Olympian five months ago taught her that. Likewise, Harrison has felt the power of Pacheco's punches, so she knows where she has to take the fight. Who will get to do what she wants to do?