Randy Couture’s PFL midseason status report: Redemption on the minds of many

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“If I was in my 20s, man, I would be all over this.”

That’s Randy Couture speaking about the PFL and its season format, in which fighters must compete four times over six months to earn a $1 million prize. Couture is not in his 20s though. He’s a 58-year-old who began his MMA career in the late 1990s. In that era, fighters would compete multiple times in a night. So “The Natural” knows all about staying busy and earning one’s way forward.

“I like the season and playoff,” Couture said. “Most fans understand this type of competition from every other sport they’ve watched their entire life. And fighters love it because they know exactly when their next fight is. They also know nobody’s being protected because of star power. To be a success, you have to go out there and fight. It’s that simple.”

Of course, it’s a lot easier for a fight promotion with limited star power on its roster to go in a different direction from the big brands. But still, for Couture, a six-time UFC champion in two weight classes, to place his seal of approval on the PFL’s modern-day old-school approach is the kind of acknowledgement that probably makes the company brass, already known for innovations such as season-long meritocracy and analytics-in-real-time SmartCage technology, wish it could invent an MMA time machine that would transport the early 2000s Couture to the 2022 PFL.

As it turns out, though, Couture is already on hand at PFL fights, just not inside the cage. He is part of the broadcast team, seated cageside along with a couple of other former fighters — fellow analyst Kenny Florian, who three times competed for UFC gold, and play-by-play man Sean O’Connell, a onetime UFC fighter who won the 2018 PFL light heavyweight championship. The trio is smart, smooth and entertaining.

“We have fun with each other,” Couture said. “It feels like I’m hanging out with two of my college buddies watching fights from the best seats in the house.”

They’ll next take their seats in the front row June 17 when the 2022 season continues with PFL 4 at Overtime Elite Arena in Atlanta. The card will feature light heavyweight and men’s lightweight fights.

Fighters in all six weight classes have completed one bout, with just one more to go before the top four point earners in each division advance to the playoffs. Featherweights and heavyweights compete June 24, and welterweights and women’s lightweights July 1.

With the 2022 season at its midpoint, ESPN checked in with Couture for his perspective on what to expect for the remainder of the campaign.

Women’s lightweight

Midseason status report: Two-time defending champion Kayla Harrison won her season opener against newcomer Marina Mokhnatkina — by decision. That gives her 3 points, good for a four-way tie for second place behind Larissa Pacheco, who scored a first-round TKO of Zamzagul Fayzallanova for 6 points. Former Bellator featherweight champion Julia Budd lost her PFL debut but nonetheless earned 3 points because her opponent, Genah Fabian, missed weight.

Couture’s take: I get it: Kayla Harrison has dominated this weight class for two years now, and when her contract ended after last season, everybody was talking about how she should go fight [Amanda] Nunes or [Cris] Cyborg. But Kayla stuck around in the PFL, doing what’s best for herself and her family. And I suspect that this season is going to come down to Kayla and Larissa Pacheco. Larissa has come far since her first season in 2019, when she fought Kayla twice and went the distance both times. She’s become aggressive as heck, knocking out her last three opponents. It will be interesting when she meets Kayla again. We have yet to see anybody go in there and really paste Kayla. Let’s see how she responds when someone hits her in the face. And Larissa is capable of that.

Men’s lightweight

Midseason status report: Anthony Pettis, who arrived in the PFL last year amid some fanfare as a former UFC champion, lost both of his fights in his debut season and missed the playoffs. But now he’s off to an excellent start in 2022. He submitted Myles Price in the first round at PFL 3 and leads the 155-pound standings with 6 points. Right behind him with 4 points is the division’s defending champion, Raush Manfio, followed by a trio of fighters with 3 apiece. Two of them, Clay Collard and Alexander Martinez, face off in the PFL 4 main event June 17.

Couture’s take: Anthony Pettis is going to be tough for anybody to deal with, if he has figured out how to manage the adversity of competing in a season format. After last season, he told me, ‘Man, I totally mismanaged this. I didn’t realize what I’d signed up for and how taxing it was going to be, fighting every six weeks.’ I think he’s figured it out for this season. He certainly looked great in his first matchup. And then look at where Raush Manfio is. He was losing his first fight of the season but then landed a big shot to end it in the second round and put himself in the mix. Don’t count out either of those guys, and don’t count out Clay Collard, either. He’s a scrapper, doesn’t talk smack, just a hard worker. You want to root for guys like that. And if you’re a fighter stepping in the cage with him, man, you’d better strap ’em on. Guys like these three make for an interesting weight class.

Welterweight

Midseason status report: Much like Pettis at lightweight, Rory MacDonald was a big-name acquisition who did not live up to his marquee billing last year but has started this season in a huge way. The former Bellator champion and UFC title challenger submitted Brett Cooper in the first round at PFL 3 for 6 points. With the only finish among 170-pounders that night, MacDonald is 3 points ahead of a quartet of other winners. Not among them is two-time defending season champion Ray Cooper III, who has minus-1 point after missing weight, then losing to PFL Challenger Series fighter Carlos Leal. Things are topsy-turvy at welterweight.

Couture’s take: There are some intriguing stories in this division. Rory MacDonald looked fantastic after moving camps to try to shore up his ground game, which he thought was his weak point in losing to Ray Cooper last season. If MacDonald is firing on all cylinders, he’s gonna be tough for anyone. Carlos Leal has a big goal: He wants to be the first fighter to fight six times on his way to winning a PFL championship, after he fought twice on the Challenger Series to earn a spot in the season. And then there’s Ray Cooper. What happened in that first fight? It just did not look like the same Ray Cooper we saw for three seasons. He was not as aggressive and not in as great condition. Was he injured? Has he addressed whatever was wrong, and in his next fight will he be the ferocious Ray Cooper we were used to? I hope that’s what happens. But to be honest, we have no idea because, after the loss to Leal, we couldn’t get a single word out of his camp about what was going on with Ray.

Light heavyweight

Midseason status report: Antonio Carlos Jr. and Omari Akhmedov lead the way with 6 points apiece, and it didn’t take long for them to earn those points. Akhmedov knocked out Viktor Pesta in 1 minute, 25 seconds at PFL 1, and Carlos made even quicker work of Delan Monte that night, getting a submission in 29 seconds. Rob Wilkinson and Cory Hendricks scored second-round finishes for 5 points, and Marthin Hamlet earned 3 points for a decision win.

Couture’s take: I like weight classes like this, where it’s tough to pick a winner. Carlos is a ridiculous grappler and he’s also not afraid to go toe-to-toe with anybody. He’s got kind of that wild Wanderlei Silva striking style, and if he finds a way to get the fight to the canvas, you’ve got a big problem. But you could make a case for any of the point scorers at 205 pounds, and that’s pretty cool. I really like Marthin Hamlet, because he comes from a very similar background to me, Greco-Roman. Of all the wrestling types, I think that one translates best to MMA. But the thing with Hamlet is that he’s still very green. He’s got a big, physical body, but he hasn’t quite figured out how to temper that wrestling mentality to put himself in the best positions to win.

Featherweight

Midseason status report: All five winners in the season-opening fights in this division went to decisions, so they all have 3 points, putting everyone very much in play going into the second set of fights. Not among the point scorers is two-time champion Lance Palmer, who is on a three-fight losing streak after dropping a unanimous decision to Chris Wade at PFL 2.

Couture’s take: This has been one of the more evenly matched weight classes in the PFL over the years. These guys are fast, they’re technical and they don’t necessarily have one-punch knockout power, which is why we see more decisions. So the division is wide open and what will separate these fighters is how the styles match up. The guy I’m watching is Chris Wade. He was a two-time semifinalist at lightweight, and now he’s coming into his own in this weight class, getting a little bit better each fight, making adjustments. He uses his wrestling very diligently and looked really good against Lance Palmer. As for Palmer, he almost needs to get a little pissed off, frankly, so he’ll go out there and let his hands go. He needs to be a little more aggressive, not to the point of being reckless but just to open up. He’s got so much physical ability.

Heavyweight

Midseason status report: Call this the “No Need for Judges” division. Of the four fighters in position to advance to the playoffs, three of them — Renan Ferreira, Denis Goltsov and defending champion Bruno Cappelozza — scored first-round knockouts for 6 points and the other winner, Ante Delija, is just 1 point behind after a second-round knockout. The big guys sure do not waste time.

Couture’s take: I think Renan Ferreira is the guy everyone is looking at right now. He’s 6-foot-8 and as athletic a guy as I’ve ever seen in this sport. I mean, how many guys do you see doing a backflip celebration by taking off on one foot and landing on one foot? If he was born in the States, he’d be playing in the NFL right now, that’s my opinion. He had that controversial match with Fabricio Werdum — was it a tap, or not a tap? — but that was last season so it no longer matters. He’s rolled into this season and looked amazing. And then there’s the champ, Bruno Cappelozza, who reminds me of a young Vitor Belfort, as explosive as he is. Jab-cross, jab-cross, jab-cross — if you stand in front of him, you’re not going to be standing for long. This is a very exciting weight class, full of guys who can end your night in seconds.

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