Kayla Harrison’s threepeat pursuit is among the $1M matters to be settled in PFL finals

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The 2022 PFL finals are set for Nov. 25 at a location still to be announced. The finalists in six weight classes include several familiar faces, as well as some new ones.

It has been an interesting season, with plenty of upsets befalling some of the promotion’s biggest homegrown names and free agent signings. Two-time-defending welterweight champion Ray Cooper III lost his first regular-season fight to a Challengers Series entry and missed the playoffs. Former UFC lightweight champ Anthony Pettis and ex-Bellator women’s featherweight titlist Julia Budd also missed the playoffs, and former Bellator welterweight belt holder and UFC title challenger Rory MacDonald was knocked out in his first-round matchup.

But 12 fighters remain in the chase for $1 million. Here’s a recap of how we arrived at each of the finals matchups, as well as something about each fight to keep an eye on come November.

Featherweight: Brendan Loughnane (25-4) vs. Bubba Jenkins (19-5)

How we got here: We’re not gonna make a big deal of it, OK? Just a quick mention. But we would be remiss if we didn’t point it out: This is the situation many foresaw when the UFC infamously passed on Loughnane after he won on Dana White’s Contender Series in 2019. To many, it felt like the UFC was passing on a talent that would go on to have success. And so, even though that story is very much behind Loughnane, it will still be part of the narrative if he wins it all.

Beyond that necessary footnote, it’s been an interesting path for Loughnane to this 145-pound matchup. It’s fair to say he didn’t look like a world beater during the regular season. He barely made the playoffs as a No. 4 seed, despite a very favorable matchup (against Ago Huskic, a late replacement on a two-fight losing streak) in his second regular-season appearance. But when Loughnane needed to turn it on, he did. He looked fantastic against Chris Wade in the semifinals, and looks like a real challenge right now.

So does Jenkins, who has been consistently solid all season. Jenkins’ coach, Dewey Cooper, seems to have him in a great spot.

What to watch for: The defensive wrestling of Loughnane. That is what did him in, in a split-decision loss against Movlid Khaybulaev in the 2021 semifinals. It became Loughnane’s focus in preparing for the 2022 season. Jenkins, a 2011 NCAA Division I national champion and 2008 finalist, is certainly going to test that wrestling.

Lightweight: Olivier Aubin-Mercier (16-5) vs. Stevie Ray (25-10)

How we got here: We arrived at this matchup at the expense of some of the PFL’s biggest acquisitions. Going into the 2022 season, lightweight was the PFL’s darling weight class, one the company could rely on to headline cards and deliver name value. Anthony Pettis, Clay Collard and Jeremy Stephens are some very fun names to put at the top of a fight card.

These two finalists took different paths. Aubin-Mercier fought some of the toughest matchups out there in Natan Schulte, Raush Manfio and Alex Martinez. For those keeping track at home, that’s two former PFL tournament winners (Schule, Manfio) and arguably the most underrated fighter in the lightweight division (Martinez). Ray, who entered the season coming off nearly three years of inactivity in MMA, went through the biggest name, defeating Pettis twice in back-to-back appearances.

What to watch for: The game plan of Aubin-Mercier. He’s as well-rounded as they come, and takes pride in executing a game plan that stacks all of the odds in his favor. Everything Aubin-Mercier does or attempts will have purpose behind it, and we’ll see how Ray responds.

Welterweight: Dilano Taylor (10-2) vs. Sadibou Sy (12-6-2)

How we got here: If we’re being honest, it’s impossible to not feel a little cheated by this matchup. Although Magomed Umalatov fought only once during the regular season, he looked like the real deal. The undefeated Russian has recorded 11 finishes in his 12 professional wins, and appeared to be a serious problem for anyone. The semifinals were originally set up beautifully, as Umalatov was supposed to fight Rory MacDonald, but visa issues prevented Umalatov from competing in August. He was replaced by Taylor.

There’s still a good story here in Taylor, as he punched his ticket to the final with a highlight knockout of MacDonald inside the first round. But this matchup still does miss Umalatov, it just does. It would have been nice to see if he could have finished what he started.

On the other side, Sy has been remarkably consistent and, at age 35, is stringing together probably the best performances of his career. He went 3-0 in 2022, including a win over MacDonald.

What to watch for: Will Taylor have the Cinderella story ending? He started off the year on the Challengers Series in February, and with a win there he became an alternate for the season. Once the season was over, he became an alternate for the playoffs. He’s obviously made good on his opportunities. Does he have one show of opportunism left, against a more experienced opponent, to pull off an improbable tournament win?

Light Heavyweight: Rob Wilkinson (16-2) vs. Omari Akhmedov (24-7-1)

How we got here: A lot of brutal finishes, to be frank. Wilkinson has been on fire in 2022. The former UFC middleweight was limited to just one appearance between 2020 and 2021, due to the pandemic. The Aussie veteran got so desperate for action, he booked a professional boxing match last October. The time off obviously had no negative impact on Wilkinson, however, as he has finished his 2022 opponents in the second round, first round and first round. The way Wilkinson has looked, it’s going to be very hard for someone to topple him.

However, Akhmedov is the perfect man for the job. For one, he’s a veteran himself. The American Top Team product has a lot of experience in high-level MMA. His personality is perfect for the role, too. There are few fighters who seem as comfortable as Akhmedov during fight week. He went into this season facing questions — such as, “Is he too small for this weight class?” — and has responded by finishing his first two opponents and then dispatching Josh Silveira, a true wild card, in the semifinals.

What to watch for: Wilkinson’s offensive versatility. Again, three finishes in three fights — and none of that was luck. Wilkinson is hurting guys this year, and in a variety of ways.

Heavyweight: Ante Delija (22-5) vs. Matheus Scheffel (17-8)

How we got here: Upsets. No division was as wild with upsets and late changes in 2022 as heavyweight. Scheffel’s big moment came in his second regular-season appearance, when he upset 2021 tournament winner Bruno Cappelozza as a nearly 4-to-1 betting underdog. Scheffel did not initially qualify for the playoffs, but when Cappelozza (injury) and Denis Goltsov (visa) were pulled from the semifinals, Scheffel was called upon and made the most of his opportunity by knocking out Juan Adams.

Delija, of Croatia, reached the final for the second year in a row with old-fashioned blue collar work. While most of the public’s attention during the season went to Cappelozza or athletic marvel Renan Ferreira, Delija earned the No. 2 seed with two victories during the regular season before grinding out a convincing win over Ferreira in the semifinals. Delija often gets overlooked, but he’s the clear favorite in this championship matchup, having already beaten Scheffel in their regular-season opener in April.

What to watch for: Scheffel’s confidence. Based purely on a comparison of skill sets, Scheffel has no business winning this fight. I’m not saying he can’t win, of course, but he was a significant underdog against Delija the first time they met and he’ll likely be an even bigger one here. But Scheffel is one of those guys who just does not believe the odds. He’ll go into this fight believing it’s his.

Women’s lightweight: Kayla Harrison (15-0) vs. Larissa Pacheco (18-4)

How we got here: Look, it’s no surprise Harrison is in the final for the third season in a row. Everyone expected as much. She has looked completely dominant, as always, although her first regular-season matchup, a decision win against Marina Mokhnatkina in May, played out a lot more closely than expected, with Harrison as a 50-to-1 betting favorite. But even saying that is a stretch. Harrison has been Harrison in 2022.

Pacheco has already lost to Harrison twice, including in the 2019 PFL final. But she’s done everything in her power to make one think that maybe — just maybe — it could be different the third time around. Usually, seeing the same matchup for the third time in about three years is not very exciting. But the way in which Pacheco has terrorized competition in 2022 — three first-round knockouts — suggests that this could be the most dangerous fight for Harrison in the PFL.

What to watch for: Pacheco’s takedown defense. If Pacheco defends early takedown attempts and we see a look of frustration on Harrison’s face for the first time, we could be in for a wild night.

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