Two of the Professional Fighters League's six playoff brackets are set, and now it's on to two of the best and most competitive divisions in the organization -- lightweight and featherweight.
On Thursday at PFL 5 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, the 155- and 145-pound fighters will battle it out for playoff eligibility and seeding. Natan Schulte and Lance Palmer, last year's winners in their respective divisions, continue their respective pursuits of another $1 million paycheck, while upstarts like Movlid Khaybulaev and Luis Rafael Laurentino try to build on highlight-reel, first-round knockouts.
Who will make the postseason in each division? Who will get the top seeds and favorable playoff paths? We'll find out Thursday. Let's take a look at the top five storylines to watch going into PFL 5.
How is Lance Palmer adjusting to his new team?
"The Party" did something pretty surprising leading into PFL's 2019 season. After winning the featherweight division and the $1 million in December, Palmer changed camps and locations. The former Ohio State wrestler moved from the West Coast back east to New Jersey. Now Palmer, who used to be aligned with Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, trains with the likes of Frankie Edgar and Eddie Alvarez under striking coach Mark Henry.
Palmer got along just fine in his 2019 opening fight, beating Alex Gilpin by unanimous decision. Palmer got a chance to show off some of the standup he's been working on there, but only earned three points because he was unable to get a finish. It'll be interesting to see how he fares in his second bout of the season, against Luis Rafael Laurentino. Laurentino is coming off a first-round head kick knockout of Jeremy Kennedy in May. Either way, Palmer will always have this tremendous wrestling base to fall back on, and he's still the favorite to repeat this year in PFL's 145-pound division.
Will Natan Schulte's stunning run continue?
Editor's note: Due to Ramsey Nijem missing weight, Schulte will face Jesse Ronson at PFL5.
Coming into PFL's first season in 2018, Schulte was mostly an unknown, outside of the most hardcore of MMA fans in Brazil. His lone fight in the United States was a loss to Islam Mamedov in World Series of Fighting. No one could have expected what Schulte did next: he went on an undefeated run in the PFL, en route to $1 million and the lightweight title.
Schulte proved he was no flash in the pan in May when he submitted Yincang Bao in the first round for six points. The Brazilian grappler is once again in the driver's seat atop the 155-pound division. On Thursday, Schulte meets another solid ground competitor in UFC alum Ramsey Nijem. Nijem didn't fight in May, but got three points when opponent Ronys Torres wasn't able to pass his medicals. Can the 11-year veteran stop the surging Schulte? It'll be fascinating to see how Nijem's in-cage PFL debut changes the course of the lightweight division.
Is Movlid Khaybulaev a one-hit wonder?
If you haven't yet watched Khaybulaev's 10-second jumping knee knockout of Damon Jackson from May, please do so immediately. It was the fastest -- and best -- KO in PFL/WSOF history. It earned Khaybulaev six points in his PFL debut and instantly made him one of the favorites in the featherweight division. All eyes will be on him now.
The PFL matchmaking crew certainly did not do the Dagestani fighter any favors for his second bout, though. Oppressive wrestler and 2018 featherweight semifinalist Andre Harrison will be his opponent Thursday night. It's highly unlikely that Khaybulaev will be able to reproduce that kind of stunning stoppage again, but we will know a lot more about him after he fights Harrison, a very good (and proven) commodity. Either way, Khaybulaev will probably be in the postseason on the back of those six points -- but if he fares well against Harrison, he could be a real problem in the playoffs.
Which fighter who lost at PFL 2 has the best chance to bounce back?
Laurentino shocked Kennedy with a head kick knockout in just 23 seconds back in May. That bout against an unknown opponent was not necessarily indicative of what Kennedy can do inside the cage. The Canadian went 3-0 to start his UFC career before a loss to Alexander Volkanovski, one of the world's top featherweights. Kennedy was subsequently, and strangely, cut by the UFC after that. But make no mistake: he can fight.
Kennedy went 2-0 in Brave CF before signing on with PFL for 2019 and, coming into the season, he seemed like someone to keep an eye on in a very good featherweight division. The first fight did not work out for him, though, and he'll have a tough matchup Thursday in grizzled veteran Steven Siler, who has 52 career fights. Siler is also coming off a loss, so this bout could very well determine which one of the two UFC alums make the 145-pound playoffs. Siler went to the 2018 finals, where he fell to Palmer by unanimous decision.
What fight sticks out as the must-see contest of the night on paper?
Circle Rashid Magomedov vs. Nate Andrews on your bout sheet right now. That one is all kinds of intriguing. Magomedov is an excellent technical striker with knockout power. He went to the 2018 PFL lightweight finals, where he lost to Schulte. Andrews, meanwhile, has a nose for submissions -- he has 11 in 15 career victories. Andrews is an action fighter who will have a height and reach advantage over Magomedov.
Magomedov is certainly the favorite here, though. He departed the UFC with a 5-1 record in the promotion. He's a top-flight 155-pound fighter. But Andrews has a knack for finding holes, and he refuses to have a boring fight. Before a loss to Chris Wade in May, Andrews had not gone to decision in five years. Andrews will push the pace, which will make for a potential banger of a fight against Magomedov, a talented counterstriker.