The PFL playoffs are just a couple of months away, and Thursday in Atlantic City, New Jersey, the welterweights and light heavyweights will have their final opportunity to secure one of four available spots in each division.
The playoff semifinals in the promotion's six weight classes will take place on Aug. 13 (featherweights and men's lightweights), Aug. 19 (welterweights and light heavyweights) and Aug. 27 (heavyweights and women's lightweights) at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, Florida.
This week's PFL 5 event (5:30 p.m. ET on ESPN+; 9 p.m. ET on ESPN2) has some intriguing matchups and storylines. Defending champions Ray Cooper III and Emiliano Sordi are both hoping to lock down a return to the playoffs to defend their respective titles, but Sordi's at some risk of elimination following a rare decision win in his career at PFL 2. Then there's star signee Rory MacDonald, who's coming off an impressive debut and is neck and neck with Cooper for the No. 1 spot at welterweight.
And then there's the matter of the rest of the unsettled standings in two divisions. Less than half of the 20 fighters on the PFL 5 card Thursday will claim a playoff spot, and the difference between making and missing the playoffs could very well come down to a matter of seconds.
It's time for the season's pivotal fights. Here are three things to look out for.
Which welterweight will step to the front?
The collision course was set back in December 2019 when Rory MacDonald, a former Bellator champion and UFC title challenger, signed a deal to join the Professional Fighters League. The announcement came just days before Ray Cooper III, who had been a 2018 PFL finalist, earned $1 million and the 2019 PFL welterweight championship. So who is the top guy among PFL 170-pounders?
The expectation was that MacDonald and Cooper might address that question in 2020, but COVID-19 changed those plans. When the 2021 welterweight season began on April 29, Cooper wasted no time in showing off his prowess by choking out Jason Ponet in less than a minute and a half. Minutes later, MacDonald produced a first-round submission victory of his own, tapping out Curtis Millender. Call it even.
On Thursday, the welterweights are back in action to establish which four will advance to the playoffs and where each will land in the standings. Both MacDonald and Cooper are in good position, with six points each for their first-round finishes. A win of any kind will lock up a playoff spot for both MacDonald and Cooper, and they'll be jockeying for the No. 1 seed with one another. But nothing definitive will be settled on Thursday between MacDonald's bout against Gleison Tibau or Cooper's fight against Nikolai Aleksakhin.
You have to believe that both star 170-pounders will be keeping an eye on each other's fights, as they look to build momentum and enter the playoffs on a potential collision course toward a $1 million fight.
Will the defending champ at light heavyweight even make the playoffs?
Emiliano Sordi rolled through the 2019 PFL season, starting with a second-round TKO and a first-round knockout to secure the top seed at light heavyweight. Then, in the playoffs, he captured the $1 million check by scoring three more first-round finishes. That gave the Argentine knockouts or submissions in all but one of his 22 career victories.
But Sordi's opening bout of the 2021 season went the distance. He did win it, but he's still on shaky ground with three other 205-pounders getting stoppages in their first fights and just four playoff spots up for grabs. Sordi has three points, tying him with Jordan Young for fourth place.
At PFL 5, Sordi faces Dan Spohn, who has lost three in a row, with one of the defeats coming by submission and another of them being a TKO. That would appear to give Sordi an opening to resume his run of stoppages. But will he? And if so, will he get the job done faster than Young can against veteran Tom Lawlor to make sure Sordi's playoff fight doesn't rest on how the other top fighters in the standings fare?
Can the PFL hold its fight card together?
MMA fights fall apart all the time, especially over the past 15 months. But when it happens in the UFC, unless it's a main event or high-profile showdown, the matchmakers can adjust and the card goes on, with only the die-hards noticing the new or missing matchups.
In the PFL, though, every bout on a card carries the same weight in the standings, so every cancellation has bigger implications, often impacting several fighters. Last week, for example, Anthony Pettis was unable to compete because of illness, so the former UFC lightweight champion was rescheduled for PFL 6. His original opponent was shifted to a different matchup, and that was just one of several revamped bouts on the card.
The show went on, but by the end of the night, playoff positioning at lightweight and featherweight was not fully settled, as had been the plan. Those final spots will be secured next week, when Pettis and two-season featherweight champ Lance Palmer, who also was rescheduled from last week, get their second regular-season fights.
The last-minute juggling did not throw the whole season into disarray, but there is certainly an element of chaos. There have also been considerable shake-ups at heavyweight, with both Fabricio Werdum and Mohammed Usman falling out of the competition ahead of PFL 6, as well as a handful of fighters missing weight ahead of their fights.
Let's see if the PFL can get through Thursday without any impactful bumps in the road.