The PFL light heavyweight and lightweight tournament finals are set.
Vinny Magalhaes will meet Sean O’Connell at light heavyweight and Rashid Magomedov will square off with Natan Schulte at lightweight on Dec. 31 in the $1 million finals of the inaugural PFL season at The Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York.
The four fighters punched their tickets to the Big Apple by winning two bouts apiece on Saturday night at PFL 9 in Long Beach, Calif.
Competing in two-round quarterfinals and three-round semis, O’Connell defeated Dan Spohn and Smealinho Rama; Magalhaes earned first-round submissions over Bozigit Ataev and Rakim Cleveland; Magomedov got the best of Will Brooks and Thiago Tavares; and Schulte got past Johnny Case and Chris Wade.
Including his two regular-season victories, Magalhaes (18-9, 1 NC) has won all four PFL bouts in 2018 in less than two minutes apiece. He finished Ataev in the finals with a nasty kimura submission at 1:58, not long after needing just 1:21 to finish Cleveland with the same move.
“I’ve trained like a stallion two or three times a day,” Magalhaes said. “When you give your best, you get your best result.“
O’Connell (20-10), likewise, wasted little time in his semifinal bout with Rama (11-5-1), pushing the pace and landing punishing shots until referee Mike Beltran waved things off 1:45 into the opening round.
The two-victory evening meant O’Connell, who has developed a second career as a radio host and fight commentator and is planning on retirement following the tourney, will continue on with his MMA career.
“He’s a tough guy,” O’Connell said. “He’s got a great repertoire of strikes, I knew he was going to try to mix it up a little bit.
“He’s one of those guys I knew I needed to put him away.”
O’Connell put in a tremendous second-half effort to earn the nod against Spohn (18-6) in the quarterfinals. Spohn effectively countered to earn a tactical nod in round one. O’Connell, knowing the PFL’s scoring system in the two-round quarterfinals was tilted toward the opening round, brought out the heavy hammer in the second and unleashed big bombs. That was enough for two judges to give O’Connell the second round and a majority decision (19-18, 19-18, 19-19).
Rama, meanwhile, outworked Maxim Griffin in the first round of their quarterfinal bout, which made the difference as the bout went to a majority draw (20-18 Rama, 19-19, 19-19) and Rama took the first-round tiebreaker.
Ataev had a quick go of things in the quarterfinals, as he needed just 1:43 to dispose of Emiliano Sordi in his round-of-eight fight, using ruthless ground-and-pound to bring things to a halt.
At lightweight, Schulte’s semifinal bout with Wade (14-5) was easily the evening’s best fight, as both competitors threw everything but the kitchen sink at one another, pushing through exhaustion and leaving it all in the cage. In the end, the judges thought Schulte was just a bit better, as he got the right end of two out of three 29-28 scores for the split decision victory.
“I took him down, I worked on my physique, I worked on my cardio and striking,” Schulte (14-3-1) said through an interpreter. “This was a dream come true to come out here and perform twice and win twice.”
Schulte earned his slot in the semifinals with a strong first round against veteran Johnny Case. Schulte imposed his will on Case in the opening round, smothering Case and earning a 10-8 round on one scorecard. Case, for his part, got back into the fight in the second and turned it into a standup bout. And while he won the round, he couldn’t overcome the hurdle of dropping the opening round. The bout ended a majority draw (19-18 Schulte, 19-19, 19-19), with Schulte earning the tiebreaker.
Magomedov (23-2) earned his spot in the finals with a semifinal victory over Thiago Tavares (22-10-1) in the semifinals. Magomedov wore Tavares down over the course of the first. In the second, Tavares put a scare into Magomedov with a tight kneebar, but Magomedov escaped and landed a wicked body shot on the downed Tavares to end the fight at 3:36 of the second round.
Magomedov’s semifinal spot also came via tiebreaker after going to a draw (19-19, 19-19, 19-19) with former Bellator lightweight champion Will Brooks. In a match mostly fought at range in the standup, Magomedov was just a little quicker, just a little crisper, and landed the heaviest shots of the bout, including a nasty spinning kick to the ribs and a front kick to Brooks’ face.
Elsewhere on the night, Wade got off to a fast start in his quarterfinal bout, scoring a quick takedown of Robert Watley, getting Watley’s back, and working for a rear-naked choke that he never could quite finish. Watley put up a better showing in the second round, but Wade never lost control, and earned a majority decision on a 19-19 and a pair of 20-18s.
Tavares earned a “lucky loser” draw into semifinals after dropping a unanimous decision to the American Kickboxing Academy’s Islam Mamedov (16-2) in the quarterfinals. Mamedov controlled the bout with Tavares, earning 20-18 scores across the board. But the anticipated all-Dagestan semifinal bout between Mamedov and Magomedov fell out about an hour later when Mamedov withdrew, citing illness.
The evening opened with a pair of alternate bouts. At lightweight, TUF 13 finalist Ramsey Nijem (10-7) snapped a three-fight losing streak and earned a unanimous decision over Japan’s Yuki Kawana (14-4-5). Nijem earned 10-8 scores in the first round for his aggressive pressure and ground-and-pound offense. Kanawa rallied to claim the second round, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the first round deficit, as Nijem took scores of 19-18 across the board.
In the light heavyweight alternate bout, former Bellator middleweight champion Brandon Halsey (12-4) was too much for Ronny Markes (18-7), using a smothering wrestling game to shut Markes down and earn a unanimous decision.