PFL World Championship 2023 predictions

On the cusp of the PFL’s fifth season-ending championship event, it feels like there’s just a little more on the line than in year’s past.

The league’s recent acquisition of Bellator undoubtedly adds intrigue to Friday’s PFL World Championship 2023 results, with the winners of each division tournament potentially going on to face Bellator’s best at a proposed champions vs. champions event. How will this year’s new league champs fare against the likes of Ryan Bader, Vadim Nemkov, Patricio Pitbull, and others? Hopefully, fans will find out soon.

Even if that proposition falls through, there’s still plenty to fight for, including the PFL’s annual $1 million prize. Can journeyman Clay Collard win the big one against reigning lightweight king Olivier Aubin-Mercier? Can Renan Ferreira or Denis Goltsov put on a performance convincing enough to lure Francis Ngannou into the PFL SmartCage? Can Larissa Pacheco continue her climb up the Women’s Pound-for-Pound ranks?

All that, plus the return of Kayla Harrison as she takes on former UFC standout Aspen Ladd with the hopes of setting up a dream matchup against Cris Cyborg.

What: PFL World Championship 2023

Where: The Anthem in Washington, D.C.

When: Friday, Nov. 24. The four-fight preliminary card begins at 5:30 p.m. ET on ESPN+, followed by a seven-fight main card at 8 p.m. ET exclusively on ESPN+ pay-per-view.

Clay Collard vs. Olivier Aubin-Mercier

Lightweight Final

I’ve loved so much of Clay Collard’s run with the PFL.

Following an uneventful four-fight UFC run, Collard made the decision in 2015 to split time between MMA and boxing, remaining competitive in the former while pulling off the occasional upset in the latter. It was a fine way to make a living.

He debuted in the PFL by upsetting high-profile signing Anthony Pettis and was a narrow decision (some would say, robbery) away from beating Raush Manfio and competing for a million dollars. In the 2022 season, he picked up a low-key Fight of the Year win over Jeremy Stephens, but didn’t earn enough points overall to make the playoffs. Now with three victories in 2023, he officially needs just one more to claim the ultimate prize.

This is the best version of Collard we’ve seen and I’m torn on whether I should believe that’s enough to top Olivier Aubin-Mercier. “The Canadian Gangster” has also peaked in the PFL and legitimately looked like one of the best 155ers in the world during his 9-0 run with the organization. His grappling remains a potent tool and he’s finally managed to put some pop behind those hands of his. Three of Aubin-Mercier’s four career knockout wins have come in his past four fights.

No matter how highly you think of Aubin-Mercier, I’m a little surprised he’s such a large favorite (flirting with -300 on DraftKings) and that discrepancy might be affecting my pick here. I like Collard’s chance of scoring the upset, especially if he can make this a dog fight over the course of five rounds. With apologies to my fellow Canadian, I’ve got Collard coming out on points in a scrap worthy of closing out the PFL season.

Pick: Collard

Renan Ferreira vs. Denis Goltsov

Heavyweight Final

I’m on the record as saying that I think there’s a chance—a chance!—that the winner of Renan Ferreira vs. Denis Goltsov not only gets to cash a fat seven-figure check, but puts themselves on the short list for another massive payday for an MMA fight with Francis Ngannou. I know that sounds crazy, but… OK, it really just sounds crazy.

Seriously though, this ain’t a bad heavyweight tilt. Ferreira and Goltsov’s fast finishes have clearly distinguished them from the rest of the division, so the only question is how wide the gap is between Ferreira and the more experienced Goltsov. We know Ferreira can fight patient, but his striking style also suggests that he’s ready to enter berserker mode at any moment. I’m curious to see how aggressive Ferreira is at the start.

Goltsov should definitely employ his full skill set if this match goes past the first round, mixing his sharp boxing with his methodical submission game to keep Ferreira guessing. There’s always the chance that Ferreira just clips him with a power punch, which is what makes this matchup so fun on paper.

I’m going with Goltsov by submission but really, of all the tournament finals, this one has the greatest potential for chaos.

Pick: Goltsov

Larissa Pacheco vs. Marina Mokhnatkina

Women’s Featherweight Final

This should be easy work for Larissa Pacheco, currently No. 7 in MMA Fighting’s Pound-for-Pound Rankings. Simply put, she’s looked unstoppable in the PFL outside of a pair of losses to Kayla Harrison (who she defeated in their third fight) and her ridiculous finishing rate has made her must-see TV. Apologies to Marina Mokhnatkina, but she’s the sacrificial lamb in this matchup.

With her extensive Sambo background, Mokhnatkina always has a grappler’s chance, it’s just unlikely to matter against Pacheco. Keep in mind, Pacheco has been in the cage for 65 minutes with Harrison and if a two-time Olympic gold medal-winning judoka can’t put her away, it’s unlikely that Mokhnatkina pulls it off.

The most likely outcome is that Pacheco takes the fight right to Mokhnatkina, maybe stuffs a takedown attempt or two, and then lets her hands fly.

Pacheco by KO/TKO in Round 1.

Pick: Pacheco

Sadibou Sy vs. Magomed Magomedkerimov 2

Welterweight Final

Is it rude to say that were it not for Magomed Magomedkerimov having visa issues in 2022, Sadibou Sy wouldn’t have a tournament crown on his résumé? It is? Well, I’m saying it.

We’ve seen these two fight before and even taking into consideration that it’s been two years since their first meeting, I’m struggling to see how this one goes differently. Magomedkerimov is still an elite wrestler. Sy is still a striking specialist. The grappler won out last time and he’ll do so again.

Frankly, I’m not entirely sure that Magomedkerimov is even that far behind Sy when it comes to the standup. He’s not afraid to throw with power, probably because he knows he can fall back on his wrestling, and puts forth constant pressure. This is Magomedkerimov’s fight to lose. He won’t.

Magomedkerimov by ground-and-pound KO/TKO in Round 2.

Pick: Magomedkerimov

Josh Silveira vs. Impa Kasanganay

Light Heavyweight Final

Josh Silveira has frequently been called a fighter to watch at 205 pounds and if he completes this championship run on Friday, he should take a big leap forward in recognition and respect. A similar sentiment could be offered for Impa Kasanganay, who overnight can become more than just that guy who was on the receiving end of the best knockout in MMA history.

Kasanganay’s speed has been an asset for him since jumping up to light heavyweight. He’s not giving up a ton of size to Silveira, but he won’t want to just stand in the pocket with him nor will he want to mess around on the ground. The best path to victory for Kasanganay sees him setting a fast pace early, utilizing combinations to keep Silveira on the defensive, and keeping clear of Silveira’s Thai clinch.

I can’t lie, I’m dazzled by Silveira’s finishing ability and while it’s possible that he’s still one year away from hitting his stride, the former two-division LFA champion’s recent form has convinced me that he’s ready to add another trophy to his collection. With apologies to Kasanganay, the forecast says he ends up on the wrong end of a highlight-reel knockout again.

Pick: Silveira

Kayla Harrison vs. Aspen Ladd

Kayla Harrison’s comeback fight should be a good one.

I’m fine with calling Aspen Ladd a live dog in this matchup, especially given Harrison’s long layoff and the fact that when Ladd isn’t battling the scale, she’s put on some strong performances against solid competition. There’s a reason she was once considered a can’t-miss prospect.

Unfortunately for Ladd, even her best performances have only hinted at the potential that is still waiting to be unleashed. Eight years into her pro career, it feels like she’s closer to her ceiling than her floor and we have a good idea of what she’s capable of. Maybe she proves the doubters wrong and takes her talent to another level against Harrison.

If she can’t, then the larger Harrison will dominate this match from second one. There are plenty of holes in Harrison’s striking, but if Ladd can’t exploit them, then Harrison can walk her down and take this fight to the ground with ease. If that happens, the smaller Ladd is toast.

I actually think Ladd has enough skill and toughness to survive three rounds with Harrison, even if they go to the mat, but that’s about as far as I’m willing to guess as far as her having any success. Harrison wins a comfortable decision. Bring on Cyborg.

Pick: Harrison

Ray Cooper III vs. Derek Brunson

This was smart matchmaking by the PFL for Ray Cooper III’s first fight in 16 months, it’s a shame that the two-time league champion came in heavy for his middleweight debut. In Derek Brunson, he has an experienced opponent with a recognizable name and a shaky chin, so this was Cooper’s chance to immediately establish himself as a contender in the (Bellator?) 185-pound division.

You have to wonder where Cooper’s head is at. He previously missed weight twice at 170 pounds and now he failed to hit 185. Is he upset about being shelved for so long? Has the looming Bellator purchase left him unsure of his fate? It’s understandable that Cooper might be distracted, but that doesn’t excuse him not showing up at 100 percent for fight week.

Brunson is still a top middleweight (currently No. 12 in the MMA Fighting Global Rankings) even without the letters U,F, and C next to his name and like Cooper, he should be motivated to make a fresh start. His offensive wrestling should give Cooper plenty of problems and he might even be able to catch Cooper with something early on the feet if he’s feeling adventurous.

In the end though, I just don’t trust Brunson’s defense. He’s been cracked way too many times and Cooper hits as hard or harder than several of Brunson’s past opponents. This will be a competitive fight until Cooper pops Brunson with a hard punch out of nowhere and follows up with a flurry of finishing strikes.

Pick: Cooper III

Jesus Pinedo vs. Gabriel Braga 2

Men’s Featherweight Final

I’m not sure why this fight is taking place on the prelims, given that Jesus Pinedo and Gabriel Braga embody what the league is supposed to be all about: Fighters earning a championship shot because of merit, not fame. It’s fine that they wanted to fit in a couple of showcase bouts on the main card, but this just doesn’t feel right.

Pinedo and Braga are likely to bring it too if their first fight is any indication. This past April, it was Braga who exited the SmartCage with a competitive split decision win as the judges ruled that his more accurate striking was deserving of the nod. Both continued to impress after that encounter, with Pinedo logging brutal knockouts of Brendan Loughnane and Bubba Jenkins, and Braga getting past a couple of UFC vets in Marlon Moraes and Chris Wade.

I’m glad that regardless of where this fight is on the card it’s getting the five-round treatment, because I think these two will need 25 minutes to sort it out. And this time it’s Pinedo who emerges victorious. There were moments in their first fight where Pinedo looked closer to landing a finishing blow and were it not for Braga’s toughness and excellent technical ability he might have.

I see Pinedo ironing out some of his defensive deficiencies (gotta watch for those leg kicks!) and pulling ahead as the fight progresses through sheer output. Either one of these men winning would make for a spectacular story (Pinedo pulling off two upsets to make the final, Braga staying undefeated after making his way to the league through its Challenger Series), but Pinedo has really learned to harness his unorthodox movement and he’ll prove to be the better fighter. Until they meet again, which they almost definitely will.

Pick: Pinedo

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