PFL storylines: Which fighters will break out at the first event of the season?

When the PFL presented its first fight card of 2024 in February, just a couple of months had passed since the company bought rival Bellator MMA. So the unveiling of a new era took on a crossover theme in a pay-per-view event billed as PFL Champions vs. Bellator Champions. Multiple bouts pit past or present champions from the two promotions against each other.

Now the PFL is back with the first card of its 2024 regular season, and again there’ll be a strong whiff of Bellator spicing things up on Thursday (main card at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN2/ESPN+, prelims at 6:30 on ESPN+).

In fact, one of the two PFL weight classes that will be contested inside Boeing Center at Tech Port in San Antonio, Texas, features a women’s fight lifted right out of the Bellator cage. Flyweights Liz Carmouche and Juliana Velasquez met twice over there within the past two years. The first time, in April 2022, Carmouche took the Bellator title from Velasquez by TKO. Eight months later, Carmouche finished the rematch via armbar.

This week’s other weight division tops the card with a couple of turf battles — old guard vs. new blood. Longtime PFL heavyweights Ante Delija and Denis Goltsov have spent so much time in the SmartCage in recent years that their fight IQs must have been enhanced, no? And here they are extending the PFL vs. Bellator intramural rivalry.

Delija, the 2022 season champion and 2021 runner-up, faces onetime Bellator title challenger Valentin Moldavsky in the main event. In the co-main, 2023 PFL finalist Goltsov takes on Linton Vassell, whose Bellator run extends back more than a decade to the promotion’s formative days in Thackerville, Oklahoma.

This is the first of three straight weeks of PFL cards, during which the six weight classes will settle the first half of their season. The chase for the playoffs begins in earnest over the summer, but for now, here are the storylines emerging in both of this week’s divisions:


Heavyweight: Not a who’s who, more of a who’s that?

Thursday’s season-opening main event is an immediate tone-setter, reminding us that while the typical model in combat sports is to ride on the broad shoulders of star power, things run a little differently in the PFL. Would any fight fan order pizza and invite the gang over for a big night of Delija vs. Moldavsky? Unlikely. But that’s not the point.

The selling point of this and other PFL cards is the season itself, not the headliners. The stakes behind particular matchups might be clearer on the summertime fight cards, when fighters have their second and last chance to qualify for the playoffs. At this point, with everyone 0-0 in the standings, it’s all about scoring points with the earliest stoppage possible, and then making everyone chase you.

Goltsov knows how things work. He started all four of his previous PFL seasons with first-round knockouts, each good for 6 points — the most a fighter can earn. And while he does not enter this season as a defending champ, the fighter who defeated Goltsov in the 2023 final, Renan Ferreira, is not competing this season so he can welcome Francis Ngannou to the PFL on a PPV later in the year. And last week 2021 champion Bruno Cappelozza was removed from this fight card — and the PFL did not disclose whether he would return later this year. That leaves Goltsov to reasonably consider himself the surviving king.

Goltsov and Delija are the only holdovers from last season’s roster of 10 heavyweights. How will Vassell, Moldavsky and the other Bellator transplants adjust to their new surroundings and navigate through potentially four fights in seven months? Even with two PFL mainstays sitting at the top of the card, there’s a feel of newness and unlimited possibility in the heavyweight division, where all it takes is one big fist to change everything.


Flyweight: In other sports, they don’t play Game 3 of a three-game series when it’s 2-0

The above observation applies to the PFL more than other fight promotions, because this is the only company that operates in a season format similar to most mainstream sports.

So the question is: Why are we starting the season by watching Carmouche try to beat Velasquez a third time?

The simple answer is that they’re both part of the 2024 season and likely would have had to face each other eventually. And both previous Carmouche vs. Velasquez fights delivered championship-level entertainment. But why not have Velasquez earn a third shot by winning her way back to Carmouche? It’s not like the PFL didn’t have other appealing options.

Taila Santos, who will make her PFL debut against Ilara Joanne, is two fights removed from challenging for the UFC title, and some believe she did enough to go home with the belt on the night in 2022 when she dropped a split decision to Valentina Shevchenko.

Then there’s former junior world champion kickboxer Dakota Ditcheva, who is 10-0 in MMA with finishes in all but one of those wins. She has been in the PFL cage before — for a pair of showcase bouts in 2022, then three wins to capture the championship at last year’s PFL Europe women’s flyweight tournament. This week she is making her season debut against Lisa Mauldin.

But why not match Carmouche against either Santos or Ditcheva, and Velasquez against the other?

However the PFL matches up those four women, the inaugural PFL women’s flyweight season promises more competitive balance than the lightweight and featherweight women’s divisions from past seasons. Kayla Harrison and Larissa Pacheco dominated those competitions (see: “who’s who” reference above), with everyone else miles behind. This year’s $1 million prize seems more up for grabs.

This post was originally published on ESPN

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