LAS VEGAS -- What's better than winning $1 million? Winning $1 million, twice. Obviously.
Two of PFL's 2018 champions set the stage for a repeat win Thursday, as featherweight Lance Palmer and lightweight Natan Schulte each advanced to the finals for the second time in two years. The 145- and 155-pound playoffs took place Thursday night inside the Mandalay Bay Events Center.
Not only have Palmer and Schulte advanced to back-to-back finals, they've been perfect in doing so. Palmer is 9-0 since the beginning of 2018. Schulte is 8-0-1, with four finishes. Each won two fights on Thursday, as part of PFL's trademark two-fights-in-one-night playoff system.
The 2019 featherweight and lightweight finals are set, and the biggest story of the night might well have been Daniel Pineda, a veteran fighter who earned two first-round stoppages and fought his way to the PFL finals from a No. 7 seed in the featherweight division.
Schulte will face No. 7-seeded lightweight Loik Radzhabov, who grinded through 25 minutes of action over two fights and twice got the nod in a decision.
Let's recap a night of action in Las Vegas.
Lightweight semifinal: No. 7 Loik Radzhabov def. No. 3 Chris Wade by unanimous decision
Radzhabov advanced to the semifinals by the slimmest of margins, as judges selected him to move on after a majority draw against Islam Mamedov. His advance to the finals, however, was very convincing.
Radzhabov (13-1-1) was nothing short of dominant in a three-round decision over Wade (17-6). All three judges scored the bout for the Tajikistan native 30-27.
Wade, who also lost in the PFL semifinals in 2018, opened the fight with a leaping side kick, but his energy noticeably waned as the fight progressed. Radzhabov showed very little respect for Wade's power or his takedowns, as he essentially marched forward from bell to bell.
According to PFL stats, Radzhabov outlanded Wade in total strikes 57-27. He scored with front kicks to the body, and punches along the fence. Wade, a wrestler from New York, tried everything to slow Radzhabov's offense, but he simply wasn't physical enough. Radzhabov shrugged off his attempts to clinch or take the fight to the ground.
Radzhabov's 2019 PFL record improves to 2-1-1. His loss came against Rashid Magomedov in his first regular season fight, back in May.
Lightweight semifinal: No. 1 Natan Schulte def. No. 4 Akhmed Aliev by second-round submission (arm triangle)
Schulte (18-3-1) extended his unbeaten streak in PFL to 8-0-1, and advanced to his second consecutive PFL finals with a second-round submission of Aliev (19-6).
The finish came at 2:26 of the round, via arm triangle choke. Schulte dragged Aliev to the canvas in a scramble and quickly isolated the Russian's right arm. Schulte didn't even need to rotate his entire body to Aliev's side, as he put Aliev to sleep while in full mount.
It was a very technical, back-and-forth fight, while it lasted. Aliev scored a handful of bodylock takedowns in the opening round. Schulte responded with a beautiful inside trip, and good knees to the body from the clinch. The action went back and forth from the feet to the ground several times, as both fighters countered each other well.
Schulte will look to repeat as a PFL champion in 2019. He won the $1 million prize in 2018 by defeating Rashid Magomedov by decision in the finals in 2018.
Featherweight semifinal: No. 7 Daniel Pineda def. No. 6 Jeremy Kennedy by first-round submission (guillotine)
Pineda has been fighting professionally since 2007. He has never had a night quite like Thursday.
Pineda (28-13) submitted Kennedy (15-3) via guillotine choke at the 4:00 mark of the opening round of their featherweight semifinal matchup. The result capped off an improbable night for the 34-year-old, who had never even fought in the PFL prior to the playoffs. He advanced to the playoffs because his scheduled opponent in July missed weight.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I'm happy and ready to prove myself," Pineda said.
Pineda opened the fight with a combination similar to the one he used earlier in the evening to knock out No. 2 seed Movlid Khaybulaev. He rocked Kennedy with a left hook and threw a wild, spinning wheelkick, which actually allowed Kennedy to take him down. Pineda, however, managed to stand up moments later.
The Texas native continued to win the standup battle as the fight progressed, and when Kennedy looked for a takedown late in the round, Pineda pounced on the choke.
"I knew I rocked him in the beginning," Pineda said. "He went for the takedown and I was just waiting for it. Waiting for him to shoot in, and then bam, guillotine."
Lightweight quarterfinal: No. 3 Chris Wade def. No. 6 Nate Andrews by majority decision
Long Island's Wade cruised to a lightweight semifinal berth, following a two-round majority decision over Andrews. Wade outwrestled Andrews throughout, en route to scores of 20-18, 20-18 and 19-19. It was the second time this season Wade bested Andrews by decision.
Andrews, of Rhode Island, had some success in the second round, but not enough to turn the scorecards. He did a much better job defending the takedowns late, and appeared to briefly stun Wade with a hard left hand. Wade's persistent takedowns, however, eventually got the best of him.
With the victory, Wade advanced to the PFL semifinals for the second consecutive season.
Lightweight quarterfinal: No. 7 Loiz Radzhabov vs. No. 2 Islam Mamedov goes to a majority draw; Radzhabov advances by unanimous judges' decision
A closely contested, two-round lightweight quarterfinal between Mamedov and Radzhabov resulted in a majority draw, leading to the use of PFL's playoff tiebreaker. In the event of a draw, all three judges are asked to vote for one fighter to advance based on "overall performance." All three judges selected Radzhabov.
Mamedov was arguably the fighter most in control of where the fight went, but Radzhabov appeared to cause more damage, which is what probably earned him the nod. He hurt Mamedov with punches to the side of the head as he went for a takedown in the first round, and threatened to finish Mamedov with a rear-naked choke in the second.
Mamedov did not immediately contest the result, and even applauded Radzhabov as the decision was read.
Lightweight quarterfinal: No. 4 Akhmed Aliev def. No. 5 Rashid Magomedov by unanimous decision
Aliev advanced to the lightweight semifinals with a unanimous decision win against fellow Russian and 2018 PFL runner-up Magomedov. All three judges scored the two-round playoff bout for Aliev, 20-18.
The 155-pound contest saw a measured pace from both lightweights. Aliev scored the only takedown of the fight, a violent full body suplex in the opening round. The majority of the action occurred on the feet and in spurts, as neither fighter really committed to any prolonged combinations.
Aliev has already shown plenty of highlight reel potential in the PFL. He knocked out Carlos Silva in his PFL debut earlier this year in just 2:24. He has 11 career knockouts.
Featherweight semifinal: No. 1 Lance Palmer def. No. 4 Alex Gilpin by unanimous decision
Ohio's Palmer (20-3) punched his ticket -- literally -- to a second consecutive PFL featherweight finals appearance with a decision win over Gilpin (14-3) in the semis.
The former collegiate wrestler scored a handful of takedowns against Gilpin, but it was his aptitude with his hands early on in the fight that carried him to the 145-pound finals. Palmer repeatedly found a home for his counter left hand on the feet -- although he did rely on his grappling to put things away in the third round.
All three judges scored it a clean 30-27 sweep for Palmer, who has now won 10 in a row, including a run to the PFL's 2018 featherweight championship.
"It's awesome to be back in the finals again, and to face a great opponent in Alex Gilpin," Palmer said. "I fought him twice this season, and I felt he was one of the toughest guys in this division. Nothing but respect for him."
Gilpin, of Madison, Wisconsin, staged something of a comeback in the final round, but it ultimately came up short. He buzzed Palmer with some strikes on the feet, including a big knee, and looked for a guillotine as Palmer was forced to shoot for a takedown. He ended up taking Palmer down with the choke attempt but would eventually cede top position.
Palmer, who trains with New Jersey striking coach Mark Henry, was the 145-pound World Series of Fighting champion, prior to the league rebranding itself as PFL.
Lightweight quarterfinal: No. 1 Natan Schulte def. No. 8 Ramsey Nijem by first-round submission (rear naked choke)
Nijem clearly had a plan for how he would take out 2018 champion Schulte. It almost worked, too.
Nijem came out on fire, knocking Schulte down with an overhand right in the opening moments and then straight into a deep guillotine attempt. Schulte managed to escape, though, and quickly made up for the horrific start. He took Nijem's back in a scramble and put Nijem to sleep with a rear naked choke. The entire thing took 52 seconds.
Featherweight quarterfinal: No. 6 Jeremy Kennedy def. No. 3 Luis Rafael Laurentino by second-round TKO (punches)
Kennedy came to Las Vegas with the goal of advancing to the PFL finals, for sure. But he was also there, in large part, to exact revenge on Laurentino.
Kennedy defeated Laurentino via TKO at 1:24 of the second round to move on to the PFL featherweight semifinals. It was a rematch of a 2019 regular-season bout that Kennedy lost in a 21-second knockout. Kennedy obviously looked much sharper in the second meeting, as he took Laurentino down at will and ultimately finished the fight with ground and pound in the second.
Kennedy, a veteran of the UFC, made the playoffs by outpointing Steven Siler in his other regular-season fight in July.
Featherweight quarterfinal: No. 7 Daniel Pineda def. No. 2 Movlid Khaybulaev by first-round knockout (punches)
Pineda's first fight in the PFL cage was a memorable one, as he knocked out Khaybulaev in only 29 seconds to advance to the featherweight semifinals. Pineda was supposed to fight in PFL's regular season in July, but his opponent missed weight -- creating the odd scenario of his first PFL fight taking place in the playoffs.
The finish came courtesy of a flurry against the fence. Pineda knocked Khaybulaev off balance with an inside leg kick, and then dropped him with a left hand. As Khaybulaev tried to protect himself against the fence, Pineda followed with a string of punches to the head. Khaybulaev appeared to be halfway reaching for a takedown after absorbing that damage, but the fight was called by referee Yves Lavigne.
Pineda was a 5-to-1 betting underdog going into the bout. The 34-year-old has fought professionally since 2007, including stretches in the UFC and Bellator MMA.
Featherweight quarterfinal: No. 4. Alex Gilpin def. No. 5 Andre Harrison by second-round submission (front choke)
After flirting with a guillotine choke midway through the first round, Gilpin scored a thrilling victory over Harrison with a ninja front choke in the second round of their featherweight quarterfinal. The finish came at the 1:49 mark. Harrison refused to tap and ended up going unconscious.
Harrison's wrestle-heavy style was relatively effective against Gilpin, but ultimately ran him into trouble. It marked the eighth submission win of Gilpin's career. He suffered a regular-season loss to Lance Palmer, before submitting another strong grappler in Freddy Assuncao in July. The win set Gilpin up for a rematch against Palmer in the semifinals.
Featherweight quarterfinal: No. 1 Lance Palmer def. No. 9 Alexandre Almeida by unanimous decision
Palmer nearly recorded what would have been just the second knockout win of his career in the second round, as he dropped Almeida with an overhand left in the center of the cage. Almeida appeared to briefly go limp from the shot, but managed to clamp onto Palmer off his back and survive the rest of the fight.
It was, nevertheless, a thoroughly dominant showing from Palmer. He easily advanced to the semifinal round via scores of 20-17, 20-18, 20-18. It also wrapped up a trilogy between Palmer and Almeida. Almeida handed Palmer his second pro loss back in December 2015, taking the World Series of Fighting featherweight title in the process. Palmer avenged that result and regained his belt seven months later, defeating Almeida by decision.