The PFL resumes its season this week with a fight card that was originally built on the enticing drama of last chances and no tomorrows.
That was most prominently the case for the light heavyweight division, where 2022 champion Rob Wilkinson had won his first fight of the 2023 regular season in April, but did so by judges decision, putting him behind a couple of first-round finishers in the point standings. And yet Wilkinson was in a more desirable position than the season's two notable 205-pound signees, former UFC fighters Thiago Santos and Krzysztof Jotko, both of whom lost their PFL debuts and had much ground to make up and just a single opportunity to do so.
Within a format of just two regular season bouts determining which four fighters in each weight class move on to the fall's playoffs, this pivotal step in the chase for the $1 million season championship was promising feverish competition -- the most splendid type of MMA drama.
Then, a few weeks before fight night, it all descended into the most sordid melodrama.
Reports emerged that nine PFL fighters had been suspended by the Nevada State Athletic Commission after testing positive for banned substances. Among them were Santos, Jotko and two other light heavyweights. And days later, Wilkinson, who was not among those named in the NSAC ban, was pulled from his scheduled fight with no reason given, ending his season as well.
That meant the PFL lost half of its 10-fighter active roster of 205-pounders.
Also gone from the season are a trio of heavyweights, including 2021 season champion Bruno Cappelozza, and a pair of featherweights. It amounts to a midseason gut punch for the fight promotion, but the PFL can do nothing but move forward.
"No. 1, we in the PFL have zero tolerance on banned substances, and we're compliant with all state athletic commissions, including the state of Nevada," Peter Murray, CEO of the PFL, told ESPN this week. "Those fighters that have been identified as having potential issues, they're going through a process right now with the state of Nevada and we're waiting on their final results. But as a result of that process, those fighters cannot compete in our season because of the timing."
Murray said the PFL is also conducting its own review and, going forward, will partner with the US Anti-Doping Agency, which conducts the UFC's drug testing. "Our work with USADA will be implemented immediately, starting with playoffs," he said. "It's the right step."
Before the playoffs, though, there are three remaining regular-season fight cards. Following this week's featherweight and light heavyweight bouts, the next two weeks will have fights to determine playoff seedings in the promotion's other four weight classes. All three events will be at Overtime Elite Arena in Atlanta.
How to fill all those matchups with so many ineligible fighters? "As a league, with our format such as it is, we have alternates ready to go," Murray said.
No alternative is needed for Thursday's main event (10 p.m. ET main card on ESPN/ESPN+, prelims at 6 p.m. on ESPN+), in which 2022 featherweight champion Brendan Loughnane takes on Jesus Pinedo. Loughnane leads this season's 145-pound standings after scoring a second-round TKO in his 2023 opener. He's the kind of fighter who can instantly turn bad news into good.
"Brendan is one of the best featherweights in the world," Murray said. "Fifteen wins by KO, and he's on a five-fight winning streak. We're excited for his fight."
The last time Loughnane lost -- his only defeat in 10 PFL bouts -- was in a 2021 meeting with Movlid Khaybulaev, who took a split decision on his way to winning that season's championship. The undefeated Russian missed last season because of injury, denying him an opportunity to be a two-time champ and scuttling Loughnane's chance to avenge his loss -- at least for now.
Khaybulaev, who opened his 2023 season with a decision win, faces Tyler Diamond in Thursday's co-main event. Might this be the week when Loughnane and Khaybulaev set up a meeting in the playoffs? "Talk about storylines," said Murray.
And, of course, a storyline is just waiting to emerge at light heavyweight. Even before the spate of suspensions, Marthin Hamlet and Josh Silveira were at the top of the standings, owing to the first-round finishes they produced in their season openers. Hamlet fights Sam Kei on Thursday, and Silveira faces Delan Monte.
Where's the drama? Well, four playoff spots are up for grabs, and only three eligible 205-pounders opened the 2023 season with victories. Despite being 0-1, Monte is currently in the top four of the standings because of a tiebreaker, with Kei right behind. So, as is often the case in sports, one athlete's slipup is another's opportunity.
Best bets, by Ian Parker
Brendan Loughnane vs Jesus Pinedo
Last season's champ Loughnane will look to cement a No. 1 seed with a potential finish over Pinedo. Loughnane looked the best he ever has in his first fight against MMA veteran Marlon Moraes. Before his last fight, Pinedo had been on a four-fight win streak, with all wins coming by KO or TKO. He can only make the playoffs by getting a first-round finish over Loughnane.
For Loughnane, it's win and get in, so he must be careful of Pinedo's early onslaught. As long as a lucky punch doesn't occur, I expect Loughnane to pick apart Pinedo and lock up his spot in the playoffs.
Prediction: Loughnane (Odds are currently -500, so either place him in a parlay or take him to win by decision)
Movlid Khaybulaev vs Tyler Diamond
Khaybulaev made his long-awaited return since he won the PFL season in 2021 and returned just as he left off with a dominant win over Kudo. There is no secret to Khaybulaev's game plan, but to this point, no one has been able to stop him. Diamond is a good wrestler and very tough to put away. However, we have seen in the past he leaves himself open and can get reckless. In order to guarantee himself a spot in the playoffs, Khaybulaev will need a finish in any round, as he currently sits in third place. Against Diamond, I think he will get his opportunity to do so.
Prediction: Khaybulaev to win inside the distance
Marthin Hamlet vs Sam Kei
After missing out on the playoffs last season, Hamlet made a huge statement with a first-round finish in his opening bout of the season. It's win and get in for Hamlet; the same can be said for Kei. Based on what we saw out of Hamlet in his first fight, I expect this one to go the same. Hamlet is going to be smart and avoid the power of Kei by immediately taking him down and getting a first-round finish.
Prediction: Hamlet to win in round 1
Coming off a unanimous decision win against his rival Chris Wade, Jenkins will look to continue his dominance. Jenkins, who is not known for his finishing ability, will need to tap into that mentality to secure a spot in the playoffs. Although he is sitting in second place, his spot is not secure since he only won by decision in his first fight. He must get a finish in any round to guarantee himself a spot in the playoffs.
Jenkins will have the wrestling edge, as he normally does; however, Bin has never been finished in his MMA career. For betting purposes, Jenkins odds are low enough that taking him moneyline in a parlay will still provide some value, so I am going in that direction. However, if you want to play a prop to get better value, then take Jenkins to win by submission.
Prediction: Jenkins (add him to a parlay)
Josh Silveira vs Delan Monte
Silveira opened the season with a near-flawless win, securing a submission victory in the first round against Kei. Silveira put himself in a great position for the playoffs, as all he needs to do is win. His opponent finds himself in a similar position as he did last season. Monte will need a first-round finish to get to the playoffs. Monte carries a ton of power but throws with reckless abandon, which will leave him open to getting taken down and more than likely submitted by the Brazilian jiu-jitsu ace Silveira.
Prediction: Silveira wins inside the distance