The night took a turn for the bizarre when Kelvin Tiller came trotting out to the PFL smart cage for the second time Thursday night at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino. This encore was strange not simply because Tiller had lost his PFL heavyweight quarterfinal bout earlier in the evening — it was the way he had lost his first fight, immobilized on his back for two rounds in which he’d been outstruck 195-2.
And now here he was in the semifinals, after the rightful owner of that spot, Francimar Barroso, was not medically cleared. The first alternate — Alex Nicholson, who lost to Barroso after a low blow point deduction — was ruled medically ineligible as well.
That is the risk the PFL takes by going old-school and having its playoff participants fight twice in one night. Some of the semifinals played out as planned, as was the case when top light heavyweight seed Emiliano Sordi produced a nice pair of finishes — a knockout in the quarterfinals and a submission in the semis. But then there was the heavyweight final between Ali Isaev and No. 1 seed Denis Goltsov, which, for the most part, was sluggish, as if two tired fighters were just trying to get through the night.
Of course, what we’ll remember about that fight changed in a hurry late in the third round, as Isaev unleashed a wild punch with the clock running down to produce a last-second knockout. So there it is. The PFL’s playoff format has its shortcomings, but in the end, a fight is a fight and a thrilling finish can make us walk away from the night entertained.
And we also walk away looking forward to six fights on Dec. 31, each awarding the winner $1 million. With the final two matchups set on Thursday night, let’s breakdown the last two finals bouts that round out the fight card.
Rosholt is all wrestler — the winningest heavyweight in the history of the fine program at Oklahoma State. But he’s no Olympian, and Isaev represented Azerbaijan in the 2008 Games. And Isaev is not all wrestling. He is capable of spinning attacks on his feet, and he has power in his hands, as he displayed in his last-second KO of top-seeded Denis Goltsov in his semifinal fight. He’s dangerous anywhere the action plays out in the cage, and he has what it takes to make the fight play out where he wants it to.
Isaev has only eight pro fights, and inexperience could be to his detriment against a tricky opponent. But Rosholt is not that guy. He’s going to wrestle and wrestle some more, and Isaev has seen that his whole life. Rosholt is 33 and has said he could be done after these playoffs. Might he have one last hurrah in him on New Year’s Eve?
Rosholt has been in the cage with better fighters than the 35-year-old Isaev. He owns wins over UFC heavyweights Stefan Struve and Walt Harris, and has shared the cage with Derrick Lewis and Roy Nelson. But all of that was years ago. In the here and now, he could be in over his head against the powerful, well-rounded Ali Isaev.
All season long and through the playoffs thus far, Sordi has looked like the class of the light heavyweight division. Johnson, however, has a way of taking opponents out of their gameplan and making them fight his fight. He arrived for this season undefeated and fresh off four UFC victories, giving him the best pedigree of anyone in the promotion. Then he proceeded to lose his first PFL fight. But Johnson’s gone unbeaten since that point, and while his skill set seems limited to a strong wrestling game, he has found a way to make his fights play out in that world.
Sordi has shown himself to be fully capable of fighting his fight, though. He has found something — maybe just confidence, maybe something more. He went unbeaten in grabbing the top seed for the 2019 light heavyweight playoffs, and while other No. 1s faltered at that point, the 28-year-old Argentine continued to roll. He has finished all four of his opponents, between the regular season and playoffs.
On Thursday, Sordi took out both of his opponents in the first round, finishing his quarterfinal by knockout in barely a minute, and then submitting Bozigit Ataev — the last man to beat him — in the semifinal. He is not simply winning, he’s doing it with poise and efficiency. If his momentum follows him to New York City, Sordi is going to be tough to stop.