2023 PFL championships: Can Larissa Pacheco and Olivier Aubin-Mercier win back-to-back titles? – ESPN

Jeff Wagenheim, ESPNAug 28, 2023, 08:07 AM ET

If you’re a mixed martial arts promotion and your name doesn’t begin with “U” and end with “FC,” the fight business can rough you up. How does your second-fiddle company attract athletes the MMA fan base has heard of and cares about? How do your fights even get noticed?

Nonetheless, the PFL has drawn plenty of attention to itself during the 2023 season, which concludes Nov. 24 in Washington with the championship fights in six weight classes.

Some of the scrutiny has been unwanted, such as when 10 PFL fighters — including half of the light heavyweight division — failed drug tests and were suspended for the season. Or when multiple fighters missed weight to plunge the playoff semifinals into bizarre lose-and-maybe-you-still-advance scenarios. Or when the PFL brass kicked a qualifying fighter out of the playoffs for not trying hard enough — in a fight he won.

But all of that will be just background noise if the PFL emerges from 2023 with a legitimate new star, and that’s exactly how the season has been shaping up. With the company’s one existing star, Kayla Harrison, sidelined while waiting for the PFL’s announced pay-per-view venture to launch, another woman has taken over mightily. Larissa Pacheco has knocked out her last two opponents in 45 and 14 seconds, respectively. She has become a blink-and-you-miss-it attraction. That’s one of the best things you can be in combat sports.

Pacheco, who upset two-season champ Harrison in last year’s women’s lightweight final, is one of three 2022 champions who’ll be bidding for repeat photo ops with oversized $1 million replica checks in hand. Another of those finals will pit two past champs against each other. In addition, there’s the PFL newcomer who lost his season opener but made the final with a pair of disruptive knockouts. And a couple of the promotion’s mainstays have finally reached a final after previously falling just short.

Here’s a first look at the six fights that will determine who wins the season championships (seeding in parentheses).

Heavyweight: Denis Goltsov (1) vs. Renan Ferreira (2)

If you’re at The Anthem that night and you happen to spot one of the judges for the heavyweight final at a concessions stand, not at cageside, don’t fret. This one should be over long before scorecards are necessary. Goltsov and Ferreira have five first-round finishes between them this season.

Goltsov has been in the PFL since 2019 and has earned a spot in the playoffs every season. This will be his first final. He scored quick knockouts in both of his regular-season fights, then wasted no time in winning his semifinal by submission. Ferreira is unbeaten in 2023 as well — technically. He opened the season with a decision loss, but the result was overturned to a no contest because his opponent, Rizvan Kuniev, was one of the fighters who popped for banned substances. Ferreira followed by scoring a pair of early knockouts. Who needs judges?

Light heavyweight: Josh Silveira (1) vs. Impa Kasanganay (3)

This is the weight class that lost half of its roster at midseason, including 2022 champ Rob Wilkinson and a pair of recognizable names imported from the UFC, Thiago Santos and Krzysztof Jotko. While that had to be a nightmare for PFL matchmakers, it presented an opportunity to fighters who might otherwise have been also-rans or missed out on the season entirely.

Kasanganay was one of the 205-pounders brought in midseason as replacements, and he has made the most of his unexpected chance with a couple of finishes. But to win the season he’ll have to contend with 2022 semifinalist Silveira, who has knocked out all three 2023 opponents in the first round.

The judges figure to be spare parts in this final as well.

Welterweight: Magomed Magomedkerimov (1) vs. Sadibou Sy (3)

Champ vs. champ. Magomedkerimov won the championship in 2018, the PFL’s first season, and Sy captured it last year.

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Sy has won seven fights in a row, a run that began after he lost a 2021 playoff semifinal to Magomedkerimov. The Dagestani would go on to lose that year’s final, the only defeat among his 15 PFL fights.

If this one comes down to a battle of nicknames, Sy has an undisputable edge. Magomedkerimov has no nickname, and Sy is known back home in Stockholm as “The Swedish Denzel Washington.” Wouldn’t it be simpler, though, to just call him Oscar?

Lightweight: Clay Collard (1) vs. Olivier Aubin-Mercier (2)

Aubin-Mercier, the 2022 champ, is 9-0 in the PFL and has controlled the pace of every fight he’s been in. Will his steadiness be thrown off rhythm by the perpetually forward-moving Collard?

Another pivotal question surrounding OAM: After being a decision machine during the start of his PFL tenure as well as the end of his long UFC run, he has knockouts in three of his last four fights. Can the defending champ test the iron chin of “Cassius” Clay, who has been knocked out just once in 35 pro fights?

Men’s featherweight: Gabriel Braga (2) vs. Jesus Pinedo (4)

Pinedo pulled off the season’s biggest surprise in June, knocking out 2022 champ Brendan Loughnane. That earned him a playoff spot, and in a semifinal earlier this month, Pinedo delivered another surprise, taking out No. 1 seed Bubba Jenkins.

Prior to those glorious moments, though, Pinedo had dropped his season opener … to the undefeated Braga.

It wasn’t a strong first impression by Pinedo, but all could be forgotten come November.

Women’s featherweight: Larissa Pacheco (1) vs. Marina Mokhnatkina (2)

Cover your eyes. It’s not going to be pretty.

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