New faces and former champs face off in the 2023 PFL playoffs


The PFL stands alone among mixed martial arts promotions — in its format, at least.

No other fight organization conducts a regular season followed by seeded playoff brackets. And instead of subjective rankings, which sort out the various divisions in the UFC and Bellator and fuel much of the matchmaking, the PFL establishes hierarchies in its six weight classes with points standings based solely on fight results.

The last of those defining details especially appeals to those who cringe at fabricated narratives. No trash talk is needed to get ahead in the PFL. Just win and move on.

And yet to suggest that everything is unambiguous in the PFL would be folly. When the 2023 playoffs get underway Friday in San Antonio with semifinal fights in the light heavyweight and men’s featherweight divisions (main card at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN and ESPN+), the vagaries of the PFL’s season format will be on full display. That will continue to be the case when the playoffs move to New York City for more semis on Aug. 18 and 23.

While three weight classes have champions looking to repeat, the other divisions feature playoff-tested contenders who, in past seasons, missed out on the big payoff. Every division will mix in some fresh faces. Some participants took straight, smooth paths to the playoffs, while others got there via winding, bumpy roads. There even was a questionable promotional decision involved in one instance.

Here are the unexpected and unlikely stories of the 2023 PFL playoffs.

Friday’s fights

Light heavyweight

Josh Silveira (No. 1 seed) vs. Ty Flores (4)

Marthin Hamlet (2) vs. Impa Kasanganay (3)

Unexpected face: It could be any of the 205-pounders after an outbreak of drug test failures decimated the division’s roster. But let’s go with Silveira, despite him being a familiar face to some in MMA — specifically, fighters who train at American Top Team, the vaunted South Florida gym co-founded by his father, Conan. And some who follow the PFL might recognize Silveira from last season when he made the playoffs before losing to his ATT teammate Omari Akhmedov. So why is Silveira an unexpected presence here? Because everyone in the bracket is unexpected. With 2022 champion Rob Wilkinson and UFC imports Thiago Santos and Krzysztof Jotko among those suspended, that leaves lesser-known but no less hungry fighters, such as Silveira, to vie for the $1 million prize.

Unlikely path: Kasanganay first stepped into a PFL cage in March, winning a Challengers Series fight to earn a contract with the company. He fought again three weeks later and won a showcase bout whose purpose was to stock the roster for next season. But in early June, the PFL came calling for Kasanganay for this season, as a substitute for one of the suspended five light heavyweights. And in his only fight of the season, Kasanganay scored a second-round submission of Tim Caron, earning him enough points to secure a spot in the playoffs. Whoa, that was fast.

Men’s featherweight

Bubba Jenkins (1) vs. Jesus Pinedo (4)

Gabriel Braga (2) vs. Chris Wade (5)

Unexpected face: Pinedo made his PFL debut in April, and it didn’t go well. He opened the season with a loss, dropping a split decision to Braga. As if that weren’t bad enough, his playoff hopes grew dimmer when, for his second and final bout of the regular season, Pinedo was matched up with 2022 champion Brendan Loughnane. But surprise, surprise — as a 5-1 betting underdog, Pinedo landed a head kick just a minute and a half into the June fight and unceremoniously finished Loughnane. That shocker sent the Peruvian fighter into the playoffs.

Unlikely path: If there were an “expected face” category, Wade would own it. Every time there have been PFL playoffs, he has been there. Three times Wade was a semifinalist (twice at lightweight before moving to featherweight), and in 2021 he was a 145-pound finalist. But while he’s a playoff regular, Wade has no $1 million checks to show for it. His playoff appearance streak was destined to end this year, after Wade finished fifth in the regular season. But undefeated Movlid Khaybulaev, who beat Wade for the 2021 championship, pulled out of the playoffs because of an injury, allowing Wade to move back into the house he grew up in.

The rest of the semifinals


Aug. 18 in New York

Unexpected face: Jordan Heiderman has had only seven pro fights, and he has won them all. (He did lose on “The Ultimate Fighter” last year, but those bouts are considered exhibitions and don’t count in the official record.) Heiderman competed just once this season, but his first-round TKO of Patrick Brady was all he needed to earn the No. 4 seed and a semifinal matchup with Denis Goltsov, a 2019 and 2021 semifinalist.

Unlikely path: It’s common for fighters to walk into the cage for their second regular-season bout with their playoff future in their hands: Win, and you’re in. Maurice Greene had kind of the opposite experience. He walked out of the cage after losing his June 16 fight with last year’s champ, Ante Delija — and still was in.


Aug. 23 in New York

Unexpected face: Longtime followers of the PFL are familiar with Magomed Magomedkerimov, who won the championship in the promotion’s inaugural season in 2018 and was a 2021 finalist. But the Russian has disappeared at inopportune playoff moments because of illness (2019) or visa issues (2022). When he fights, he wins nearly every time, going 14-1 during his five-season PFL run. But too often, he doesn’t get to fight. So his semifinal against undefeated Magomed Umalatov will be a rare treat.

Unlikely path: Umalatov is in his third PFL season and has never lost, yet this will be his first playoff appearance. Since entering the promotion in 2021, he has had three fights canceled, slowing his roll. And while he has produced finishes in 12 of his 14 bouts, nine times ending fights in the first round, Umalatov went the distance in his most recent one. That is clearly an unlikely path for him.


Aug. 23 in New York

Unexpected face: Bruno Miranda is a 16-3 fighter on a run of seven straight victories, so his presence in these playoffs should not be a shock. But in a 155-pound bracket that includes 2022 champ Olivier Aubin-Mercier, touted UFC import Shane Burgos and entertaining MMA and boxing veteran Clay Collard, Miranda is alone in flying under the radar.

Unlikely path: The likely playoff path for Burgos, in many fans’ expectations at the start of his first PFL season, was a dominant run through a couple of opponents overmatched by a former UFC contender. That’s not how things played out, though. Burgos was matched with the champ, Aubin-Mercier, right off the bat and lost a fight that was not close. He won his second bout by a tepid decision that left him short of the playoffs. But then Burgos was simply handed a spot by the PFL. The company brass made the dubious decision to suspend a pair of past champions, Natan Schulte and Raush Manfio, after the two best friends put on the kind of even-tempered fight one might expect from a pairing of best friends. Don’t expect any complaints from Burgos.

Women’s featherweight



Larissa Pacheco wastes no time finishing Amber Leibrock

Larissa Pacheco finishes Amber Leibrock within a minute of the first round starting.

Aug. 18 in New York

Unexpected face: Can we begin with who’s not an unexpected presence — and who’s maybe the only 145-pound playoff presence that matters? Larissa Pacheco, the 2022 season champion at lightweight, has also been a force in this weight class. Among her conquests this season was a 45-second destruction of former Bellator and Invicta fighter Amber Leibrock, who nonetheless earned a playoff spot. So, with a 7-5 record and coming off that mauling, Leibrock has to be considered the unexpected face in this bracket.

Unlikely path: During a June card, Olena Kolesnyk won her second regular-season fight early in the evening, then had to sit backstage and watch Aspen Ladd try to bump her out of playoff contention by getting a finish before the end of the second round. A TV camera captured the disappointment on Kolesnyk’s face as Ladd scored a submission with just seconds to spare. But before the night was out, someone with the PFL recalculated the tiebreaker … and Kolesnyk was in. No backstage camera showed her reaction, which might well have been mixed, once she realized that her semifinal opponent would be Pacheco, who knocked her out in the first round last year.


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