Defending PFL champs Kayla Harrison, Ray Cooper III among 12 vying for $1 million

Six championship fights. Six life-changing $1 million paydays.

The PFL closes out its 2021 season Wednesday night at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel Casino in Hollywood, Florida (4:30 p.m. ET on ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET on ESPN2/ESPN+), with the PFL World Championships hosting the high-stakes finals in a half-dozen weight classes and a handful of other showcase fights. Each winner earns pockets the champion’s prize and a gold PFL championship belt.

The evening’s headliner knows a thing or two about gold. Kayla Harrison won gold medals in judo at both the 2012 and 2016 Olympics. She also captured the PFL women’s lightweight title in 2019, the promotion’s most recent season. When she faces Taylor Guardado on the final step of her pursuit of a second straight championship, Harrison will be a massive favorite — 16-1 at Caesars Sportsbook, and as high as 30-1 elsewhere.

The women’s lightweight division is the star of this show in several ways. Aside from Harrison’s presumed coronation, two other bouts at 155 pounds feature champions from across the combat sports spectrum.

Making her PFL debut will be newly signed Julia Budd. The 38-year-old, from Canada, is the former Bellator featherweight champ, and faces Kaitlin Young in her PFL debut. She’s lost just three times in her career — to Ronda Rousey, Amanda Nunes and Cris Cyborg — so let’s just say Budd is undefeated other than against the Mount Rushmore of women’s MMA.

Claressa Shields has a glittery pedigree, albeit in boxing, where she is an undefeated boxing champion, the first boxer to become an undisputed world champion in two divisions in the four-belt era, and currently No. 2 in the ESPN women’s pound-for-pound rankings.

Like Harrison, Shields won gold at the 2012 Olympics. She made her MMA debut in June, weathering early trouble before scoring a third-round TKO over Brittney Elkin. Now Shields is back, facing Abigail Montes.

Will Budd and Shields add a higher level of competition for Harrison next season? Will Harrison, whose PFL contract expires after Wednesday’s final, even still be here? Those are questions for another day. For now, these six championship fights are what’s most important.

Women’s lightweight: Kayla Harrison (11-0) vs. Taylor Guardado (3-1)

How Harrison got here: beat Mariana Morais by TKO1; beat Cindy Dandois by Sub1; beat Genah Fabian by TKO1.

How Guardado got here: beat Olena Kolesnyk by UD; beat Laura Sanchez by UD; beat Mariana Morais by SD.

What to expect: Guardado is a real fighter with a skill set stronger than the meager numbers beside her name, but she is about to step in with the most dominant force in the game. Sure, that designation is in part due to the relatively shallow talent pool in Harrison’s weight class. But one can’t help but notice that with every fight, the defending champ gets better, rounding out her game beyond her obvious grappling advantage. Still, Guardado must do all she can to keep this one standing if she hopes to keep it competitive.

Welterweight: Ray Cooper III (23-7-1) vs. Magomed Magomedkerimov (29-5)

How Magomedkerimov got here: beat Curtis Millender by Sub1; beat Sadibou Sy by UD.

How Cooper got here: beat Jason Ponet by Sub1; beat Nikolai Alksakhin by UD; beat Rory MacDonald by UD.

What to expect: Cooper has to be at the very height of confidence right now, coming off a domineering victory over MacDonald, the prized signee brought in to add star power to a division that Cooper, the 2019 champion, considers his own. Now he faces another top-of-the-mountain claimant. Magomedkerimov defeated Cooper in the 2018 final and was derailed by injury the next year while headed toward a rematch — a turn of events that denied the Hawaiian the redemption he’d hoped would accompany the title belt.

When I spoke with Cooper before this season, he talked about Magomedkerimov. When I spoke with Cooper right before the MacDonald fight, he talked about Magomedkerimov. He got the final matchup he wanted. Now can Cooper maintain the patience that he acknowledges he did not demonstrate the first time these two fought?

Featherweight: Movlid Khaybulaev (18-0-1) vs. Chris Wade (20-6)

How Khaybulaev got here: beat Lazar Stojadinovic by UD; beat Lance Palmer by UD; beat Brendan Loughnane by SD.

How Wade got here: beat Anthony Dizy by UD; beat Arman Ospanov by TKO2; beat Bubba Jenkins by UD.

What to expect: This division is going to have a new champion who will be the 145-pound roster’s target for all of 2022. Wade lived up to his swaggering confidence in August by outwrestling Jenkins, a former NCAA Division 1 national champion, but now he faces an opponent who’s more well-rounded. Khaybulaev is explosive on his feet, and that sets up his takedowns. He’s a problem everywhere a fight may go.

Heavyweight: Ante Delija (13-5) vs. Bruno Cappelozza (19-4)

How Delija got here: lost to Cappeloza by TKO1; beat Chandler Cole by TKO1; beat Denis Goltsov by UD.

How Cappelozza got here: beat Delija by TKO1; beat Muhammed DeReese by TKO1; beat Jamelle Jones by TKO2.

What to expect: All three of Cappelozza’s fights so far in 2021 have ended in knockouts — including his season opener against Delija, which lasted all of 46 seconds. The big Brazilian is fast and explosive. But after getting a taste of that power, Delija did a good job of shutting down a dangerous striker in his semifinal against Goltsov. He knows that the key for him is managing striking range — either by working from distance or crowding Cappelozza with clinches. Can Delija do what he knows he must do?

Light heavyweight: Antonio Carlos Junior (12-5) vs. Marthin Hamlet (8-2)

How Carlos Junior got here: beat Tom Lawlor by Sub1; fought to a no contest with Vinny Magalhaes (accidental groin stroke, Round 1); beat Emiliano Sordi by UD.

How Hamlet got here: beat Dan Spohn by Sub2; lost to Cory Hendricks by Sub3; beat Cezar Ferreira by TKO1 (injury).

What to expect: Carlos Junior is a multiple-time jiu-jitsu world champion, but will he even have an opportunity to show off his elite grappling? Hamlet’s strength is as a wrestler, and high-level wrestlers typically control where a fight is fought. They defuse dangerous strikers by smothering them on the canvas, and they keep grappling whizzes on their feet, where their submission games are nullified. Carlos Junior does have power in his hands, and he probably is going to have to rely on it.

Lightweight: Loik Radzhabov (15-3-1) vs. Raush Manfio (14-3)

How Radzhabov got here: lost to Alex Martinez by SD; beat Akhmed Aliev by TKO1; beat Martinez by UD.

How Manfio got here: beat Joilton Lutterbach by SD; beat Anthony Pettis by SD; beat Clay Collard by UD.

What to expect: This is a matchup of beatable fighters who had multiple close fights on their way to the championship, which could bring about a stirring back-and-forth. Manfio is skating on especially thin ice. He got to this final on the strength of two split decisions followed by a semifinal victory that, while unanimous on the judges’ scorecards, was a bit of a head-scratcher. How did Collard not get his hand raised back in August?

As for Radzhabov, he was on the wrong end of a split decision to open the season, and his semifinal win had some treacherous moments. Who will be the last man standing?

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