Rory MacDonald’s 2015 challenge to UFC welterweight champion Robbie Lawler was an all-time classic. A year and a half after Lawler ousted MacDonald by a split decision in an untitled bout, they went relentlessly at the Belt for 21 bloody, bloody minutes.
MacDonald headbutted Lawler in the third round and did it again in the fourth, and when he released a swarm of elbows and knees against the cage and begged Referee John McCarthy Lawler to fight back, it looked like there was something to be a new champion.
But Lawler struggled, survived to the horn, and found rest in his chair. The champion then came out of his corner for the final lap and was determined to take a stand. Both men’s faces were purple when they met in the center of the cage and the Las Vegas crowd roared. Moments later, Lawler released a straight left hand, which MacDonald crumbled with a crushed nose.
The fight was over. But the awards had only just started. Lawler vs. MacDonald 2 was named Fight of the Year by ESPN and several other media outlets. There’s an argument that it’s the greatest MMA fight ever, and fans certainly felt that way in 2017.
With fame came a price. These four rounds of brutality have taken a lot from both men. Lawler ruled only one defense of the title and has since lost five of his six fights, including his last four. MacDonald dropped his next fight and then disappeared from the UFC.
To say that MacDonald was used as a fighter after the Lawler brawl would be an exaggeration, however. The native Canadian from British Columbia, Canada, who trains in Montreal, won the Bellator Championship in 2018. But then he struck again trying to add Bellator’s middleweight belt to become the double skid champion, which continues to this day. He has only won one of his last five fights. MacDonald is only 31 years old, but it’s been years since he looked like his former elite self.
Now he has a new stage on which he can show what he is still capable of. MacDonald joined the PFL in December 2019, the largest signing in the action’s short history. It was planned to make its debut in 2020, but this season has been canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. MacDonald will finally step into the PFL cage on April 29th in Atlantic City, New Jersey to kick off the 2021 PFL welterweight season.
The expectation among casual fans could be that MacDonald, whose name still means something, should spend the $ 1 million he is sure to pocket to win the 2021 championship on New Years Eve. This is the PFL, after all, not the UFC or even Bellator. However, a closer look at the PFL’s 170-pound division reveals a fairly deep roster, starting with MacDonald’s season-opening opponent, UFC alum David Michaud. The South Dakota Oglala Lakota was a welterweight finalist for the 2019 PFL season.
The champions of both PFL seasons – Ray Cooper III (2019 winner) and Magomed Magomedkerimov (2018 winner) – are on the rise again in 2021. Newcomers include former UFC fighters Gleison Tibau and Aleksei Kunchenko. It looks like a competitive season.
However, if this were old MacDonald charging into the PFL cage, collecting the big check would be no problem for him. But today’s version? Like most of the PFL squad, he has not participated since 2019. Most recently, we saw that in a listless loss of decision against Douglas Lima, who returned the Bellator belt to the man MacDonald took it from, he did not show the energy and aggression that once made him special. Can MacDonald pick that up again in this new chapter?
As much as the signing of the star actor caused exclamation point reactions by the PFL, there are also many question marks. It is time for some answers.
Season favorite: Magomed Magomedkerimov
That’s right, I’m not going here with MacDonald, or even defending champion Ray Cooper III. For me, the favorite is Magomedkerimov, who beat Cooper to win the 2018 welterweight championship, the PFL’s inaugural season. The 31-year-old Russian was scheduled to face the Hawaiian again in the 2019 semi-finals, but had to retire due to illness shortly before the fight, having fought once earlier that night. Despite not winning a second million dollars in a row, Magomedkerimov still has an eleven-fight winning streak that dates back to 2015. He’ll be hard to beat.
The main competitor: Rory MacDonald
These choices could look silly in a few months. If MacDonald is in the cage on New Year’s Eve holding an oversized replica check as champion of 2021, so will many observers think Sure The former UFC title challenger and Bellator champion prevailed against the PFL competition. On the flip side, if MacDonald looks the same as his previous games this season and the PFL welterweight division doesn’t take over, the thinking will be Sure he’s got nothing left, wasn’t it obvious? So this seems like a reasonable place to place a fighter who may be the best the PFL has ever seen, but who may also turn out to be no longer that guy.
Fight for the premiere: Gleison Tibau against Aleksei Kunchenko
Tibau finished his UFC run with 28 fights in 2018 after four straight defeats, although two of them faced strong Tony Ferguson and Islam Makhachev. He’s 37 so who knows where this Brazilian will be as a fighter now when he joins the PFL? Kunchenko will test him right away. The Russian was 20-0 and played a role in the UFC when he faced future title challenger Gilbert Burns in 2019. He lost this and his next Octagon appearance and is here in the PFL starting at age 36.
Welterweight at a glance
Ray Cooper III
Height: 5-foot-7 | To reach: 70 inches
Career record: 20-7-1
PFL recording: 8-2
Notable PFL fights: Defending champion in the PFL welterweight 2019 (def. David Michaud); lost to Magomed Magomedkerimov in the 2018 PFL welterweight final
Height: 5-foot-9 | To reach: 71 in
Career record: 18-6
PFL recording: 3-2
Notable PFL fights: Lost in 2019 PFL welterweight to Ray Cooper III
Career record: 20-2
PFL recording: N / A
Height: 5-foot-8 | To reach: 70 inches
Career record: 35-14
PFL recording: N / A
Career record: 20-12-1, 1 NC
PFL recording: N / A
Height: 5-foot-9 | To reach: 69 inches
Career record: 24-9
PFL recording: 3-0
Notable PFL highlights: Was welterweight No. 2 in the 2018 PFL season but had to drop out due to a knee injury; joined the 2019 PFL season in the middle as a replacement for Gamzat Khiramagomedov and won his lone fight in 2019 but failed to qualify for the playoffs
Height: 5-foot-9 | To reach: 74 in
Career record: 24-5
PFL recording: 1-0
Notable PFL highlights: Won the 2019 PFL welterweight playoff alternative fight against Jesse Ronson
Height: 6-foot-3 | To reach: 80 inches
Career record: 8-5
PFL recording: 2-3-2
Notable PFL fights: Lost in the 2018 PFL middleweight semifinals to Abuspiyan Magomedov; Lost in 2019 PFL welterweight quarterfinals to Ray Cooper III; 17 seconds of Body Kick KO via David Michaud in the 2019 PFL regular season
How to Watch the PFL Fights
Check out the main map on ESPN2: Download the ESPN App | download WatchESPN2 | TV
Don’t have ESPN2? Get instant access.
Check out the preliminary rounds on ESPN +. If you don’t have ESPN +, Get it here.
There is also FightCenter, Here you can find live updates for each PFL card.
PFL 2021 Night 2: Thursday April 29th
ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET
Rory MacDonald versus David Michaud | Welterweight
Ray Cooper III versus Jason Ponet | Welterweight
Antonio Carlos Junior versus Tom Lawlor | Light heavyweight
Emiliano Sordi versus Chris Camozzi | Light heavyweight
ESPN +, 5:30 p.m. ET
Magomed Magomedkerimov against Joao Zeferino João | Welterweight
Smealinho Rama versus Jordan Young | Light heavyweight
Cezar Ferreira versus Nick Roehnick | Light heavyweight
Gleison Tibau versus Aleksei Kunchenko | Welterweight
Sadibou Sy versus Nikolay Aleksakhin | Welterweight
Dan Spohn versus Marthin Nielson | Light heavyweight