Get to Know the Lightweights! Will Brooks, Chris Wade, and LFA champ Robert Watley lead a strong veteran field at PFL Chicago

PFL’s 2018 regular season lightweight bracket will start to take shape this Thursday when PFL touches down in Chicago, Illinois for their second event of 2018.  Familiar faces abound in the 155 pound field including ex-Bellator champ Will Brooks, recent UFC contender and major PFL free agent signing Chris Wade, and longtime world class veterans Luiz Firmino, Brian Foster, and Thiago Tavares.  Will one of those proven beasts add the title of PFL champion to his resume and deposit a $1 million championship check in his bank account?  Or will an upstart talent like three-time LFA champion Robert Watley or finish-hunting Dagestani Islam Mamedov reign supreme?  One thing’s for sure, this is a world class collection of fighters and we should be in for some great fights this Thursday at PFL Chicago, broadcast on Facebook and NBC Sports Network – read on for more on the 12 competitors who make up the 2018 PFL lightweight field!

 

First a little about PFL rules!  PFL 2018 regular season scoring gives the winner 6 points for a round 1 finish, 5 points for a round 2 finish, 4 points for a round 3 finish, and 3 points for a decision victory.

 

Your six PFL Chicago lightweight bouts in no particular order:

 

 

Robert Watley (10-1, LFA champ, #84 World)

vs.

Thiago Tavares (21-7-1, 10-7 UFC, #40 World FW)

Fight pundits scratched their heads as Robert Watley became the rare LFA champ to defend his title multiple times without ever leaving AXS TV’s flagship promotion for the big leagues. Owning a resume that’s as strong as any prospect in the U.S. regionals, Watley’s decision to sign with PFL instead of UFC is a high-stakes gamble that may pay out in the form of a $1 million PFL championship check.  Watley has the skills to bring the fight where he wants it, the fight IQ to recognize where his opponents are weak, and the offensive potency to get the job done. “Contact” isn’t a pure finish seeker by any means, although the fact that he’s had to measure his cardio for 5 rounders in 4 of his last 6 bouts may have played a role. Either way, Watley has managed to score 3 TKOs in his 6-0 run since moving up to facing accomplished regional competition two years ago. Can the LFA champ keep the good times rolling against a far more experienced opponent than before in 17 fight UFC vet Thiago Tavares?

On the heels of a five fight run at featherweight, Thiago Tavares is back at 155 pounds looking to replicate the success that led him to 8 UFC victories in the weight class. The Brazilian has always had a penchant for first round subs – see his UFC finishes of Clay Guida, Robbie Peralta, Justin Salas, and Pat Audinwood for proof. There’s little that Watley can possibly offer that Tavares hasn’t seen before; the 33 year old Tavares has been in there with Khabib Nurmagomedov, Brian Ortega, and the Korean Superboy for cryin’ out loud! This fight should go a long way toward telling whether Watley tops out as a dominant regional champ or whether he can hang with world class competition (for the record, my money’s on the latter outcome).

 

Will Brooks (18-4, ex-Bellator champ, #43 World)

vs.

Luiz Firmino (20-8, #56 World)

Once the undisputed ruler of the Bellator lightweight division, Will Brooks enters the PFL competition on a 3 fight skid following losses to world class lightweights Nik Lentz, Charles Oliveira, and Alex Cowboy Oliveira. Before that, “Ill Will” had been riding the momentum of a 9 fight win streak including four Bellator title fight triumphs over Marcin Held, Dave Jansen, and Michael Chandler (twice!). Brooks’ habit of taking fights deep may prove to be a problem given the PFL scoring system, as he’s never finished an opponent inside the first 15 minutes of a televised UFC or Bellator fight in 13 opportunities. The 31 year old old Brooks often relies on clinch work and wrestling, but perhaps fighting in front of his home Chicago crowd will inspire the former Bellator champ to employ a more violent game plan than usual.

Like Brooks, 36 year old Luiz Firmino has assembled a terrific record over a long period of time without stringing together many finishes. Before TKOing TUF alum Eddy Ellis at PFL: Everett last July, the five-fight Pride veteran Firmino hadn’t finished an opponent since taking out another journeyman TUF alum Johnavan Vistante way back in 2012. The announcers will probably tell you that Firmino has 7 subs on his record, and it’s a true story, but the context is that most of those came a decade ago.  In any case the 18 year vet is a technically sound fighter whose well-rounded package and toughness presents a challenge to most opponents; even Justin Gaethje needed 15 minutes to score a doctor’s stoppage TKO when they brawled for the WSOF belt. Big wins on Firmino’s record include Luis Palomino, Jacob Volkmann, and Tyson Griffin. Sherdog Fight Finder fun fact: Firmino’s first pro fight in May 2000 is on the record as a victory by “Submission-No Apparent Reason).

Luiz Firmino’s first pro bout in 2000

 

 

Chris Wade (12-3, 5-2 UFC, #98 World)

vs.

Natan Schulte (11-3, #237 World)

It’s pretty unusual for a fighter to leave the UFC coming off a win and with a solidly winning record in the promotion. But when free agency came calling, Long Island MMA’s Chris Wade put himself in the position of competing for a potential $1 million prize with PFL rather than trying to navigate the long road up the UFC ranks. Like the previously mentioned Brooks and Firmino, the 30 year old Wade has often ground out opponents at the top level. That said, Wade certainly has the ability to snatch subs like he did the last two times he faced solid but sub-elite opponents in Mehdi Baghdad and Cain Carrizosa. The same may be true when he takes on Schulte, who has yet to win a fight outside of Brazil.

After losing a couple of regional fights very early in his pro career, Natan Schulte went on a strong run through the Brazilian scene from 2012-2016 that set him atop the pretty decent, sadly departed XFC International promotion. The native of Santa Catarina in Southern Brazil put together a strong finishing record in the minors but fell well short in his stateside debut versus fellow tourney competitor Islam Mamedov at WSOF 35. At just 26 years old, has “Desmanche” rounded out his fundamentals in the last 15 months to the degree that he’ll be able to threaten a world class wrestling talent like Wade?

 

 

Brian Foster (27-10, 3-2 UFC, #30 World)

vs.

Ramsey Nijem (9-6, 5-5 UFC, #202 World)

In an early season matchup of successful Octagon vets, WSOF one night tournament winner Brian Foster will try to add to his impressive resume in a format that favors his finishing talents. Foster comes in having lost two of three, but there’s no shame in falling to Justin Gaethje and an over-his-weight-class Jon Fitch – one thing’s for sure, Foster isn’t afraid of getting in the cage with any fighter on earth. When facing opponents outside the world top 15, the fearless Foster has an impressive recent record that includes finishes of fellow tourney competitor Luiz Firmino, Luis Palomino, and Joao Zeferino. The 34 year old has recorded 26 finishes in 27 wins overall – and he’s been finished in all 10 of his losses. Out of all the lightweight bouts on Thursday’s card, it’s a decent bet that this one will end inside the 15 minute time allotment.

Ramsey Nijem may only have 15 pro bouts on paper, but that includes a whopping 10 fights of UFC experience and doesn’t include 5 high-level MMA contests in the TUF house (it’s completely stupid that TUF fights aren’t counted in fighter records, BTW. Who cares about the opinions of athletic commission bureaucrats? It’s a fight!  It happened!  Count it!  /rant). For anyone who isn’t familiar with his offense-first fighting style, Nijem’s recent KOs of Julian Lane and Beneil Dariush proved that he has the power to stop a high level fight – and recent losses to James Vick, Diego Ferreira, and Myles Jury showed that a potent finisher always has a shot at taking him out inside the distance. Expect fireworks!

 

 

Islam Mamedov (14-1, 4-0 WSOF, #82 World)

vs.

Yuki Kawana (14-1-5, Shooto champ, #174 World)

The dearly departed WSOF invested heavily in bringing over Russian fighters, only to see most of their overseas acquisitions dominate US talents over the course of less-than-thrilling 15 minute wrestling clinics. Not so with Islam Mamedov, who showed a nose for the finish as he tallied dominant stoppages in 3 of his 4 bouts with PFL’s forebear. With 13 straight wins on his resume, including 10 via finish, Mamedov should be a fierce adversary for anyone in the field, especially within the high stakes environs of the PFL cage. Wise opponents best keep their arms safely tucked out of Mamedov’s grasp, as the Dagestani has taken home 7 arms in his 14 pro victories.

28 year old Yuki Kawana owns a spectacular regional record but faces a seriously difficult task as he takes on Mamedov in his first pro bout outside Japan. Since tallying 4 wins and 4 draws in oddball Japanese organization ZST at the start of his career, Kawana has been dominating the Shooto lightweight division including wins over UFC vet Naoyuki Kotani and ex-Pancrase champ Shingo Suzuki. Since ascending to the Japanese big leagues, Kawana has finished roughly half of his wins. On paper it will be a big surprise if the underdog Kawana finds a way to crack Mamedov and become the first man to finish him off since 2009 – but fights aren’t won on paper, and Kawana is a talented competitor with plenty of tricks up his sleeve. And he sure ain’t afraid of getting in a brawl – his fight with Suzuki was NUTS!

 

Jason High (21-6, 5-4 UFC/Strikeforce, #51 World)

vs.

Efrain Escudero (29-13, TUF winner, #90 World)

Jason High was one of the hottest lightweight prospects around in 2012 following a 3-0 run in Strikeforce. But a 2-2 stint in UFC was cut short when he lost by TKO to Rafael dos Anjos and found himself with a questionable 1 year suspension for pushing away the ref post-stoppage. The man just got TKO’d, give him a bit of leeway maybe. In any case, High is a very good wrestler who has a knack for catching foes with power punches – just ask Tristar talent Mike Ricci, who ate dust at WSOF 31 via left hand after getting off to a solid start in the first 9 minutes. Now 36 years old, “The Kansas City Bandit” will face another strong wrestler in Efrain Escudero. When two talented grapplers face off, we often end up with a kickboxing match on our hands – that scenario may well favor High, who probably has the superior power in his fists.

Stepping in for injured tourney favorite Rashid Magomedov, thrice-signed UFC veteran Efrain Escudero is the kind of gritty workmanlike competitor who grinds out wins and always shows up ready for a short-notice call like this. Escudero made hay as a submission artist during his regional career, but since debuting at the TUF 8 finale a zillion years ago (in 2008) he’s recorded only 6 finishes in 19 wins. Given how long he’s been plying his trade in UFC, Bellator, RFA, and everywhere in between, it almost seems like a fun fact to note that Efrain is still only 32 years old!

 

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