Palmer, Schulte won’t have cakewalks to another $1M PFL prize

LAS VEGAS — The 2019 PFL Finals on Dec. 31 will feature two familiar names, in 2018 champions Lance Palmer and Natan Schulte.

Palmer (21-3) will meet Daniel Pineda in the featherweight finals, and Schulte (19-3-1) will look to repeat against Loik Radzhabov at lightweight. Both advanced to their respective back-to-back finals by picking up two wins on Thursday, at PFL Playoffs 2 inside Mandalay Bay Events Center.

What were Thursday’s biggest takeaways? And what should you expect out of the 145- and 155- finals matchups? ESPN is here to break it down.

Daniel Pineda used his striking early to set up a submission win over Jeremy Kennedy and advance to the PFL featherweight finals. Ryan Loco/PFL

Palmer vs. PFL’s 2019 Story of the Year

Last year’s PFL championships featured some truly amazing stories. Everything from a near-40-year-old high school coach by the name of Louis Taylor claiming the middleweight championship in just 33 seconds, to the 35-year-old light heavyweight champion Sean O’Connell, who immediately retired and now works in the PFL broadcast booth.

One of the best stories (if not the best) to keep an eye on this year is the 34-year-old Pineda. He has the kind of story PFL’s $1 million prize is built for. He has fought professionally since 2007 and will be looking at his 42nd pro fight in December. He has bounced around between multiple promotions, including Bellator MMA and the UFC. He won a title on the regional circuit but would otherwise be considered a journeyman.

Pineda’s two appearances Thursday were his first in the PFL. He did not start off 2019 on its roster, yet advanced to the playoffs because his only scheduled regular-season opponent missed weight back in July. There was nothing fluky at all about his two first-round wins Thursday, however, against Movlid Khaybulaev and Jeremy Kennedy. Pineda looked very sharp.

His story aside, Pineda might be the most intriguing opponent for Palmer at this point. The experience is great, although we saw experience alone didn’t help Steven Siler — Palmer’s victim in the 2018 PFL finals. One thing about Pineda is that he’s a finisher. He has 28 wins spread out over his 12-year career and has recorded finishes in all 28. Quite an insane stat. Pineda is already the Cinderella of this PFL season. Can he win one more?

Not long after tossing Akhmed Aliev to the mat, Natan Schulte, left, applied an arm triangle choke to earn a submission win in the PFL lightweight semifinals. Ryan Loco/ PFL

Who can beat Natan Schulte?

The answer is “no one,” over his past nine fights. And there’s a real possibility that Schulte already faced his toughest stylistic assignment in the semifinals, in Akhmed Aliev. Aliev is an unpredictable but technical and accurate striker with plenty of knockout power. He’s also well-rounded with a heavy top game.

Radzhabov showed a ton of confidence though, in his impressive semifinal win against Chris Wade. If nothing else, Wade will always test his opponent’s defensive grappling and mental will, and Radzhabov certainly rose to both of those challenges. He showed zero respect for anything Wade attempted Thursday, and it showed not only in the success he had but his body language as well.

And as good as Schulte has been, undefeated in the PFL cage, he found himself in trouble more than once Thursday. Ramsey Nijem floored him with an overhand right and nearly submitted him in the quarterfinals. Aliev worked into side control in their semifinal bout, before ultimately going out to an arm triangle choke.

Radzhabov has a gas tank and, as he showed against Wade, competent takedown defense. He’s the kind of lightweight who is tough to slow down, once momentum is going his way. Schulte will be the favorite — and if he wins, he has to be considered one of the best fighters in PFL’s brief two-year history. But Radzhabov has a shot, based on what we saw Thursday.

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