PFL storylines: The PFL vs. Bellator theme returns this week

The Bellator vs. PFL rivalry continues.

After buying Bellator MMA in November, the PFL immediately seized the moment by putting together a champion-vs.-champion event to kick off 2024. The fight card in February delivered fireworks and, throughout the night, established a balance of power.

Bellator fighters cruised in the first two matchups, both in barely a minute, and if anyone was keeping score as the end of the night approached, it was 5-0 for Bellator going into the main event. But the lingering image from the evening was of the PFL’s heavyweight champion, Renan Ferreira, crushing Bellator’s champ, Ryan Bader, in just 21 seconds.

Ferreira didn’t even the score, technically, but in essence he did.

Since then, the PFL has moved on to its 2024 regular season, and while newcomers from Bellator were sprinkled throughout the first two events, this week the Bellator-vs.-PFL concept resumes in a big way. Welterweight and featherweight fights are on tap for Friday at Wintrust Arena in Chicago (ESPN/ESPN+ at 10 p.m. ET, prelims on ESPN+ at 7), and there’s a new-look flavor to the matchups of fighters from the two promotions.

Here are a couple of storylines to watch at the final event of this first regular season stretch:

Featherweight: Was 2023 just a speed bump for Brendan Loughnane?

By the end of the 2022 season, Loughnane had made this PFL weight class his domain, fulfilling what had seemed his destiny.

The British fighter arrived in the PFL in 2019 fresh off a snub on “Dana White’s Contender Series” that actually established Loughnane’s name no less so than a prelims-level UFC contract would have. He won his first four PFL bouts before dropping a slim split decision to undefeated Movlid Khaybulaev in the 2021 playoff semifinals. The following season, Loughnane rolled to four straight wins, the last of them a TKO of Bubba Jenkins in the final that earned him the 2022 featherweight championship.

Loughnane entered 2023 with high expectations, and he began fulfilling them by opening the season against Marlon Moraes, a former World Series of Fighting champion and onetime UFC title challenger, and scoring a fully-in-control TKO. But then Loughnane got knocked out himself, by Jesus Pineda in June, and missed the playoffs.

Now a new season dawns for Loughnane (27-5), and it’s all about looking forward, not backward. There’s no Pineda or Khaybulaev on the season roster for him to try to right any wrongs. Instead, there are a few Bellator stalwarts against whom Loughnane will aim to reestablish himself.

That process starts with Friday’s co-main event matchup against Pedro Carvalho, a perfect scene-setter for Loughnane. Carvalho (13-8) is something of a name, in part because he trains in the same Dublin gym as Conor McGregor and has picked up some of the swagger. But while Carvalho established himself in Bellator in recent years with a winning flourish, he has lost his last two fights and five of his last seven.

Should Loughnane get past Carvalho, other Bellator names await. Among them is Adam Borics, who hasn’t competed since falling short in a 2022 challenge of champ Patricio “Pitbull” Freire. Borics (18-2) faces fellow ex-Bellator guy Enrique Barzola (20-7-2) on Friday. Also in the 145-pound bracket is Kai Kamaka III (12-5-1), formerly of Bellator and the UFC, who puts a three-fight winning streak on the line this week against Jenkins (21-7).

Welterweight: Where are the main eventers in their careers?

Magomed Umalatov is undefeated — and yet, in the historical PFL playoff picture, he’s invisible. He has competed in the past three seasons, and despite winning every fight he’s been in, he’s better known for fights that have not happened.

In 2022, he was scheduled to open the season against defending champion Ray Cooper III but pulled out of the bout. Umalatov made the playoffs anyway and was matched against former Bellator champ and UFC title challenger Rory MacDonald, but visa issues prevented Umalatov from making it to the fight. Then, after earning a spot in the 2023 playoffs, Umalatov was to face 2018 PFL champ Magomed Magomedkerimov but withdrew.

Umalatov (14-0) is scheduled to open the 2024 season in Friday’s main event against a fellow mystery man, Andrey Koreshkov.

Koreshkov (27-4) is nearly a decade removed from winning the Bellator welterweight championship. He was 18-1 after dethroning Douglas Lima in 2015, the one loss coming against Ben Askren in his previous shot at the belt two years prior. Koreshkov’s reign was not long, as Lima took back the title the following year, and since then the Russian has not been the most active fighter out there, though he enters the season on a five-fight winning streak he’s been building since 2021.

There’s also a second welterweight bout on Friday’s card that pits a former Bellator belt-holder against an undefeated but largely unheralded fighter. Logan Storley (15-2), a former interim champ in Bellator, faces ex-KSW fighter Shamil Musaev (16-0-1). Both have a chance to make some noise in the 170-pound season.

But the biggest intrigue surrounds the main event. Can Koreshkov withstand the rigors of a PFL season, which demands as many as four bouts in seven months? And can Umalatov, a fighter best known for his absence, make his presence felt in this Bellator-vs.-PFL headliner?

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