Jun 24, 2022, 05:55AM

The Week in Fights #7

For Omari Akhmedov, Olivier Aubin-Mercier, and others, the work of reinvention outside the UFC continues.

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There’s a type of fighter who seems to hang around the UFC forever, going 10-4, 12-5, 13-9—something along those lines. This person, of whom ageless Bellator heavyweight contender Cheick Kongo, former Bellator champ-champ and current heavyweight champ Ryan Bader, and last year’s PFL light heavyweight $1,000,000-prize winner Antônio Carlos Júnior are notable examples, is always in the mix but never really stands a chance of grabbing the brass ring. Such a person might, like Carlos Júnior, lose infrequently and almost always by boring decisions, yet fail to even sniff a title shot.

Unfortunates like those men still abound in the world’s largest MMA company—welterweights Santiago Ponzinibbio and Neil Magny come to mind, each winning more than enough to stay employed but not enough to secure pay-per-view main events (the former did KO the latter in a 2018 UFC Fight Night main event, though). This kind of boring progress might pay the bills, but the PFL holds a different kind of promise, the promise of a $1,000,000 payday that someone like Carlos Júnior—basically a bulked-up Demian Maia—can seize when faced with only a weak pool of inexperienced or over-the-hill opposition in his way. Carlos Júnior, a man whose only career by finish came to short-armed and awkward-swinging Australian judoka Dan Kelly, handled reigning PFL light heavyweight champ Emiliano Sordi in last year’s semis and then brabo-choked a green-as-grass Marthin Hamlet to out-earn 90 percent of the UFC’s roster on the strength of four easy 2021 bouts.

Other new faces from the UFC have joined Carlos Júnior in pursuit of quick cash, with two of them—Omari Akhmedov, who has also gone up 20 pounds in weight in his move from middleweight to light heavyweight, and lightweight Olivier Aubin-Mercier—joining him in the winner’s circle on last week’s PFL card.

Omari Akhmedov defeats Teodoras Aukštuolis by submission (arm-triangle choke, round 2), PFL 4: Debuting in the UFC in 2015, Akhmedov was one of the first of the now-numerous neck-bearded Dagestani fighters to make a mark in the company. Along the way to a winning record and a multi-year stint in the low end of the middleweight rankings, he beat the expected contenders by decision—Abdul Razak Alhassan, Tim Boetsch, Ian Heinisch, and Zak Cummings, for example—and only truly lost when guys like Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos knocked him out cold (his more recent decision losses to former middleweight champ Chris Weidman, in a lay-and-pray affair, and longtime contender Brad Tavares, were somewhat questionable).

Still, given his small frame, his move to light heavyweight in the PFL struck me as foolish. Jordan Young, who died recently under tragic circumstances, was primarily a submission threat, yet still managed to overpower and out-strike the smaller Akhmedov during the Dagestani’s one-off PFL debut last year. But Akhmedov, who has never endured a losing streak longer than two matches across a 31-fight career, has turned things around during the 2022 tournament season, beating former UFC heavyweight Viktor Pešta (perhaps best known for being on thereceiving end of an Aleksei Oleinik Ezekiel choke finish) by strikes and then submitting Teodoras Aukštuolis. Aukštuolis, who has a huge frame for the weight class as well as a 2015 KO of reigning PFL heavyweight champ Bruno Cappelozza in a match staged by Rizin on his record, didn’t fight particularly intelligently—understandable for someone who was out of the hurt business for several years before reappearing in the PFL this season—but he was able to occasionally power out of wrestling positions and threaten the admittedly gun-shy Akhmedov with what Joe Rogan would be repeatedly referring to as “heavy hands” were he calling the fight.

In the end, it didn’t matter. Akhmedov, who’s gutting out this entire final run on the accumulated skills of two decades spent in combat sambo and MMA, is utilizing every tool in the Dagestani playbook—persistent, sneaky takedowns, strong shoulder pressure on the ground, and an awareness that the PFL awards fast finishes via its bonus point system in a way the UFC doesn’t.

Can Akhmedov beat Antônio Carlos Júnior? The light heavyweight champ slept-walked his way to a boring, Demian Maia-style decision against over-fed middleweight striker Bruce Souto—the kind of fight when the BJJ expert tries for takedowns that don’t happen, before eventually appearing to get one in the final seconds of the fight, enough to seal a victory no one cares about. Alas, there are levels to this game, and Carlos Júnior’s jiu-jitsu makes going to the ground an unwise decision for Akhmedov, who couldn’t even dominate a much-reduced Chris Weidman down there. Much like Carlos Júnior might say when choking out a hapless foe, “don’t hold your breath.”

Olivier Aubin-Mercier defeats Raush Manfio by unanimous decision, PFL 4: Aubin-Mercier, a southpaw fighter out of Quebec, has always struck me as an evolutionary dead-end along the George St-Pierre line of fighters: a frame lined with sinewy muscle, a strong background in judo and a natural aptitude for wrestling, and a high fight IQ that ensures all of his fights are boring strategic affairs and explains why he’s never been finished. Who’d want to watch this guy fight matches that are basically homework assignments? His UFC tenure was a net positive, but not by much—finishes of tough pros Drew Dober and Evan Dunham were offset by an ugly three-fight losing streak, all decisions of course, that saw him dropping potentially winnable lightweight fights to up-and-down prospect Alexander Hernandez, current welterweight contender Gilbert Burns, and Armenian uber-prospect Arman Tsarukyan.

No matter. In the PFL, Aubin-Mercier, whose debut in 2021 was cut short by injury, has yet to lose a match. He also has yet to finish a match, but that doesn’t matter much when you consider that he qualified for this year’s playoffs, where it’s likely he’llkeep decisioning opponents until he earns his million bucks. His wins this year have been high quality: a split decision (that arguably deserved to be unanimous) over well-rounded 2019 lightweight winner Natan Schulte at PFL 1 and then, last week, a carefully-planned victory over reigning champion Raush Manfio. Manfio, whose surge to the title last year happened because of explosive, come-from-behind flurries against unwary opponents, never had a chance to get going against Aubin-Mercier, who fought a defensive fight, dominating the tedious bout with precise strikes, good defense, and strong control against the side of the cage.

The Quebecois fighter, who welcomed the crowd’s boos during a post-fight interview, knew that all he needed was a victory—and he got it. We can expect more winning, and more trolling, as he nears the grand prize. The UFC held promise for Aubin-Mercier, but his path toward a St-Pierre-esque future was far from clear, as he had to navigate the whims of matchmakers and judges, public disdain for his boring fighting style, and a crowded lightweight title picture. Here, the route is obvious: win and you’re in, with a cool million to grease the wheels of an offseason devoted to training and recovery.


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