Magomed Magomedkerimov is the reigning PFL welterweight champion.
Ray Cooper III is the reigning PFL welterweight champion.
Perhaps some clarification is needed.
Due to the league’s seasonal format, a new champion is crowned in each division every year, with that champion also winning a $1,000,000 prize. In 2018, it was Magomedkerimov defeating Cooper in the finals to become the league’s inaugural welterweight champion; in 2019, Magomedkerimov was forced out of the playoffs with an arm injury and Cooper went on to win the tournament in his absence.
Now the two finally get a chance to rematch in this year’s 170-pound finals on Wednesday in the co-main event of PFL Championship 2021 at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Fla.
Though there’s clearly a score to settle, Magomedkerimov thinks the title picture is a lot simpler than it seems.
“In the PFL I’m 10-0,” Magomedkerimov said via a Russian translator in an interview with MMA Fighting. “Technically he’s holding the belt, but again in PFL I never lost. I’m 10-0. He never beat me, so technically I consider that he’s just holding the belt due to the circumstances playing out in the past, but I consider myself still a champion because he never beat me.”
It was a broken arm that forced Magomedkerimov out of a rematch with Cooper in 2019, an injury that the Dagestani fighter says he battled through in a win over Chris Curtis but could not do the same for a second fight later that same evening. Cooper instead beat Curtis, who was called in at the last second to replace Magomedkerimov, and then went on to defeat David Michaud in the finals two months later.
Magomedkerimov already holds a submission victory over Cooper, so not having the chance to face his rival again hit him hard.
“It was devastating,” Magomedkerimov said. “You work a lot, you put a lot of effort, you have a lot of progress and then you end up not taking what you believe you’re worth. Again, I believe in everything happening for a reason. Maybe that will create a certain suspense. I don’t know, I believe that there is a reason for everything happening. I’m back, that’s what matters now.”
With the 2020 PFL season being cancelled due to the COVID-19 outbreak, Magomedkerimov was left inactive for 20 months. When he returned to action, he didn’t miss a beat, knocking off Curtis, Curtis Millender, and Sadibou Sy to once again book a ticket to the finals.
All in all, Magomedkerimov has been on a tear since a loss to Vitaly Bigdash in March 2015, rattling off 14 consecutive victories. He credits a move to American Top Team in Florida with helping him to elevate his game.
“I would say one of the big factors is that I also started training in the United States,” Magomedkerimov said. “I started taking my training a little bit differently, approach more serious, more organized. There was a lot of potential here, a lot of good trainers, and just in general I’m mature and I took it more seriously. I see the opportunity and the possibilities and I’ve been riding this train since.”
Should Magomedkerimov beat Cooper again and make it 15 straight victories, he’ll likely draw plenty of interest from other promotions at season’s end. According to Magomedkerimov, he will be a free agent after Wednesday’s fight and while he’s willing to field offers, the PFL has his attention first and foremost.
“I will wait for the PFL to make an offer for the next contract to see if the numbers are right,” Magomedkerimov said. “I like the family, they respect me, I respect them, it’s overall a good experience. So if the numbers are right I have no plans on making any moves just yet.”
With only two previous seasons in the books and several repeat tournament winners, there has never been a matchup in the PFL pitting two past champions against one another. It’s a narrative that writes itself and while Magomedkerimov still sees Cooper’s claim to a title as somewhat dubious, he’s looking forward to erasing any doubt as to who is the league’s true welterweight king.
“That’s the beauty of this fight,” Magomedkerimov said. “The two champions, two former—or one current champion—but basically two champions are gonna have a fight for a championship. In my head, again I’m still the champ because he never beat me and I’m gonna prove it again. That’s the only outcome I can see this time.”