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Olivier Aubin-Mercier poised to claim PFL title after knocking off past champions on ‘hardest path’ to finals

Olivier Aubin-Mercier
Cooper Neill, Getty Images

Olivier Aubin-Mercier is yet to lose inside the PFL cage. Now, in his second season with the promotion, he’s coming for that No. 1 spot.

Were it not for an injury that limited him to one regular season appearance in 2021, Aubin-Mercier might already have a league championship on in his trophy case and an extra million dollars in his bank account. Instead, it’s taken him the better part of two years to find himself in a PFL finals bout. He fights Stevie Ray for the lightweight crown Friday in New York City at the 2022 PFL Championship.

Aubin-Mercier won two fights in his inaugural PFL campaign, but only one was part of the regular season, so he ended up being ineligible for the postseason (his second fight was a non-tournament bout). This year, he had to beat two-time league champion Natan Schulte and 2021 champion Raush Manfio to book his spot in the finale, a destination that the French-Canadian veteran foresaw when he first joined the PFL.

“Last year, just before my injury, I really thought I was going to win this tournament,” Aubin-Mercier told MMA Fighting. “This year I knew it would be hard and I think I had the hardest path to win the tournament, but I knew I was about to do it. I knew I was the best in the tournament. Last year it was a bummer, but everything happens for a reason.”

Though Aubin-Mercier was grateful to complete a full league schedule, he was somewhat confused by how the regular season matches were laid out. Rather than reward the winners of the first set of matches with an easier opponent (on paper, anyway), the league opted to pair up its strongest fighters coming off of wins against one another in the second set of matches.

That meant that after Aubin-Mercier took a split nod over Schulte, he was lined up against Manfio and then had to face the streaking Alexander Martinez in the semifinals. In comparison, Ray lost to Martinez and then beat Anthony Pettis twice to make the finals.

“I was a little bit mad with the matchups to be 100 percent honest,” Aubin-Mercie said. “I got the hardest fight and everybody else had an easy fight (laughs). Me and Manfio, me and Alex, me and Natan, I really thought I had the hardest path. The first fight I had the two-time champion in Schulte. The second fight I had another winner, last year’s champion, and other people in the division had [opponents coming off losses.] I don’t think that’s really fair, you know?

“In my mind, every winner should fight every loser, I think that would be the best way to do it, the fairest way to do it, for sure you can move it a little bit to get the best matchups you want, but I think the fairest way to do it is to have the winners fight the losers and after that, the tournament, I fought Alex, he had no losses this season, and the other side was two guys with one loss. I think I really had the hardest path.”

That said, Aubin-Mercier bears no ill will against Ray, a former training partner at Tristar in the 2010s when both were competing in the UFC’s lightweight division.

It was actually Aubin-Mercier who Ray reached out to for advice when making the decision to sign with the PFL, a notion that Aubin-Mercier supported. Now Aubin-Mercier is focused fully on making it past his past Tristar ally, regardless of the path they traveled to Friday’s fight.

“Stevie Ray did what he had to do,” Aubin-Mercier said. “It’s nothing about Stevie Ray, but the truth is I beat three guys to get there and he beat one guy to get there. I think I had the hardest path. Now that means nothing. It doesn’t mean anything. In the final, it doesn’t mean anything. I just have to be there 100 percent.”

Aubin-Mercier generally comes off as a cool customer with a wry sense of humor, but his displeasure with the PFL’s matchmaking wasn’t the only time that he felt a tinge of frustration.

Ahead of his fight with Martinez, who also has Canadian roots, the league saw fit to film a short promo with the semifinalists in which they took a genial approach to building up their fight. As much as Aubin-Mercier liked the concept, he recalls snapping at the crew when he thought it had gone too far.

“People in the PFL were so excited, they were like, ‘I think it’s a great idea,’” Aubin-Mercier said. “I said, ‘Yeah, I think it’s a pretty great idea.’ They were giving us lines, of course, I was maybe adding some more. At some point they were telling us, ‘Can you tell him, ‘You have great takedowns?’ Can you tell him, ‘You have great cardio?’’ I was like, ‘That’s it, that’s it guys! You know we’re going to fight each other, eh? This is it, it’s done, I don’t mind telling him he’s beautiful, but telling him he has great cardio, no f****** way!’

“I remember everyone at PFL was like, ‘Oh s***. Oh no, what have we done?’ The video was really, really great, but at some point, 15 minutes of telling Alex he’s looking great I was like, ‘We’ve got to fight in two days. I don’t feel like doing it anymore.’ I apologized the day after to the PFL team but they were like, ‘Oh no, I think we were in the wrong.’”

With Rory MacDonald’s recent retirement, Aubin-Mercier is poised to become Canada’s top gun should he be victorious Friday. Already one of the country’s most respected veterans, a PFL tournament win would allow him to have even greater influence on the once-hot Canadian MMA scene that has flagged since the glory days of Georges St-Pierre.

(It should be noted that Aubin-Mercier didn’t commit to using any of the PFL’s $1 million prize to boost the regional scene, joking that he’ll probably just hit the nearest casino and bet it all on black.)

Win or lose, he has some direct advice for those looking to be the next “GSP” — or the next “OAM.”

“First, don’t do it,” Aubin-Mercier said. “Don’t fight. It’s useless. Secondly, you have to be careful. I think a lot of athletes get told a lot of things by promoters and the first rule of fighting is ‘Don’t trust any promoters.’ Be careful to get a good camp. That doesn’t mean I’m telling you you should go to Tristar, if you have a good coach and you feel comfortable with your coach you should stay with that coach.

“And you should be humble too. You shouldn’t get in the gym and think that you deserve to be treated like a champion already. You have to be humble, you have to learn, you have to help each other, you have to be fair and if I have a piece of advice for promoters it’s that you have to be fair too.”

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