Yet, that is the exact position they are facing in the final regular-season event of 2021 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, on Friday (6 p.m. ET on ESPN+).
Lightweight standout Kayla Harrison (9-0) will face Cindy Dandois (16-6) in the final fight of the night, but most of the intrigue lies in the face of Pettis (24-11), the Professional Fighters League’s biggest offseason acquisition, and Palmer (22-4), a former two-time PFL featherweight champion.
PFL signed Pettis in early 2021 and immediately turned to him to headline its opening event on April 23. But Pettis suffered a massive upset at the hands of Clay Collard (19-8), a former UFC veteran and professional boxer.
That same night, Palmer, who won his division in 2018 and 2019, lost every round in his season opener against Bubba Jenkins (14-4). It was his first loss ever in PFL.
So, what does that mean? For Palmer, it will take a first- or second-round finish against Movlid Khaybulaev (16-0-1) on Friday to make the 145-pound playoffs. Similarly, Pettis must get a finish in any round of his lightweight bout against Raush Manfio (12-3) or he will miss the playoffs.
It’s not a situation either expected to be in, or have much experience being in. Each of them spoke to ESPN ahead of their bout to offer a sense of how they’re dealing with it.
Editor’s note: Responses from Pettis and Palmer have been edited for clarity.
Anthony Pettis: ‘No wasted motion, right to the point’
Obviously, I want to look better than I did in my last fight. I put too much pressure on myself to be “Showtime,” and I had no foundation to build on. This time, I’m going to start a foundation — because I always look for a finish. It’s letting it build up, that’s the part I have a problem with. I go out there and throw these power moves, I want to jump off the cage and kick somebody in the face, and I forget to jab somebody, low-kick somebody. That’s where I’ve been focused during this camp.
I try not to think about what people will say if I miss the playoffs. It’s all really positive. In the past, when I haven’t performed well, I’ve been really hard on myself. I’ve said bad things about myself to motivate myself — whereas, now, I’m being kind to myself. I took notes about my last fight, a lot of things that are in my power to change. And I started attacking them one by one. There were a lot of things on there that were personal, and only things I can control. I can’t control that the fighting surface is different from what I was used to for the majority of my career, but I can control whether or not I’m throwing crazy kicks on that surface.
I’ve been working a lot on boxing range, distance control. I’ve had to work a lot on patience. Every time I go in there in a firefight and if I knock them out, I knock them out. But I wasn’t setting up the cadence and sweet science of how you create a knockout. I hired a boxing coach, Jorge Capetillo, who has trained Tyson Fury, and the s— we’re doing in the gym is so clean and basic. I’m like, ‘Wow, that’s it?’ That’s it. No wasted motion, right to the point.
I’m not feeling pressure about the playoffs. I’m in the most blessed spot in life, man. I have a brand-new daughter, my little brother, Sergio, just won a world title in Bellator MMA and I’m fighting two months after I just fought. I feel blessed.
Lance Palmer: ‘It’s a lot different from my last fight, motivation-wise’
I’m not worried about the points so much or trying to rush the fight or force things to happen. I’m just excited to go out there against an opponent that I’m actually motivated for. It’s a lot different from my last fight, motivation-wise. I didn’t feel like we were rivals. I know that when I am at my best, Jenkins is not somebody that’s going to give me a lot of fits. It came down to me not really being motivated for that opponent. Also, the mandatory 17-day quarantine — my daughter was born just before that. There were a lot of factors. I was physically in the cage that night, but mentally I wasn’t there. I was ready to go home and see my daughter.
It’s been hard to find motivation with some of the fights in PFL, because nobody knows who my opponents are. I want to fight the guys that are going to elevate me, and I feel like Khaybulaev is going to elevate me — with his record and his background as a Dagestani fighter, training with some of the toughest Russian guys. I think there’s a lot that goes into this fight, aside from me being in the playoffs or not being in the playoffs.
The whole million-dollar things of the playoffs — you don’t get a million dollars after that final fight. You get a million dollars broken down among the three playoff fights. Everybody focuses on the million-dollar tournament, but the real million-dollar tournament is Bellator. You get a million-dollar check if you win the Bellator tournament, and you also get your regular fight purses. It’s completely different from what we’re getting paid here. I know that because I’ve done it twice and won it twice in PFL.
There also was a lot of history with myself and PFL last year, with them not having us fight for the entire year and us not being compensated. And this year the finale is not going to be on New Year’s Eve, so I feel like the prestige of having it at Madison Square Garden on New Year’s Eve and winning your million-dollar check — it’s just not the same. Being at the end of my contract with PFL, there are a lot of other options that can open up. So, just going out and getting the win is what’s good for me, either going into negotiations with them for the future or trying to negotiate into another organization.