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PFL 2021 featherweight preview: Can Lance Palmer pull off $1 million three-peat?

Featherweight Lance Palmer, right, is one of two back-to-back PFL champions seeking a third $1 million title during the 2021 season. PFL

Lance Palmer has not competed since New Year's Eve 2019, the night he walked out of Madison Square Garden in New York $1 million dollars richer after winning the PFL featherweight championship for the second straight year.

But that's not to say Palmer has been without a fight since then.

Last July, frustrated by the compensation he'd been offered by the PFL after the promotion canceled its 2020 season because of the coronavirus pandemic, and angered that the fight organization had released a statement denouncing what it called "repulsive posts" about race on his father's social media account, Palmer blasted the PFL and requested release from his contract.

"I feel like it's defamation on my character to put a post out regarding my dad, when it really has nothing to do with PFL or anything that I said," Palmer told ESPN at the time. "It would be different if it were me saying something or me agreeing with something, but this makes zero sense to me. And this is just the icing on the cake for how uncooperative they've been throughout the whole process of canceling their season."

It sure sounded like the relationship was irreparable, but those words by Palmer turned out to be just about the last the public heard about any animosity between the PFL and one of its biggest stars. Quietly, the promotion and the two-time champion settled their differences. By December, Palmer was retweeting a PFL post containing a video of his career highlights. He also acknowledged a happy birthday message on the company's social media account. And in February, when the PFL announced the roster for its 2021 featherweight season, Palmer was front and center.

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Palmer's mentality is that he's 0-0 going in to each fight

Lance Palmer says he's going out there to make a statement and is treating each fight like its own fight. For more PFL, sign up here for ESPN+ http://plus.espn.com.

If any hurt feelings linger, they might be soothed by Palmer banking a third $1 million check at the end of the year. To do so, the 34-year-old from Ohio will have to navigate his way through some unfamiliar waters. Among the nine other 145-pounders who will be competing in the 2021 PFL season, which gets underway on April 23 at Ocean Casino Resort in Atlantic City, New Jersey, only one fighter is a holdover from the 2019 featherweight season. And Palmer did not cross paths with Movlid Khaybulaev that season.

There are a pair of undefeated fighters (Khaybulaev and Jason Soares). There's a 2019 lightweight semifinalist (Chris Wade). There's a onetime title challenger from back when the PFL was known as the World Series of Fighting (Sheymon Moraes, who also competed in the UFC). There also are a couple of other names recognizable from appearances in the UFC or its affiliated properties (Tyler Diamond from The Ultimate Fighter, Brendan Loughnane from Contender Series and Jo Sungbin, veteran of one UFC fight).

And then there's Palmer, who has won 11 fights in a row by mowing down all of his competition in the 2018 and 2019 seasons. No wonder he was frustrated that his momentum was halted not by an opponent, but by a pandemic. Finally, it's back to work. And he does have work to do.

Unlike much of his 2021 competition, the face right in front of Palmer is a familiar one. On April 23, he will open the season by facing Bellator veteran Bubba Jenkins, who was a 2011 NCAA Division I national champion in wrestling. While competing for Penn State, Jenkins shared the mat several times with Ohio State's Palmer, a four-time All-American and onetime national finalist.

"Me and Palmer have had six matches," Jenkins told MMA Fighting. "I think he's 1-5."

That's a lot more success than anyone has had against Palmer in the PFL. But next month, Palmer has a chance to show his old Big Ten rival the difference between collegiate wrestling and mixed martial arts.

Season favorite: Lance Palmer

He is still "The Man" until proven otherwise. Last we saw Palmer, on Dec. 31, 2019, he was thoroughly dominating Alex Gilpin by scores of 50-43, 50-44 and 50-44 to secure his second straight PFL featherweight championship. It was his fifth win of the 2019 season, and not one of them was a close call. Palmer does allow his opposition to stick around, though -- he's produced a finish in only one of his last eight wins -- and perhaps that will bite him at some point. Maybe the takedown defense of Bubba Jenkins will give him problems next month. But to this point Palmer has had answers for any questions that have arisen. Why expect anything different now?

The leading contender: Sheymon Moraes

Looking at the other nine fighters, it feels like you could pick a name from a hat -- not because of a lack of skill, but rather because there are so many new faces and intriguing résumés among this season's featherweights. I'm going with Moraes because of his high-level experience. His four-fight run in the WSOF included a challenge of then-bantamweight champion Marlon Moraes. He later moved on to the UFC, which threw him right into the deep end of the pool in a fight against Zabit Magomedsharipov. He lost both of those bouts, but think about what he gained from being tested like that. So while Moraes' 11-4 record isn't as shiny as some others in this crop of PFL 145-pounders, I expect the 30-year-old Brazilian to show his class.

Fight to watch on opening night: Movlid Khaybulaev vs. Jason Soares

It's 15-0-1 versus 14-0, and that in itself makes this an appealing clash. Khaybulaev is unbeaten only by a technicality, though; he was knocked out in 29 seconds by Daniel Pineda in the 2019 PFL featherweight quarterfinals, but the result was overturned to a no contest after Pineda failed a PED test. Still, the Russian has produced some highlight-reel finishes of his own, and among the 10 PFL featherweights, he is the only one who has competed more recently than 2019. He won a UAE Warriors fight in November. As for Soares, he has nine submissions and three knockouts among his 14 wins. This should be a fun matchup.

Featherweight division at a glance


How to watch the PFL fights

Watch the main card on ESPN2: Download the ESPN App | WatchESPN2 | TV

Don't have ESPN2? Get instant access.

Watch the prelims on ESPN+. If you don't have ESPN+, get it here.

There's also FightCenter, which offers live updates for every PFL card.

PFL 2021 Night One - Friday, April 23

ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET
Anthony Pettis vs. Clay Collard | Lightweight
Natan Schulte vs. Marcin Held | Lightweight
Movlid Khaybulaev vs. Lazar Stojadinovic | Featherweight
Lance Palmer vs. Bubba Jenkins | Featherweight

ESPN+, 5:30 p.m. ET
Brendan Loughnane vs. Sheymon Moraes | Featherweight
Joilton Lutterbach vs. Olivier Aubin-Mercier | Lightweight
Akhmet Aliev vs. Mikhail Odintsov | Lightweight
Chris Wade vs. Anthony Dizy | Featherweight
Jo Sungbin vs. Tyler Diamond | Featherweight
Loik Radzhabov vs. Alexander Martinez | Lightweight