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UFC 301 roundtable: Is Alexandre Pantoja ripe for an upset?

Alexandre Pantoja is coming home. When Pantoja steps into the octagon for Saturday’s UFC 301 main event in Rio de Janeiro, he’ll be the first Brazilian champion to defend their title in their home country since Amanda Nunes fought Raquel Pennington in May 2018. That was a triumphant night for Nunes, and Pantoja’s team surely

UFC 301 roundtable: Is Alexandre Pantoja ripe for an upset?

Alexandre Pantoja is coming dwelling.

When Pantoja steps into the octagon for Saturday’s UFC 301 essential occasion in Rio de Janeiro, he’ll be the primary Brazilian champion to defend their title of their dwelling nation since Amanda Nunes fought Raquel Pennington in Might 2018. That was a triumphant night time for Nunes, and Pantoja’s crew certainly expects the identical, however is shock challenger Steve Erceg set to play the last word spoiler?

MMA Preventing’s Alexander Ok. Lee, Jed Meshew, and Mike Heck collect on the roundtable to debate the ripples an Erceg win might create within the UFC timeline, plus what else to search for on a low-key pay-per-view providing.

1. The place would a Steve Erceg title win rank among the many very unlikely runs to a belt?

Meshew: First off, who the (Mike) Heck is Steve Erceg? I do know a Vincenzo Erceg, UFC flyweight contender and the satisfaction of Western Australia, however I’ve by no means heard of this Steve fellow. And let’s be trustworthy, a “Steve” Erceg might by no means win a title. Vincenzo Erceg — or “Vinnie Cigs” as the children know him — now that man is a very possible champion because of the legal guidelines of nominative determinism.

Second, as a result of I’m a capital-J Journalist, I crunched the numbers to present you a precise reply. Within the fashionable UFC, 4 fighters have managed to win a title of their first 4 fights within the promotion, not together with fighters who received inaugural titles (suppose Carla Esparza off The Final Fighter or Ronda Rousey being declared UFC champion from Strikeforce): Zhang Weili, Brock Lesnar, Jiri Prochazka, and Alex Pereira. And it’s fairly secure to say taking a look at that checklist, Vinnie is essentially the most unlikely potential champion.

Brock had virtually no MMA expertise however he was the most important star within the promotion, so his path to the title was extraordinarily probably. Related for Pereira who had such a built-in story with then-champion Israel Adesanya that everybody knew it will occur. Prochazka and Zhang are totally different tales in that they didn’t enter with a built-in ticket to a title shot, however each had been already among the many finest on the earth of their weight lessons and had substantial help behind them. None of that is true for Erceg.

Till Erceg made his UFC debut 10 months in the past, a overwhelming majority of the MMA world didn’t know who he was. Even after he beat David Dvorak to earn a high 15 rating, most individuals nonetheless didn’t. Actually, I’m unsure individuals know who he’s now. But when he pulls this off on Saturday, the person might be an in a single day sensation 10 months within the making.

Lee: It could be a stunner. However 5 years down the highway, it won’t be with the advantage of hindsight.

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Erceg debuted within the UFC with little fanfare at UFC 289 in June 2023, stepping in on brief discover for Matt Schnell at UFC 289 earlier than KO’ing Schnell 9 months later (in between was a choice win over Alessandro Costa I’m betting few keep in mind). “Astro Boy” is as unassuming a fighter as you’ll discover, and whilst he’s continued to construct a 12-fight win streak, our eyes can’t fairly consider what we’re seeing.

Welcome addition to the flyweight roster? Certain. UFC title contender? The place did that come from?

However the UFC wanted a Brazilian champion to headline its return to Rio and Alexandre Pantoja wanted a challenger who he hadn’t already crushed a number of occasions, so in steps Vinnie Cigs. Pantoja is understandably a cushty favourite heading into his second title protection, holding wins over just about each notable flyweight within the high 10. So if Erceg is being despatched out as a sacrificial lamb for the sake of a house crowd pop, then so be it.

I simply suppose there’s probability Erceg is the true deal. By that I imply, not solely might Erceg pull off the upset, he may rattle off a number of title defenses of his personal. So I’m dishonest and leaving this reply open for now, as a result of we would find yourself trying again at this unimaginable capper to Erceg’s first 4 UFC fights and realizing it was solely the start.

Heck: It must be fairly excessive up there, proper? Matt Serra getting there off of a actuality present after which beating Georges St-Pierre within the greatest upset of all-time has to take the No. 1 spot, however good ol’ Vinnie Cigs might actually discover his face on the Mt. Rushmore of unlikely UFC title runs.

As I’ve mentioned 1,000,000 occasions on numerous reveals, meritocracy doesn’t matter within the UFC — not less than, for essentially the most half — however availability can oftentimes be your finest pal. Steve Erceg has executed all the pieces he’s wanted to do. He’s crushed ranked opponents and has completed fights in spectacular style, plus he did so with impeccable timing as a consequence of the truth that Pantoja wanted a dance companion.

Whereas this can be excessive up on the unlikely runs checklist now, one thing tells me a future roundtable — possibly even later this yr — could have the same query. Why? As a result of availability is your finest pal.

2. Which Brazilian fighter could have the most important second?

Heck: This can be a powerful query with so many on the cardboard, and whereas the straightforward reply is Pantoja, the vibes proceed to inform me we may very well be in for a surprising conclusion at UFC 301. So, I’ll take the subsequent chalky reply and go along with “The King of Rio.”

When Run This City hits the audio system, the sector will come unglued. And whereas Jonathan “The Silence Behind the Violence” Martinez is a stable expertise, Jose Aldo has made his hay in defeating fighters who’ve an unimaginable leg kicking sport. Not solely is he generally known as The King of Rio, he’s the King of the Legkickers as nicely. I consider he will get his hand raised in, what is going to probably be, his remaining UFC battle.

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Meshew: The one potential reply for that is Jose Aldo.

Pantoja could also be headlining the cardboard, however this complete ships sinks with out Aldo there to juice the gang up. To say Aldo is beloved in Rio is like saying Conor McGregor is “form of in style” or Jon Jones is “somewhat scared” of Tom Aspinall — it understates the purpose to absurdity.

To steal a phrase from Paddy Pimblett, win or lose, Aldo is “going to blow the roof off the gaffe!” And good god prepared, if he really wins — maybe in highlight-reel style — then he can leap the fence and be paraded round Farmasi Area on the shoulders of his countrymen. Lastly, the storybook ending one of many true all-time greats deserves.

Lee: Aldo has the possibility to do one thing particular, however there’s part of me that’s at all times going to be hesitant to get too excited a few fighter getting back from a supposed retirement strictly for enterprise causes. (Aldo is finishing the final battle of his UFC deal so he’s free to doubtlessly return to boxing.) So I’ll go in a distinct course right here.

If Aldo is the hero most followers within the constructing might be cheering for, the vast majority of jeers might be aimed toward Ihor Potieria, a.okay.a. “The Shogun Slayer.” Let’s not neglect the UFC’s most up-to-date go to to Rio didn’t simply finish on the down word of Jamahal Hill beating Glover Teixeira. Earlier than that, the illustrious profession of Mauricio Rua got here to a harsh finish when Potieria completed him with strikes in a preliminary bout after which proceeded to have a good time in a way that didn’t endear him to the native crowd.

You’ll be able to wager the chants of uh vai morrer might be loud and clear when Potieria makes the walkout for his battle with Michel Pereira, to the purpose that they might wish to beef up safety. As a result of make no mistake about it, Pereira is out to avenge Shogun, and if he doesn’t get it executed within the cage, it might get ugly in these streets.

Pereira is the consummate showman and if he can model his method to a knockout of Potieria, he’ll be essentially the most celebrated Brazilian on the cardboard, even when Pantoja and Aldo are triumphant.

3. What’s your sleeper storyline for UFC 301?

Lee: Now that I’ve hinted at a best-case state of affairs the place the highest Brazilian names on the cardboard all writer memorable moments, let’s have a look at the flip facet: What if that is UFC 283 once more?

I’ve already talked about the Shogun letdown from the January 2023 occasion (and hopefully won’t ever point out it once more after this week), however don’t neglect that night time additionally ended with beloved champions Glover Teixeira and Deiveson Figueiredo shedding their championships in humbling style. To say these disappointments solid a pall over that present can be an understatement.

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Can Rio take one other hit like that? The town will at all times welcome the UFC with open arms, however it is going to be a tougher promote sooner or later if Pantoja’s neglected title battle ends in a loss and if Martinez spoils Aldo’s return. Anthony Smith stifling Vitor Petrino? Potieria rubbing one other win within the followers’ faces? Paul Craig handing Caio Borralho his first UFC loss? It’s all in play.

A lot of Brazilian stars had been already unable to compete on this card because of Dana White and co. stacking UFC 299 and UFC 300, so followers on this MMA hotbed are probably already feeling somewhat chilly. In the event that they don’t see a number of favorites get their hand raised, White could wish to wait a few years earlier than coming again.

Heck: I’m certain individuals know the place I’m going right here, and you’d be proper. As regular, these questions often come all the way down to, “The place is the who-is-more-for-real battle on the cardboard?” And for me, it’s the light-weight bout between 26-year-old up-and-comers Elves Brener and Myktybek Orolbai.

Lightweights, am I proper?

This battle completely guidelines. Each of those guys have super upside, and they’re ending machines. Brener had a robust case for MMA Fighting’s 2023 Rookie of the Year award after going 3-0 in 2023. He began with an enormous upset of Zubaira Tukhugov at UFC 284 in his octagon debut, then added two huge knockouts towards Kaynan Kruschewsky and — in a brilliant spectacular win — Guram Kutateladze. This man is actually good, however he’s about to get a big-time take a look at towards a man the hardcore MMA followers have been ready for to get his shot.

Orolbai returns to his most popular weight class, however he has the potential do harm at welterweight, as proven by his short-notice UFC debut neck crank submission of Uros Medic. Orolbai has super grappling chops, however he additionally hits like an absolute truck, and there’s a mystique and aura about him that claims, “He simply may be that man.” We’ll actually discover out on Saturday on this fantastically matched preliminary bout.

Meshew: You desire a sleeper storyline? I’ll provide you with a sleeper storyline. I’ll go so deep of a sleeper we’re speaking Rip Van Winkle comatose right here: Is Karolina Kowalkiewicz combating for a title shot?

“What?!” you say. “That’s ridiculous!” Is it? Have you learnt who presently has the longest profitable streak within the UFC strawweight division (apart from Tatiana Suarez, whose streak has a four-year hole in it)? That’s proper, Kowalkiewicz! She’s tied with champion Zhang Weili at 4. And whereas no one is clamoring for her to a get a title shot, the very fact of the matter is that Kowalkiewicz is a former title challenger, an honest identify within the division, and any person has to battle Zhang subsequent.

Suarez is the apparent subsequent contender at 115 kilos, however she is coming off one other harm and banking on her to make it to any battle is a idiot’s errand. So who else is within the dialog? Joanna Jedrzejczyk retired, Rose Namajunas jumped up in weight, and Zhang has already crushed many of the different high contenders. Mackenzie Dern might make sense however she will be able to’t appear to win fights when it counts, and the subsequent nice hope, Loopy Godinez, simply misplaced.

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That leaves Virna Jandiroba as the one different actual choice, and if one thing occurs to her — it’s insane however true — Kowalkiewicz on 5 wins is abruptly a really viable choice.

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