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UFC 301 predictions

UFC Fight Night: Schnell v Erceg
Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Alexandre Pantoja has the privilege of defending his title in his hometown, but will it be tragedy or triumph for the flyweight champion?

The Rio de Janeiro native fights in Brazil for the first time in over a decade and on paper he’s been granted an opponent tailor-made for him to impress against. With Pantoja having dispatched of several top contenders already, it’s unassuming Australian Steve Erceg that received the call for the UFC 301 main event and with it, a chance to shock the world.

As talented as Erceg is, he has just three UFC fights under his belt and most fans are still getting to know him. Is he a hidden gem being unfairly overlooked or just the beneficiary of good timing? One thing is for sure: An Erceg win will blow the flyweight division wide open.

In the co-main event—and we may have buried the lede here—Jose Aldo is back! “The King of Rio” fights inside the octagon for the first time since 2022, putting a pause on his boxing career to grace us all with his presence for one more time (and to wrap up his UFC contract so he can go back to boxing, but that’s besides the point). Aldo has been given anything but a layup in the silent-but-deadly Jonathan Martinez, but if he can summon some of that vintage “Scarface” magic, maybe he gets the proper sendoff he’s always deserved.

In other main card action, one-time light heavyweight title challenger Anthony Smith answers the call to fight the undefeated Vitor Petrino, Michel Pereira meets Brazil nemesis Ihor Potieria in a middleweight bout, and Paul Craig looks to hand sleeper middleweight contender Caio Borralho his first UFC defeat.

What: UFC 301

Where: Farmasi Arena in Rio de Janeiro

When: Saturday, May 4. The card begins with a five-fight early prelims portion on ESPN+ at 6 p.m. ET, with continuing coverage of the four-fight prelim card also on ESPN and ESPN+ beginning at 8 p.m. ET. The five-fight main card begins at 10 p.m. ET and is available exclusively on ESPN+ pay-per-view.

(Numbers in parentheses indicate standing in MMA Fighting’s Global Rankings and Pound-for-Pound Rankings)

Alexandre Pantoja (1, P4P-6) vs. Steve Erceg (14)

Since this matchup was first announced, it’s been tempting to get on the Steve Erceg underdog bandwagon. He’s greatly impressed in his three UFC wins, has that affable Australian disposition we all love, and is definitely riding a wave of “nobody believes in me” energy. Anyone who’s kept up with Erceg’s story shouldn’t be surprised at all if he topples Alexandre Pantoja on Saturday.

Pantoja is in a precarious position, having already built up an impressive résumé against the division’s best to the point that his next few title defenses are likely to be up against up-and-comers lacking in name value. It’s on him to elevate the championship with his performances, of course, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that he’s always going in there with more to lose than to gain.

If anyone thinks this is just a showcase bout for the Brazilian star, they’ll be disappointed when they see the problems that Erceg presents. He’s outstanding at controlling distance and his patience often leads to his opponents making mistakes. Even Pantoja might overextend against Erceg if the pace isn’t to his liking.

That said, Pantoja is a master of controlled chaos and while there have been times recently where it looks like he’s throwing caution to the wind, his fundamentals are so solid that he’s rarely in danger of loosening the reins completely. It might take a round for him to suss out Erceg’s style, but eventually he’s going to push forward and turn this into a dogfight. He’ll also mix in plenty of takedowns to test Erceg’s ground game.

Both headliners are incredibly durable and they’re going to take some damage as they set up their offense. Pantoja has proven he excels in wars of attrition and though Erceg will have his moments, the decision goes the way of the champion.

Pick: Pantoja

Jose Aldo vs. Jonathan Martinez (14)

It’s time to say goodbye.

OK, it’s entirely possible that Jose Aldo isn’t just fighting out his contract and he’s actually returning to the UFC, but it’s doubtful. So instead of breaking out the red yarn and connecting the dots to an Aldo-Sean O’Malley title fight, let’s look at this booking in the most positive light and see it as our chance to give a proper farewell to a legend.

Because win or lose, this is a fine way for Aldo’s MMA career to end. As lovely as Salt Lake City is, it’s not home, and The King of Rio was always meant to call it a career in front of a sea of adoring Brazilian fans. Now will he go out on a high note or will Jonathan Martinez keep his hot streak going?

Martinez has established himself as the master of the leg kick—a title once proudly held by Aldo himself—so “The Silence Behind the Violence” won’t hesitate to trade shots with Aldo in this department. That could be his path to victory, too, as Aldo’s long layoff likely means it could take time for him to get going. A few chopping kicks to the lead leg will stop Aldo before he gets started.

We can’t discount that Aldo has been busy boxing though and since this fight will mostly be contested on the feet, that experience can only help him. It’s rare to see Aldo completely outclassed in a striking battle and just because he’s long in the tooth, doesn’t mean he’s forgotten what makes him great.

Yeah, I’m picking Aldo, and what!

Pick: Aldo

Anthony Smith (13) vs. Vitor Petrino

I’m torn on this one.

Theoretically, this should be a chalk pick in Vitor Petrino’s favor. He’s younger, faster, stronger, and if he was going to call out any name in the top 15 to boost his profile, Anthony Smith was the right one. Add in some home cooking and the stage should be set for him to snag Smith’s number.

Then you take a look at their strength of schedule and—with respect to Tyson Pedro and company—that 0 in Petrino’s loss column suddenly doesn’t look so shiny. Smith might be in a slump, but when you consider that his slump has come against a bevy of heavy hitters, you can’t blame him for having some red on his ledger.

Smith’s best bet is to take this fight to the ground, which is easier said than done when you consider the athleticism gap. Without a proper setup, he’s asking for an uppercut or knee to the dome.

I still think Smith is too much for Petrino at this point in his career and I’m confident he can win this fight with his grappling. I mean, I had almost the exact same analysis for Smith’s most recent fight and that turned out just dandy.

Wait, no it didn’t. What am I doing? Petrino by knockout.

Pick: Petrino

Ihor Potieria vs. Michel Pereira

Ihor Potieria, it’s time to pay the piper.

It was in January 2023 that Potieria tempted the fates as he was picked out of obscurity to be the final opponent of the legendary Mauricio “Shogun” Rua. Not only did he finish Rua via strikes, he had the audacity to pose and preen in celebration, which went about as well as you’d expect with the Rio crowd. Now he returns to the scene of the crime.

Waiting for him is Brazilian wild man Michel Pereira. It’s true, we’ve seen a kinder, gentler, and steadier Pereira in recent years, but “Demolidor” is still overflowing with energy and charisma, which he will undoubtedly channel into his performance Saturday. Pereira won’t be satisfied with a decision, not with a legion of vengeful fans calling for Potieria’s blood.

Pereira is just too dynamic for Potieria. He’ll play with his food for a few minutes before landing a show-stealing knockout strike and sending the fans home happy no matter what happens the rest of the night.

Pick: Pereira

Paul Craig vs. Caio Borralho

Can you say... BRAZIL SWEEP???

Caio Borralho, you got this. His karate style will be tough for Paul Craig to deal with and his ground game is strong enough to fend off Craig’s submission attempts. Don’t be surprised if it’s Craig who finds himself defending against Borralho’s dangerous grappling.

Craig has to find a way to take Borralho down and maintain top control if he wants to have a chance to win this one. Otherwise, he’ll be picked apart on the feet and relegated to throwing up Hail Mary submissions off of his back (not that he can’t pull one of those off, just ask Magomed Ankalaev). This is Borralho’s fight to lose.

Trust Borralho to dominate with his methodical, if less-than-thrilling style en route to a unanimous decision nod.

Pick: Borralho


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