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UFC 301 Paths to Victory: How Steve Erceg can upset Alexandre Pantoja

Alexandre Pantoja and Steve Erceg face off
Alexandre Pantoja and Steve Erceg collide in the main event of UFC 301. | Photo by Buda Mendes/Zuffa LLC

UFC 301 takes place this Saturday in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, headlined by a flyweight title fight between Alexandre Pantoja and Steve Erceg. Pantoja is the reigning champion who had a long path to the title, while Erceg is still a relatively unknown contender who made his UFC debut less than a year ago. How can Pantoja continue to write his legacy and how can Erceg become one of the most unlikely champion’s in UFC history? Let’s take a look.


UFC 301 Pantoja v Erceg: Face Off Photo by Buda Mendes/Zuffa LLC

Paths to Victory for Alexandre Pantoja at UFC 301

Back in 2016, Pantoja was one of the most highly touted prospects in MMA, and though it took him awhile, he finally delivered on that promise by winning the flyweight title at UFC 290. And all it took was for Pantoja to become the most aggressive version of himself.

Pantoja is probably the best functional grappler in the flyweight division. While he’s not a traditionally dominant wrestler, Pantoja is nonetheless extremely effective at getting the fight to the floor by getting into clinches and dragging opponents down. He’s also extremely adept at sneaking to the back during chaotic scrambles, be it on the floor or standing. Either way, once he’s there, he’s staying there for the remainder of the round and his opponents are left defending chokes until the round ends.

And it’s a bit simplistic to say, but this is the path for Pantoja against Erceg. Because he is so aggressive on the feet, Pantoja does present some danger there, and Erceg certainly can be drawn into brawling exchanges where Pantoja can have success. The problem though is that’s a gamble, because Erceg has the better defensive fundamentals in these types of exchanges. If Pantoja starts brawling inside, it’s more likely that he’s the one who gets clipped. So instead, play to your strengths and look to get this to the floor.

Erceg has good footwork, but he’s better when he gets to take the lead. When opponents put him under pressure, Erceg can get backed up to the fence, which is obviously where Pantoja can have the most success with his clinch and back takes.

Which is not to say that’s the only way Pantoja can score takedowns. Erceg has a lot of faith in his grappling and is a student of the Dustin Poirier school of jumping guillotines. Traditional blast doubles can make hay against Erceg, particularly if he takes the risky gamble. Even if he doesn’t, that still creates contact and clinches, which is where Pantoja wants to be.


UFC 301 Pantoja v Erceg: Face Off Photo by Buda Mendes/Zuffa LLC

Paths to victory for Steve Erceg at UFC 301

Erceg made his UFC debut just 11 months ago, stepping in as a short-notice replacement for top-10 ranked David Dvorak. Erceg then shook up the division by beating Dvorak and immediately becoming a contender. A winner over Alessandro Costa followed, and then his sensational walk-off knockout of Matt Schnell in March allowed Erceg to jump to the front of the line and challenge for a title in only his fourth UFC bout.

Erceg’s primary weapon is his crisp boxing ability. The Australian has good footwork and excellent timing, allowing him to create angles to land his left hand, usually preceded by a right straight. That left hand separated Schnell from consciousness and has repeatedly been his money punch. Against Pantoja, Erceg needs to find a way to land it as often as possible, because though he’s a good grappler in his own right, playing on the floor for Pantoja is a very, very risky proposition.

So how does Erceg land his best punch? Well, it starts by staying upright. Erceg needs to keep his back off the cage and limit exchanges. He’s a good defensive wrestler in spots, but when he starts to brawl, that creates openings. Erceg wants to make this a long-range fight, making it harder for Pantoja to shoot and forcing him into a striking affair.

On top of that plan, Erceg needs to make Pantoja work. In recent years the flyweight champion has tended to push a super high pace, resulting in him getting tired. To be clear, he doesn’t gas out, he just gets tired. Pantoja has the same sort of cardio that Dricus du Plessis does, where despite clearly being winded, he keeps the pressure up — it just becomes much more sloppy. That sloppiness is a huge opportunity for the crisp counters of Erceg to find the chin.

Lastly for Erceg, he needs to embrace his jab. It’s not a punch Erceg uses a lot, but it is one that Brandon Moreno used to tremendous effect against Pantoja. The champion’s plan of charging headlong into danger makes him a prime candidate to have his face jabbed off, and Moreno in particular was able to use his jab to draw out counters from Pantoja that allowed him to slip and clobber Pantoja back. Erceg has the ability to do the same if he can take this fight longer.


X-Factors

How will the crowd in Rio influence things?

In his media day scrum, Erceg said he was prepared for an authentic Brazilian crowd reaction, but can you ever be prepared for 15,000 people to rabidly scream “you’re going to die” at you? That’s pretty intense.

And on the flip side, how will Pantoja fair fighting for those same fans? His style is already a bit reckless, will the desire to take over the mantle of “The King of Rio” make him even more so?

It’s hard to predict how the atmosphere will affect things on Saturday night, but it seems a certainty that both men will feel it.


Prediction

For the past few weeks, I’ve been steadily talking myself into picking Erceg because it’s the most MMA outcome possible. He’s not supposed to win, he’s barely known, and this is a champion in his home country trying to step up and prove he’s got the goods. The MMA Gods hate that, and for most of 2023, they ruined such circumstances.

But, it’s hard to feel confident in Erceg. He certainly has the tools, but they aren’t honed quite sharp enough at this stage. Outpointing Pantoja would require an impressive level of defensive wrestling we haven’t seen out of him, and knocking Pantoja out would require him to do something that’s never been done before. Both are possible, but probable? I don’t know.

Ultimately, I think we’re looking at a deceptively fun fight between two guys who match up with each other in compelling fashion. Erceg is just a little too soon for this shot at Pantoja, who continues to add to his legacy with a win in Rio.

Alexandre Pantoja wins by unanimous decision (48-47, 48-47, 48-47)

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