HELLO RIO! UFC 301 PREVIEW

By E. Spencer Kyte | Posted 1 month ago

After getting back into the swing of things last weekend for the first time since the landmark UFC 300 event in Las Vegas in mid-April, the world’s leading mixed martial arts promotion is back on pay-per-view this weekend, venturing to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for a dynamic 14-fight card at Farmasi Arena.

What makes this event so captivating from the jump is that it’s lined up as “Brazil vs. Everyone,” as each fight features a competitor from the host nation taking on an opponent from a different country, meaning the raucous, partisan crowd will have someone to cheer for and against in each matchup.

On top of that, the event features the return of an MMA legend and flyweight champ and Rio de Janeiro native Alexandra Pantoja defending his title at home against dark horse challenger Steve Erceg.

This should be an entertaining night from start to finish, and we’re here to give you some insights onto key competitors and matchups to keep close tabs on when the leather starts to fly on Saturday.

FIGHTER TO WATCH: ALESSANDRO COSTA

Very seldom does someone in the opening pairing of the night land as a “Fighter to Watch” in this preview series. Fighters with losing records in the UFC do so even less often — this is likely the first time it’s happened, honestly — but Costa isn’t your average curtain-jerker and 1-2 competitor inside the Octagon.

The 28-year-old Brazilian flyweight trains with the Lobo Gym and Brazilian Warriors crews in Guadalajara, Mexico, working alongside flyweight queen Alexa Grasso and surging featherweight Diego Lopes. Though he’s earned just a single victory in three UFC starts, the context of those contests is important to lay out in full.

Costa’s debut came on short notice against Amir Albazi, a surging talent that was previously scheduled to face contenders Alex Perez and Brandon Royval before each was forced out and who now sits at No. 3 in the divisional rankings. “Nono” gave Albazi a tough fight for two rounds before getting stopped in the third, then rebounded six months later with a second-round stoppage win over Jimmy Flick to advance to 13-3 overall.

He made his second start of 2023 in November, once again stepping in on short notice to face Erceg at UFC 295 in New York. The duo went the distance, with Erceg earning a unanimous decision win with scores of 29-28 across the board. Saturday night, he challenges for the flyweight title, while Costa opens the show.

Simply put, the Dana White’s Contender Series (DWCS) alum is better than his UFC record otherwise suggests, as his losses have come against two of the top contenders in the division,

each in short notice fights, and his pairing with Kevin Borjas to kick off UFC 301 feels like a prime opportunity for Costa to prove that to everyone.

FIGHTER TO WATCH: JOANDERSON BRITO

There have already been two champions to emerge from Dana White’s Contender Series and several additional title challengers and contenders. With the way he’s performed over his last four fights, Brito is trending in the right direction to be the next to join that list of contenders, and perhaps even challenge for featherweight gold in the next couple years.

After losing his promotional debut to veteran Bill Algeo, the 29-year-old talent has posted four consecutive stoppage wins to place himself on the doorstep of the Top 15 in the talent-rich 145-pound weight class. While a couple of those wins came against overmatched, short-notice replacements, the first and last victories in he quartet of finishes came against divisional stalwart Andre Fili and then-ranked fellow DWCS grad Jonathan Pearce.

The win over Fili was a sign that Brito was someone to play close attention to in the division, as he put the Team Alpha rep out in just 41 seconds. After making similarly quick work of Lucas Alexander and Westin Wilson, he needed to rally to beat Pearce back in November, clambering to his feet and choking out the Tennessee native to halt his five-fight winning streak in a flash.

Saturday night, Brito faces off with Welshman Jack Shore, a former amateur world champion and Cage Warriors titleholder who enters off a successful divisional debut last year in London, sporting a 17-1 record overall.

While Shore is a technician, this profiles as a matchup where Brito’s athleticism and overall physicality can rule the day, and the differences between the two are likely to jump off the screen. He’ll need to be mindful of Shore’s grappling as he was controlled for stretches by Pearce and “Tank” won’t make the same mistakes that afforded him the opportunity to rally and finish, but if he’s dialled in, Brito has the talent to dominate this pairing.

The surging Brazilian also stands out as someone to keep close tabs on because of how well some of his previous victories have aged, most notably his LFA 65 win over Chepe Mariscal and his DWCS victory over Diego Lopes, as the former has won six straight overall, including each of his first three UFC appearances, while the latter forced his way into the Top 15 with a third-straight first-round stoppage win over Sodiq Yusuff at UFC 300 last month.

FIGHTER TO WATCH: MICHEL PEREIRA

Do not be surprised if Pereira is a Top 10 fighter in the middleweight division by the end of the year; he’s that skill, that talented, and what he brings to the table matches up favorably with many of the veteran names ranked in the division at the moment.

Always gargantuan for the welterweight ranks, Pereira missed weight ahead of a scheduled clash with Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson last summer at UFC 291 and opted to relocate to middleweight. He debuted in October with a 66 second submission win over Andre Petroski, who entered with a 5-0 mark in the UFC, and then followed it up earlier this year by running through Polish finisher Michal Oleksiejczuk in 61 seconds to extend his overall winning streak to seven.

Moving up a division doesn’t usually carry the same kind of perceived advantages as moving down does, as competitors are venturing into the fray against bigger, more powerful opponents than they have previously faced, and their weaponry doesn’t always translate up a weight class, but that hasn’t been the case with Pereira.

He’s actually best suited to compete at middleweight and all his skills continue to play in the 185-pound weight class. If anything, they play even better because he’s now even quicker than his competition and no longer depleting his body in order to make the 170-pound welterweight limit.

This weekend’s matchup with Ihor Potieria, who steps in for Makhmud Muradov, feels like a potential squash match, and if Pereira does in fact pick up a third straight middleweight finish and eighth consecutive win overall, he should get the chance to face someone with a number next to their name next time out.

And honestly, outside of a couple fighters in the rankings, I would honestly favor Pereira to get the win there too.

FIGHT TO WATCH: JONATHAN MARTINEZ VS. JOSE ALDO

This is one of those weird fights where the guy that should be getting all the attention (Martinez) is understandably being relegated to the background, but could very well force people to talk about him more after Saturday night.

Jose Aldo is an absolute legend — the inaugural UFC featherweight champion, a UFC Hall of Fame inductee, and “The King of Rio,” and he’s coming home for what feels like a final sendoff, at home, in a matchup that is better suited to his particular skills than what he was able to show the last time we saw him in the summer of 2022.

But Aldo is also 37 years old and nearly two years removed from his last appearance inside the Octagon, and so while this has potential “fairytale ending” elements to it, Saturday’s co-main event assignment could also turn into a sad moment where the beloved veteran catches another L and doesn’t get the triumphant sendoff many are hoping for here.

Martinez is a quiet killer — a talented 30-year-old on a six-fight winning streak who has cut down two of his last three opponents with punishing leg kicks. He’s won 10 of his last 12 appearances in the Octagon, trains with an elite crew at Factory X Muay Thai in Englewood, Colorado, and has the kind of demeanor you’d want for someone venturing into what is sure to be hostile territory for the biggest fight of his career.

It’s honestly ridiculous that Martinez is only ranked No. 12 in the ultra-competitive bantamweight division given his recent run of success, especially when you consider that part-time fighter Dominick Cruz — who hasn’t won a fight since December 2021 — is positioned one spot ahead of him, but that could change if “Dragon” adds another victory to his resume this weekend in Rio.

FIGHT TO WATCH: ALEXANDRE PANTOJA VS. STEVE ERCEG

There is so much to love about this fight beyond the simple fact that it should be an exciting, competitive pairing with championship gold hanging in the balance.

First and foremost, this is a championship homecoming for Pantoja, who was born and raised in Copacabana, and hasn’t fought at home in Rio in a little over a decade. It’s his first time competing in his home country for the UFC and he’s returning with the flyweight title around his waist, riding a five-fight winning streak, focused on delivering another dominant performance on Saturday.

Secondly, this is the right matchup at the right time, even if some are quick to question how Erceg is getting a championship opportunity after just three UFC appearances.

The Australian challenger was in the right place at the right time after rattling the jaw of Matt Schnell at the start of March, standing as the best available option to face off with Pantoja much in the same way Sean Strickland was when the American was tabbed to venture to Australia and face Israel Adesanya for the middleweight title last fall.

Could we have another upset in Brazil? It’s certainly not out of the question.

Folks often incorrectly equate limited experience and no real marquee wins with a lack of ability, when many times, it’s simply a lack of opportunity. Erceg has handled each of his three UFC assignments with aplomb, winning on short notice in his debut against a ranked fighter in David Dvorak, navigating multiple opponent changes before beating Costa in NYC last November, and putting Schnell to sleep with a clattering left hook earlier this year to advance to 12-1 overall.

This is an exceptional fight and is going to be a thrilling close to what should be a fun night of action in the South American MMA hotbed on Saturday.

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