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UFC 301 — Alexandre Pantoja vs. Steve Erceg: Five biggest storylines to watch in Rio de Janeiro

The first pay-per-view event following a historic UFC 300 takes place this Saturday in Rio de Janeiro as Brazilian champion Alexandre Pantoja returns home to defend his flyweight championship. 

Pantoja faces Australian upstart Steve Erceg in the main event of UFC 301 from Farmasi Arena. In the co-main event, Hall of Famer and former featherweight king Jose Aldo returns from retirement to face Jonathan Martinez. 

Let’s take a closer look at the biggest storylines entering this weekend. 

1. The inevitable UFC 300 hangover is upon us

Following such an explosive stretch of big fights, which began at UFC 298 in February and continued through the much-celebrated UFC 300 blockbuster on April 13, it’s understandable that fans would expect a bit of a matchmaking letdown in the aftermath. UFC 301, and a trio of adjoining Fight Night cards around it, certainly meet that description. While the main and co-main events are fine fights worth watching, the depth of the card overall feels more like a quarterly UFC on Fox card of old and appears to cater more to the local market with no shortage of Brazilian talent up and down the card. This may mean a lack of fanfare and buzz similar to recent events, but it doesn’t mean a letdown should be expected from the standpoint of action inside the Octagon as Brazilian crowds have long helped spark the excitement in the cage in front of them due to their voracious appetite for the sport. There likely won’t be any $300,000 bonuses left over from UFC 300 to be thrown around, but Saturday’s event should still satiate hardcore fans enough ahead of UFC 302 on June 1, which features a star-studded lightweight title bout (Islam Makhachev-Dustin Poirier) atop the marquee. 

2. Alexandre Pantoja is starting to bring stability to flyweight

For a division that had just two legendary champions (Demetrious Johnson, Henry Cejudo) in its first eight years of existence, the last four years atop the 125-pound division has been a revolving door of title swaps between Deiveson Figueiredo and Brandon Moreno. Enter the unlikely Pantoja who, at 34, has emerged to the front of the pack at flyweight thanks to a five-fight win streak, which features wins over a who’s who within the division: Manel Kape, Brandon Royval (twice), Alex Perez and a third victory over Moreno, which brought Pantoja the title last July. The threat of submission remains Pantoja’s calling card yet it has been a willingness to bite down on the mouthpiece and endure heavy damage that has carried the champion through some of his toughest tests. Pantoja can also equal Johnson and Figueiredo as the only champions to defend the flyweight crown twice. 

3. Out of nowhere: Here comes Steve Erceg

By the time the 28-year-old Erceg made his pro debut in 2016, Pantoja was already an 18-fight veteran of nine years. But even though he has only been a UFC fighter for 11 months, the native of Perth in Western Australia now finds himself on the doorstep of a UFC title following a trio of eye-opening victories. Erceg certainly benefits from timing and the fact that he represents new blood in a title picture which has been so dominated by the same two names of late. That doesn’t mean, however, that he’s here by accident. Erceg (12-1) walked into the UFC looking like a finished product. Half of his pro victories have come by submission yet it has been the technical aspects of his striking that has most stood out inside the Octagon. Erceg’s one-punch knockout of Matt Schnell in March was the perfect exclamation point at the exact right time to get him into position to fight for the belt.

4. The ‘King of Rio’ ain’t done yet

Two years ago, after a loss to Merab Dvalishvili snapped a resurgent three-fight win streak, Aldo walked away from the sport on his own terms following one of the most decorated 18-year runs in the sport’s history. But after dabbling in boxing and accepting an induction into the UFC Hall of Fame, Aldo returns at 37 not just to lend his much-needed star power to a PPV event that desperately lacks it. Throughout the leadup to Saturday’s return against rising contender Jonathan Martinez, Aldo has spoken about his want to get back in line and make a run at the bantamweight title. Aldo, a slight betting underdog, is certainly expected to face stiff competition from Martinez, who rides a six-fight win streak that includes leg-kick TKO wins over Cub Swanson and Adrian Yanez. But the more interesting result might come contractually as Aldo, who enters the final bout of his UFC deal, declined to re-sign with the promotion ahead of this weekend. That either means that Aldo is hoping his performance against Martinez can increase his negotiation leverage for a new deal or that he has plans of competing in MMA somewhere else upon the completion of his current deal.

5. Is it time to put some respect on Michel Pereira’s name?

Initially known for his physical theatrics, both in and out of the cage, upon arrival in the UFC back in 2019, Pereira has quietly authored a seven-fight win streak across two different divisions. Yet, Pereira remains unranked at both welterweight and middleweight as he sets for Saturday’s 185-pound test against Ihor Potieria, who has lost three of his last four. When the 30-year-old Pereira dials down his tendency to burn excess energy inside the cage by taking so many offensive chances, it allows the strength of his grappling game to shine. Pereira has put two fighters to sleep during his current streak, including Michal Oleksiejczuk in March. Can a victory at UFC 301 finally be the fight that lifts Pereira into true title contention? Wait and see. 

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