Leon Edwards (Jeff Sherwood/Sherdog)

UFC 296: Edwards vs. Covington Preview and Predictions

The 2023 calendar year is coming to an end, and this weekend marks the final UFC event of the year. The closeout card, UFC 296, comes in the form of a championship doubleheader inside the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, NV. Atop the fight card is a welterweight championship fight with incumbent champion Leon Edwards looking to make his second defense against former interim champion and lightning-rod personality Colby Covington.

Few will forget the stunning head-kick knockout that earned Edwards his title win over Kamaru Usman back in Salt Lake City. He, subsequently, defended that title in his third fight over Usman scoring a majority decision in his home country of England. Covington has been out of action for a while, last fighting in a personal grudge match against Jorge Masvidal. After that win, Covington was attacked by Masvidal in South Florida and was forced to take time off to recover from injuries suffered as the criminal process played out. With that incident behind him, Covington is primed and ready to try for the third time to earn the undisputed welterweight championship.

With gold also on the line in the co-main event, Alexandre Pantoja will try to defend his belt for the first time against Brandon Royval. His title-winning performance came in a Fight of the Night outing against Brandon Moreno. For his first fight as champion, Pantoja takes on a former foe in Royval. The pair met just over two years ago with Pantoja scoring a second-round submission victory. Royval will try to even the rivalry at one win apiece and extend his winning streak to four fights.


Also on the main card are a pair of welterweight contests with future title implications as Shavkat Rakhmonov looks to remain undefeated against perennial contender Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson. Prospect Ian Machado Garry will look to become a bonafide contender by defeating Vicente Luque in a three-round affair. Wedged between those two fights at welterweight is a lightweight showdown between Tony Ferguson and Paddy Pimblett. Ferguson is looking to snap a six-fight losing streak that began with his interim title loss to Justin Gaethje at UFC 249. Pimblett has yet to taste defeat since signing with the UFC, and a victory over Ferguson would improve his promotional record to 5-0.

The UFC 296 early prelims air live on ESPN+ and UFC Fight Pass at 6 p.m. ET, followed by the preliminary card on ESPN+ and ESPN2 at 8 p.m. ET. The main card airs live on ESPN+ pay-per-view at 10 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Dan Kuhl and Matt Petela preview the action in this week’s edition of Toe-to-Toe.

Colby Covington hasn’t fought in nearly two years; does he suffer from ring rust or does he take away the belt from Leon Edwards?

Kuhl: Colby Covington is a work horse, plain and simple. He doesn’t drink alcohol and party. Most of his antics are just an act. And, he has world-class MMA wrestling. This will be his third UFC welterweight title challenge, after already holding the interim belt, for a reason. Other than his first career loss to Warlley Alves eight years ago, he has only lost to Kamaru Usman in title fights. He is a game opponent, and with Khamzat Chimaev moving up to middleweight, he is certainly deserving of another crack at the title.

Current champion Leon Edwards is only a slight betting favorite at -148. He was losing his first title bid, until he won it with a head-kick KO of then-champ Usman with only 56 seconds left in the fifth round. He was a +290 underdog going into that fight, as he had already lost to him once seven years prior, and in their second title bout, even as champion, he still came in as a +210 underdog. The bookies are not MMA pundits or journalists. They do this purely to make money. But, even after a title win and a title defense over the guy Covington lost to twice, they still can barely get on board with picking Edwards to win this weekend. I rarely, if ever, put such a heavy emphasis on what’s going on in the sportsbooks, but there is something to this.

We know there is a wild card with Usman, and that is the fact that his knees are completely shot. He is nowhere near as mobile as he was years ago, and this is well-documented. He scored nine takedowns in his last two fights with Edwards, but, while he scored more strikes in their second bout, Edwards landed a lot more strikes in the third. I don’t think this shows that Edwards got that much better, but that Usman’s body and mobility are in a steep decline. This is simply not the case with Covington.

At this point, Covington may have been on the bench for a couple years, but he has been working his ass off and fine tuning since then. The level of cardio he has displayed does not just disappear, and his takedowns and ground control have always been on point. There is some speculation that the cheap shot from Jorge Masvidal at a restaurant may have had some lingering effects on his health, but for a guy who has absorbed a lot of head shots in his career, it’s hard to believe a couple sucker punches kept him out of action for two years.

In this fight, I expect Covington to bring his striking and wrestling style, which is really similar to Usman’s, but with a much healthier body. Edwards clearly holds the upper hand in the striking, but if Covington can get inside of the Brit’s rangy punches and kicks, he will lock him up, and get him to the mat. On the ground, Edwards’ size advantages become less of an issue. This may not end up being an exciting fight, but I see Covington forcing this to be a grinding war on the ground, wearing out Edwards, and finally earning himself a title by decision.

Petela: I am in total agreement with Dan on how this one plays out. One of the main reasons why Colby Covington has had to put together his schtick is that he just isn’t that exciting to watch fight. Don’t confuse that with him being anything less than an elite fighter. He just doesn’t have a very exciting style. His wrestling is absolutely exhausting to his opponents, as he can keep a pace that forces every other welterweight to wilt. His first loss to Kamaru Usman ended in a controversial stoppage, but, even if Covington survived the final round, he would have ended up on the wrong side of a decision after a very competitive first 20 minutes. I am probably in the minority with this opinion, but I scored the rematch in Covington’s favor, and, certainly, if the pair met a third time, I would favor “Chaos” because of the degeneration of Usman’s knees.

I expect this fight to look remarkably similar to the fight between Covington and Jorge Masvidal. The one in the cage, that is. Not the street altercation that resulted in assault charges being pressed against Masvidal. Covington is going to move forward and press Edwards backwards, getting inside kicking range and punching his way into a level change. The old saying about perseverance, “get knocked down seven times, get up eight,” doesn’t make sense, because you can’t get up more times than you have been knocked down. But, that’s a conversation for a different day. This fight will kind of reverse that saying, and Edwards may get up eight times, but with the pace and cardio advantage that Covington holds, he will take him down nine times.

Eventually, Edwards will find himself having to concede to being on his back, and Covington will work to land enough ground strikes that the referee can’t intervene. That will zap the gas tank of Edwards, and, towards the latter portion of this fight, the takedowns will come easier for Covington. He will score more and more top control time en route to a clear-cut decision victory. A new champion will be crowned this weekend, and Covington will, no doubt, have a wild callout in his first post-fight interview as undisputed champion.

Alexandre Pantoja claimed the flyweight title in a thriller over Brandon Moreno; can he successfully defend the crown against Brandon Royval?

Petela: Yes. I don’t expect this title fight to go the distance or to be particularly close. Pantoja is just a level above Royval, who is a very entertaining and talented fighter with a big upside. Eventually, Royval might hold the title, but not yet.

Pantoja is uniquely dangerous among flyweights. He proved himself to be better than Brandon Moreno in their instant classic, and, coming into that fight, it was hard to find something to criticize about Moreno’s game. Pantoja packs a wallop in his fists, and he can scramble and grapple with anyone. Royval is tricky, and can find a submission from just about any position, but, just like in the pair’s first meeting, this one will be won on the ground by Pantoja locking in a rear-naked choke in the second round.

When this fight hits the mat, Pantoja will remain in control and attack the back of Royval deliberately. It will force Royval to defend and try to attack with leg locks like he did in the first fight, but, like is so often the case with leg attacks, he will leave himself vulnerable to getting his face pounded through the floor. Once Royval abandons the leg-lock offense, he won’t be able to defend the pressure of Pantoja and will fall prey to the rear-naked choke. This one ends with Bruce Buffer announcing “and still,” as Pantoja successfully defends his title for the first time.

Kuhl: I’m not going to get as specific as my colleague into the details of how this fight will go down, but I do agree with much of his assessment. Alexandre Pantoja beat Brandon Moreno by unanimous decision in their first meeting, and, even after Moreno went 5-1-2 – including five title bouts and getting the belt wrapped around his waist three times – in the ensuing five years, he still could not get past Pantoja in their rematch.

On the other hand, while Royval has been incredibly successful in the UFC, the only two stoppage losses in his professional career were back-to-back finishes by Moreno and Pantoja by TKO and submission, respectively. And, those fights were just in the last five years. Granted, Royval came back with three wins in a row, and the last two by first-round finishes, but has he made the advances he needs to be able to beat Pantoja in the rematch? I guess we will find out on Saturday night.

I suspect Royval is not going to be in a hurry to get this one to the mat. Pantoja has never been finished. And, with Royval’s bread-and-butter being his grappling, he’s going to need to tune up Pantoja on the feet, before he tries anything on the ground. Trying to take down a fresh Pantoja could be a recipe for disaster. Now, I would never completely count Royval out, and he could use his longer frame and improvements to his game to dominate on the mat. However, I think this one stays standing for a bit, where Pantoja will have the upper hand and do damage. Royval could very well take this one to the mat to avoid damage and end up submitted once again.

I guess I was more descriptive with my prediction than I had previously anticipated, but I have Pantoja by submission before the championship rounds.

Who’s the biggest winner at UFC 296?

Kuhl: Colby Covington. Love him or hate him, the guy has been on track to an eventual title, and I think it will finally happen to close out the year for the UFC.

Petela: Vicente Luque. He is going to score a major win over Ian Machado Garry, and that is exactly what he needs to relaunch his career. After two losses in a row to Belal Muhammad and Geoff Neal, Luque looked phenomenal in his return against former lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos. By temporarily derailing the hype train of Garry, it will be a big statement victory and could very well put him back in the running for an eventual welterweight title shot.

Who’s the biggest loser at UFC 296?

Petela: Paddy Pimblett. He got exposed in his last fight where he was gifted a decision over Jared Gordon, and, even against an aging Tony Ferguson, he is going to come up woefully short. The hype train gets majorly derailed, and his brash attitude is going to look silly when he’s outclassed by a fighter who hasn’t won a fight since 2019.

Kuhl: Josh Emmett is in for a rough finish to 2023. He still sits as the No. 6 featherweight, but his two fights this year both ended in losses. At UFC 284, he lost by triangle choke to Yair Rodriguez in a bid for the interim title. Then, in June, he lost a five-round headliner by unanimous decision to the undefeated Ilia Topuria. While it scored him a performance bonus, it marked his first back-to-back losing streak of his career.

This weekend, Emmett faces No. 10 Bryce Mitchell, whose only professional loss is to Topuria by submission a year ago. However, Mitchell bounced back with a dominant decision win over Dan Ige in Sep. 2023. Mitchell is a submission threat who can easily go the distance, and Emmett has serious knockout power. He can also go the distance en route to victory. I am leaning toward a Mitchell win in this one, and, even, if it goes the distance, Emmett will be on the wrong end of the scorecards.

What one fighter’s UFC career is on the ropes at this event?

Kuhl: Team Alpha Male veteran Andre Fili is one of those guys who has been around the UFC forever, but he never really “took.” Or, maybe better said, he has never been consistent. 10 years ago, he entered the UFC at 12-1, but he has, since, gone 10-9-1. In the last four years, his record has been 2-4-1 with both wins coming by split decision. At UFC 296, Fili finally faces Lucas Almeida, who he was supposed to fight in Feb. 2023, and if he loses this one, his time in the UFC could very well be over.

Petela: Cody Garbrandt and Brian Kelleher both could get a pink slip with a loss. The Ill-fated experiment at flyweight is over for the former bantamweight champion Garbrandt, and he is looking to win back-to-back fights for the first time since 2016. Injuries have kept him from competing regularly over the past year or two, and he needs to make a statement in order to avoid becoming wholly irrelevant. Kelleher is also in desperate need of a win, entering this fight after back-to-back losses. With both of these athletes feeling the pressure, it will be all-action from the onset, and this preliminary fight could steal the show. Unfortunately, the loser may find himself on the outside looking in at the UFC’s bantamweight division.

Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?

Petela: Casey O’Neill vs. Ariane Lipski. This fight pits two rising flyweights up against each other. O’Neill stormed the UFC with four straight wins before coming up short in her last fight against former title challenger Jennifer Maia. Lipski came in as a highly touted prospect out of the KSW promotion in Poland, but she struggled out of the gate in the UFC. She has begun to hit a stride and has won two fights consecutively. Both of these women are under the age of 30 and have a chance to march to the very top of the division, but a loss in this contest will be a substantial setback. That will certainly bring out the best in each woman, and they will put on a fan-friendly fight early on in the night.

Kuhl: The featured early prelim bout between light heavyweights Dustin Jacoby and Alonzo Menifield should be a banger. Both of these guys came into the UFC out of the Contender Series, but on very different paths. No. 15 Jacoby had a stint in the UFC in his early 20’s, had a second stage of his career in GLORY Kickboxing, and then came back into the UFC three years ago. He is coming off a first-round TKO of Kennedy Nzechukwu after suffering back-to-back losses. No. 14 Menifield entered the UFC almost five years ago with a 6-0 record. He has since gone 8-3-1 and has not lost in four fights over the last two years. Both men are looking to climb the 205-pound ladder, and both are exciting fighters with finishing ability. This fight is a must-see for fans.

Who takes home the “Performance of the Night” honors?

Kuhl: Shavkat Rakhmonov is 17-0 with eight eight knockouts and nine submissions. His last three wins earned him performance bonuses, and the last two were over NEil Magny and Geoff Neal. It only makes sense that Stephen Thompson become his next victim, earning him another bonus, this time by submission.

Petela: Tony Ferguson. His time as an elite lightweight are in the rear view mirror without a doubt but this weekend he gets the win he needs to close out his career. Much has been made of his training with David Goggins for this fight and while it certainly is an unorthodox approach, what else should be expect from someone as wild as Ferguson? He will get a finish this weekend, probably a knockout, and he will get a nice bonus check for his win over Paddy Pimblett.

Pair this card with…

Petela: Regardless of your feelings about him, Colby Covington represents the United States hard inside and outside of the cage. I’m picking him to get the win and claim the title this weekend so pair this card with a good old American staple of hotdogs and hamburgers on the grill and with a cooler full of Budweiser.

Kuhl: The all-American motif definitely seems appropriate, especially given a Covington win, but this is quite an international card. In fact, only three of the 14 bouts have two Americans facing each other. What’s more American than an international buffet? This will need to be prepared ahead of time, because nobody is going to want to look away from this ultra-stacked card for any significant period of time. So, mix it up with everything from lil’ smokies to devils on horseback to sushi rolls to pierogies to kebabs to Swedish meatballs. Hell, even throw in a couple Jamaican beef patties in honor of Randy Brown. Keep it to simple finger foods and enjoy a great night of fights

Fight Kuhl’s Pick Petela’s Pick
Main Card (ESPN+ pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)
WW Championship: Leon Edwards vs. Colby Covington Covington Covington
FlyW Championship: Alexandre Pantoja vs. Brandon Royval Pantoja Pantoja
WW: Shavkat Rakhmonov vs. Stephen Thompson Rakhmonov Rakhmonov
LW: Tony Ferguson vs. Paddy Pimblett Ferguson Ferguson
WW: Vicente Luque vs. Ian Machado Garry Garry Luque
Preliminary Card (ESPN+/ESPN2, 8 p.m. ET)
FW: Josh Emmett vs. Bryce Mitchell Mitchell Mitchell
Women’s BW: Irene Aldana vs. Karol Rosa Aldana Aldana
BW: Cody Garbrandt vs. Brian Kelleher Garbrandt Kelleher
Women’s FlyW: Casey O’Neill vs. Ariane Lipski O’Neill O’Neill
Early Prelims (ESPN+/UFC Fight Pass, 6 p.m. ET)
LHW: Alonzo Menifield vs. Dustin Jacoby Jacoby Jacoby
FlyW: Tagir Ulanbekov vs. Cody Durden Ulanbekov Durden
FW: Andre Fili vs. Lucas Almeida Fili Fili
HW: Shamil Gaziev vs. Martin Buday Gaziev Buday
WW: Randy Brown vs. Muslim Salikhov Brown Brown