Alexandre Pantoja (

UFC 301: Pantoja vs. Erceg Preview and Predictions

After an all-time great fight card at UFC 300, this weekend’s UFC 301 is receiving a lot less fanfare. The promotion heads down to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil with a flyweight championship bout in the main event slot, as titleholder Alexandre Pantoja squares off against Australian challenger Steve Erceg.

Pantoja has proven to be a dominant force in the flyweight division. After a few hiccups earlier in his seven-year UFC career, he won a split decision in his rematch with former champ Brandon Moreno last July to pick up the strap. In Dec. 2023, he absolutely dominated Brandon Royval through five rounds for his first title defense. The undefeated Erceg, on the other hand, is still somewhat of a newcomer to the UFC. He has only had three fights in the Octagon, with the first two ending in decisions. He then knocked out Matt Schnell only two months ago to set up a title shot as the No. 10 contender.

The co–main event features former long-reigning featherweight champion Jose Aldo, who is coming out of retirement after two years to take on twelfth-ranked Jonathan Martinez at bantamweight. While Aldo was a former champion, his last fight ended in a decision loss to Merab Dvalishvil in Aug. 2022. MArtinez, on the other hand, is on a six-fight winning streak, with his fight last October ending in a leg-kick TKO victory over Adrian Yanez. The King of Rio” is looking for a big win in front of his home crowd, and Martinez is looking to play spoiler in the former champ’s return.


Rounding out the main card is a light heavyweight battle between former title contender Anthony Smith and Vitor Petrino, as well as two middleweight bouts with Michel Pereira taking on Ihor Potieria, and Paul Craig facing Caio Borralho

The UFC 301 early prelims air live on ESPN+ and UFC Fight Pass starting at 6 p.m. ET, followed by the preliminary card on ESPN+ and ESPN2 at 8 p.m. ET. The main card airs 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.

Steve Erceg hasn’t tasted defeat since 2017; can he pull off the upset and dethrone the champion Alexandre Pantoja?

Kuhl: The short answer is, no, Steve Erceg will not upset Alexandre Pantoja for the flyweight crown. Don’t get me wrong. Erceg is obviously a world-class talent, and he is 12-1 for a reason. But, he’s only 3-0 in the UFC, and wins over David Dvorak, Alessandro Costa, and Matt Schnell are not all victories at the highest level. The 28-year-old Western Australian has a good balance of striking and grappling skills, but he will not be able to hang for very long with the champ.

Pantoja is better everywhere than Erceg. At American Top Team, he gets some of the best striking, jiu-jitsu and wrestling training, and he showcases those skills every fight. And, he keeps getting better. Minus a couple decision losses in the first half of his UFC career, he has been very successful against some of the world’s best, and he has never been stopped.

I expect Pantoja to come in, picking Erceg apart from the opening bell, and if Erceg wants to stay standing, the Brazilian will take the decision. However, when Erceg sees what he’s up against, I expect him to take this one to the mat, which will be a grave error, as Pantoja will submit him before the midpoint of the fight.

Petela: This is a strange title fight. I don’t think anyone can say that Steve Erceg has the best resume of all the challengers in the flyweight division. He is good, and he might end up being a great fighter but this is a bridge too far for the young man. I have to agree with Dan that Alexandre Pantoja is just better everywhere than Erceg.

With Pantoja, it is pick your poison. Without sounding too much like a parrot, if Erceg wants to stand and strike with Pantoja he will get his face bashed in for twenty-five minutes. If he wants to grapple, it’ll be a quick one and Pantoja will get a quick submission. The biggest questions leaving this fight will be who is next for Pantoja and is Erceg able to rebound from being outclassed in the biggest fight of his life.

Jose Aldo comes out of retirement this weekend to take on Jonathan Martinez; can “The King of Rio” get a win in his return to Brazil?

Petela: I don’t think so. This is no walk in the park for any fighter, but especially not a fighter who has been out of action for almost two years. Not only has he been out of action for two years, but he is now 37 years old. At the lower weight classes that is quite old to compete at the highest level.

Jonathan Martinez is an absolute monster. I’ll even go out on a limb and say that, at this juncture, he even has better leg kicks than Aldo. Two of his last three fights have been TKO victories for Martinez by way of leg kicks. Wouldn’t it be something if he stopped Aldo with leg kicks in Brazil? Not sure that is exactly how it will play out but it will be a TKO win for Martinez. He will be the faster striker and he has good enough takedown defense to stay upright. Aldo is a very good grappler but he doesn’t have the best takedown game in the world and as he struggles to take Martinez down it will exhaust his energy and his confidence will wane, and that combination leads to him getting caught with punches and kicks that he would have otherwise evaded. Third-round TKO win for Martinez, and a sad ending to the post script of Jose Aldo’s incredible career.

Kuhl: I am in complete agreement with Matt, but I don’t think Aldo even makes it to Round 3. Having watched Martinez closely, as he has climbed the ranks, the kid is only getting better. He’s been piling up wins on a six-fight streak against top talent. His striking is on point, and his grappling is more than efficient to deal with Aldo.

Why Aldo is coming back is beyond me. I get wanting to retire with a big win close to home, and it may have something to do with wanting to win in front of his young son, but Martinez is not a tune-up opponent. The risk seems much larger than the reward, because losing in Brazil to the No. 12 bantamweight would be devastating. I believe Martinez, under the tutelage of Marc Montoya, will push the pace in calculated manner, and he will test the cardio of the former champ early. Aldo will be fighting out of desperation, he will get caught, and this one will be over before the end of Round 2.

Who’s the biggest winner at UFC 301?

Kuhl: Jonathan Martinez. Like fellow Colorado resident Cory Sandhagen, who knocked out former champ Frankie Edgar three years ago, Martinez is going to knock out former champ Jose Aldo, which will be a huge boost in stock, as he keeps his sights on an eventual title shot.

Petela: Vitor Petrino. The undefeated Brazilian marauder gets to fight in front of a friendly audience against a former title challenger and he will pick up the biggest win of his career. It doesn’t get much better than that for a 26-year-old prospect looking to definitively make the leap into being a contender. He knocks out Anthony Smith and gets a roaring ovation from the audience in the process.

Who’s the biggest loser at UFC 301?

Petela: Jose Aldo. This will be the true end of the road for the former pound-for-pound great. Coming up short and showing that his skills have waned significantly since he last fought in front of a sympathetic crowd is just not a good way for a legendary career to come to a close.

Kuhl: I usually try to pick someone other than who my colleague picked, but a loss to Jonathan Martinez in Brazil will be a tragic ending to a storied career that was supposed to be already over. Tears will be shed as Jose Aldo loses for the second time in a row.

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

Kuhl: Alessandro Costa badly needs a win. He is 1-2 since joining the UFC. If he loses to Peru’s Kevin Borjas, who is 0-1 in the UFC, his days could be numbered.

Petela: What is left for Anthony Smith? Sure, he defeated Ryan Spann not too long ago but even in that fight he didn’t look like the “Lionheart” of a few years ago. It is time for the former title challenger to hang up the gloves. He has nearly 60 fights and a promising career in the media and podcasting, he should call it quits win or lose but definitely if he gets run over by Vitor Petrino as I expect to happen.

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

Petela: This is the rare case of an entire Pay-Per-View flying under the radar. I’ll admit that I just recently realized that Michel Pereira vs. Ihor Poteiria was on this fight card. This one should be a fun clash. Pereira has shown that he can end fights in an instant at middleweight and Poteiria’s style of marching forward and adopting a kill or be killed mentality. This one won’t last long but it will be fun while it lasts.

Kuhl: Sometimes, the classic striker vs. grappler bouts can be boring, as they can be really lopsided or too cautious. Dione Barbosa vs. Ernesta Kareckaite is not going to be either. With Barbosa’s grappling skills and Kareckaite’s crisp striking, both are coming forward hard looking for a finish. Kareckaite will try to keep Barbosa at range, the Brazilian will be looking to close the distance for a takedown, and both Contender Series signings will be looking to stake a claim in the flyweight division in their respective promotional debuts.

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

Kuhl: Jonathan Martinez. He is going to stop Jose Aldo, and that will most certainly earn him some extra cash.

Petela: Paul Craig. This just feels like a week where Paul Craig is going to get his skull bashed in for a minute or two and then out of nowhere sneak in a triangle choke to shock his opponent and the audience. That type of comeback is almost normal for Craig but definitely worthy of an extra $50K.

Pair this card with…

Petela: It has to be Brazilian BBQ. I mean, the card is in Brazil and the “King of Rio” is back in action. Despite how I think that fight plays out, it will be worth the cost of admission just to watch Aldo make the walk to the cage one last time.

Kuhl: I was originally thinking along the same lines as Matt. However, with Jonathan Martinez shocking the Rio crowd, I believe California-style street tacos will be in order. And, yes, this is a stacked card that is under the radar, just like the best taco trucks.

Fight Kuhl’s Pick Petela’s Pick
Main Card (ESPN+ pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)
FlyW Championship: Alexandre Pantoja vs. Steve Erceg Pantoja Pantoja
BW: Jonathan Martinez vs. Jose Aldo Martinez Martinez
LHW: Anthony Smith vs. Vitor Petrino Petrino Petrino
MW: Michel Pereira vs. Ihor Potieria Pereira Potieria
MW: Paul Craig vs. Caio Borralho Borralho Craig
Preliminary Card (ESPN+/ESPN2, 8 p.m. ET)
FW: Joanderson Brito vs. Jack Shore Brito Shore
Women’s StrawW: Karolina Kowalkiewicz vs. Iasmin Lucindo Lucindo Kowalkiewicz
LW: Elves Brener vs. Myktybek Orolbai Orolbai Orolbai
Early Prelims (ESPN+/UFC Fight Pass, 6 p.m. ET)
LW: Joaquim Silva vs. Drakkar Klose Klose Klose
LW: Mauricio Ruffy vs. Jamie Mullarkey Ruffy Mullarkey
Women’s FlyW: Dione Barbosa vs. Ernesta Kareckaite Kareckaite Barbosa
LW: Ismael Bonfim vs. Vinc Pachel Bonfim Bonfim
FlyW: Alessandro Costa vs. Kevin Borjas Costa Borjas