UFC 296

UFC 296: Main Card Predictions

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This Sunday comes the final UFC event of 2023 and the leader in MMA is closing things out with an absurdly stacked fight card from top to bottom. A card packed with exciting fights, drama, likely last-chance title fights, and many fights that we feel will overdeliver well beyond expectations.

From the early prelims to the main card, UFC 296 is loaded with stars of tomorrow, but also some gatekeepers of the past. Headlined by Leon Edwards defending his welterweight championship against the returning Colby Covington alongside Alexandre Pantoja defending the men’s flyweight championship in a rematch against Brandon Royval. Elsewhere we have Stephen Thompson facing the savage that is Shavkat Rakhmonov, and Tony Ferguson aiming to end his 6-fight losing streak against the rising Paddy Pimblett.

We couldn’t ask for a better card to close out the year, and it all goes down this Saturday night.

UFC Welterweight Championship

(C) Leon Edwards vs. #3 Colby Covington

Anik: This fight will require both fighters to dig deep and win ugly. Neither fighter is known for their power and needs to stick to their game plans to secure a victory. Edwards will be looking to pick apart Covington from the outside and invest in body shots to slow his relentless cardio. Additionally, Covington is expected to constantly shoot for takedowns. He won’t be able to secure rounds unless he amasses a decent amount of control time.

This fight could go either way, but because of how sharp Edwards looked in his trilogy with Kamaru Usman, I am picking him to outstrike Covington and defend a majority of his takedown attempts. My only hope is that the winner comes out unscathed so Belal Muhammad can have his well deserved title shot before Ramadan.

Prediction: Leon Edwards via Unanimous Decision

Mishal: In my opinion, this is the hardest fight of the year to call. As unwarranted as this fight does feel based on Covington’s inactivity, my excitement remains. Facing a relentless pressure-style wrestler who never takes his foot off the gas, with endless attacks from all angles, sounds like a problem for the reigning champion. Edwards, however, has only ever looked out of the fight one time in his UFC career, and was a fight he ended up rebounding in to secure his championship.

Covington isn’t known for his finishing ability unlike the champion on a few occasions, and will be looking to pressure and break Edwards over 25 minutes. Edwards on the other hand, has made his intention clear of finishing Covington convincingly, something I can see happening once he figures out the flow of the fight. If he wants to win this, all bets should be on him getting the highlight reel knockout against another American wrestler. Covington, however, is a different animal from what came before.

Colby’s wrestling-heavy style can create a world of problems for the low-output champion, at the same time creating openings I can see that result in him getting caught. I do fear if Leon aims to outpoint Covington though, things won’t swing in his favor due to the challenger’s distinct advantage in that area. This is a main event that can swing either way.

Prediction: Leon Edwards via 4th Round KO/TKO

Evan: I’m actually on the opposite end of the spectrum with this fight than my colleagues; I sort of hate it. It’s the least intriguing matchup on the main card by far in my eyes. Colby Covington getting rewarded a championship opportunity for beating a nearly 40-year-old, now retired, Jorge Masvidal back at UFC 272—a win that took place 21 months ago, might I remind you, is a pathetic display of promotion favoritism. Let’s keep it real too, this should be Belal Muhammad’s title shot.

Outside of getting Edwards emotionally riled up, relentlessly spamming takedown attempts, and weaponizing pace to the maximum degree, I don’t see where Covington wins this fight. Leon also just dealt with a more refined, well-rounded, adversary in former UFC champion, Kamaru Usman. Not once, but twice. If he struggled to get Edwards down consistently, I don’t see how Covington does. I like the defending champ to thoroughly outclass the challenger behind stifling kicks, combinations, and stellar defensive wrestling.

Prediction: Leon Edwards via Unanimous Decision

UFC Featherweight Championship

(C) Alexandre Pantoja vs. #2 Brandon Royval

Anik: Who does not like Brandon Royval? He certainly earned his title shot by showing more discipline while still being the most entertaining flyweight on the roster. Across the octagon is the American Top Team product and the champion, Alexandre Pantoja.

Pantoja is coming off a war with Brandon Moreno and is 33, which is on the older side for flyweights. He is the more well-rounded fighter, but his cardio will be tested against his unpredictable opponent. Royval can win the striking battle using his superior speed, and his lanky stature to wiggle his way out of the grappling exchanges. This fight is another pick ‘em for me, but I am trusting Royval to catch Pantoja with a knee when the Brazilian shoots for a takedown. The belt could be coming to the Factory X gym.

Prediction: Brandon Royval by 3rd Round KO/TKO

Mishal: Coming off my Fight of the Year against Brandon Moreno, Alexandre Pantoja is riding a ridiculous wave of momentum. The man’s fighting style is wild, always seeking a finish, and commits to everything he throws in the octagon. His opponent this time around, is Brandon Royval, an opponent who himself is riding a 3-fight win streak, with his last loss being to the current champion back in 2021.

Royval is a tough opponent, but one that I can’t imagine will give Pantoja the same issues a warrior like Moreno gave him previously. Pantoja’s well-roundedness, combined with 5-round experience make him a difficult stylistic match for Royval who can only hope to stop the champion by finishing him. Something we have seen is a tall task for even the division’s hardest hitters like Deivison Figueredo. Look for Pantoja to extend his lead to 2-0 in this series, and secure a finish somewhere after the 2nd in what could end up being an absolute barn burner.

Prediction: Alexandre Pantoja via 3rd or 4th Round KO/TKO

Evan: If you haven’t noticed by now, UFC flyweight title fights tend to deliver. This rematch between Alexandre Pantoja and Brandon Royval should be no exception to that notion. I expect the two to create much of the same chaos that their first meeting in August 2021 produced. Royval is a fighter it feels like constantly gets overlooked, even though he’s one of the most dangerous finishers in the division. The Denver, Colorado native has learned to balance between being opportunistic, instead of reckless, during his current three-fight winning streak. Something which has doomed him in prior fights. He’s evolved from an exciting brawler to become more of an agent of chaos.

There’s no question that the Brazilian champion is as game as they come. Pantoja’s physicality, superior wrestling skills, and punching power will once again be a stiff challenge for the scrappy Royval to deal with. But in a fight that I’m assuming is going to be a high-paced affair that features frenetic scrambles and exchanges, I favor Royval. His ability to never allow Pantoja to breathe if you will, whether they’re striking or grappling, will be the difference in my opinion this time around. Give me the scrappy underdog from the Mile High City to pull off the slight upset.

Prediction: Brandon Royval via 4th Round TKO or Submission

Welterweight Bout: #5 Shavkat Rakhmonov vs. #6 Stephen Thompson

Anik: Shavkat Rakhmonov is facing his biggest test yet: His patience. Stephen Thompson has been described as one of the most frustrating fighters to face, due to his spectacular distance management. 

I believe Rakhmonov will struggle on the feet early, and then pivot to using takedowns to tire Wonderboy out. Thompson is also 40, and starting to take more shots, like he did against Kevin Holland last year. He will take more risks in the 3rd round if he’s down on the scorecards. During that, Rakhmonov can take advantage of the wear and tear on Wonderboy, and catch him with a late knockout.

Prediction: Shavkat Rakhmonov via 3rd Round KO/TKO

Mishal: Maybe I’m alone, but this isn’t nearly as one-sided as most people are making out to be, depending on how this plays out. Shavkat is arguably the most exciting welterweight the UFC has, with a 100% finishing rate and someone who walks into the octagon seeking nothing but violence. Stephen Thompson, however, is probably going to force him to fight differently this time around.

The more Shavkat chooses to stand with “Wonderboy”, the more I like the underdog’s chances. That being said, any form of victory for Thompson will see him go through a lot of chaos to secure it. As reckless and wild as Rakmonov has shown to be, his style is a nightmare match-up for the veteran. Great taekwondo, solid ground game, vicious clinch, and wrestling don’t sound like the most optimistic outlook for Thompson based on recent performances. It will be more competitive as long it remains standing, the question is can it remain there? Even if it manages to, the danger Rakhmonov poses is no joke as he just has one too many tools at his disposal.

Prediction: Shavkat Rakmonov via 3rd Round Submission

Evan: Stephen Thompson deserves a ton of respect for accepting this fight against Rakhmonov, a fighter who is amongst the most avoided in all of MMA. The 40-year-old fan favorite continues to remain a fixture at 170, going 3-2 in his last five, defeating the likes of Kevin Holland, Geoff Neal, and Vicente Luque. I’m not disillusioned as to how difficult of a problem this will be for Wonderboy to solve though, but I also believe he presents some interesting stylistic issues for Rakhmonov to deal with himself.

The undefeated star has steamrolled his competition up until this point, finishing all 17 of his opponents. However, in his last bout against Neal at UFC 285, Shavkat showed glaring holes with his striking defense. He willingly came forward on a straight line, never moved his head, and constantly got tagged by counterpunches from Neal. There’s no question Thompson’s footwork, accuracy, and elusiveness could give Rakhmonov issues if he fights with that sloppiness. But I’ll take him here, he just feels like an inevitable title challenger right now. I expect Rakhmonov to close the distance on Thompson, predominantly bullying him against the cage. Once in the clinch, Shavkat should punish the welterweight veteran with powerful elbows and knees, while he works for takedown opportunities. I think he then mauls Wonderboy on the mat behind his routinely vicious ground and pound, setting up another stoppage victory.

Prediction: Shavkat Rakhmonov via 3rd Round KO/TKO

Lightweight Bout: Tony Ferguson vs. Paddy Pimblett

Anik: While most believe this is an unfair matchup for Tony Ferguson, I disagree. I believe this fight will answer a lot of questions for MMA fans.

During his 6 fight-losing streak, Ferguson has dropped Bobby Green, Michael Chandler, and Justin Gaethje. He has shown flashes of brilliance and just needs to put it together. Across the octagon is Paddy Pimblett, who is 4-0 in the UFC. However, he is coming off a lackluster performance and injury in a controversial win over Jared Gordon. The critics have been after the Liverpoolian since then, and he finally has his opportunity for redemption.

Despite Ferguson being 39, he holds experience against the best. It is a massive test for Pimblett to fight someone who has the legacy and grit as El Cucuy. While Pimblett looked horrendous in his last fight, I do believe his newfound discipline in the kitchen and rehabbed ankle will help bring out the best in him. I am picking Paddy The Baddy via domination.

Prediction: Paddy Pimblett via 1st Round Submission

Mishal: I’m on the verge of tears writing this one. Tony Ferguson is one of the fighters who got me into loving MMA through his fights with RDA, Barboza, Kevin Lee, Vanatta, and Pettis, but has fallen on hard times since 2020. Ferguson has just never been the same fighter since his brutal beating at the hands of Justin Gaethje. He’s looked older, slower, and less confident in each performance, namely, his last 3 resulting in brutal consecutive finishes.

Paddy Pimblett can be a cash cow depending on how far he goes in the division, and while Tony does have the style to pick apart someone like Paddy, this was before his decline. Pimblett is younger, hungrier, faster, and can find his openings against Tony Ferguson who seems hesitant to pull the trigger when needed the most. Stylistically, this is a fight Ferguson can win, but based on his recent performances is going to struggle to do what needs to be done. My heart wants me to be wrong, I just sadly think we’re in for another heartbreaking night for Tony Ferguson.

Prediction: Paddy Pimblett via 2nd Round Submission

Evan: My heart is 100% with Tony Ferguson in this one. He’s long been one of my favorite fighters to watch and I, like many, will be vehemently rooting for him to pull off the upset here. The damage he’s absorbed throughout his career at this point though, would be insurmountable for any fighter to overcome. From the catastrophic knee injuries he’s suffered outside of the cage to the bludgeonings he suffered in defeats against Justin Gaethje, Charles Oliveira, Michael Chandler, Beneil Dariush, and Bobby Green the last few years; Ferguson is now a ghost of the man who was once the boogeyman of the lightweight division.

Making matters worse, he’s enlisted the services of glorified tough guy, David Goggins to help him with this training camp. Several videos have been posted to social media showing Tony looking rundown and even profusely vomiting while training with Goggins. It’s a sad sight to behold, especially seeing as nobody has ever had doubts about Ferguson’s toughness or cardio. Watching him try to recapture something he never lost through unnecessarily torturing himself, for Goggins to exploit no less, is disturbing to view from afar. In terms of Paddy Pimblett, I don’t find much about his ability or personality to be all that intriguing or impressive. He’s the latest UFC hype show in my opinion, who possesses a fairly rudimentary skillset.

Still, as flawed of a fighter as I may find Pimblett to be, I can’t confidently pick against him in this matchup. I believe Ferguson will make this more competitive than some expect, potentially even cutting the Englishmen with his legendary elbows. However, I think the combination of being massively overtrained and an ageing fighter in arguably the sports toughest division, will lead to Tony’s seventh loss in a row.

Prediction: Paddy Pimblett via 3rd Round TKO or Submission

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