Pantoja turns back spirited Erceg, defends title

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Alexandre Pantoja turned back a formidable challenge from Steve Erceg to earn a unanimous decision and retain the UFC flyweight championship in the main event of UFC 301 on Saturday night.

Fighting in front of his fellow countrymen at the Farmasi Arena in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the champion dealt with a surprisingly sturdy opponent in Erceg who challenged him at every turn of their 25-minute battle. It would be Pantoja’s experience, grappling and nine takedowns that would turn back the challenge of a fighter many thought was undeserving of a title opportunity

But Erceg, from Perth, Australia, gave Pantoja all he could handle.

“I’m in here to fight the best in the world and this guy is one of them,” Pantoja said. “What a tough fighter and what a tough division.”

It was a fight that ended up being decided in the final round as two of the three judges had it even after four rounds of action. However, Erceg’s ill-advised takedown attempt in the fifth round gave the Brazilian the opening to secure a takedown and take control down the stretch.

Pantoja might have underestimated Erceg, who entered the fight as the UFC’s No. 10-ranked fighter. He recklessly charged in with punches in an attempt to overwhelm Erceg in the opening round. But Erceg remained poised and never looked like the moment was too big for him. The second round saw a slight shift in momentum as Erceg began to pick off Pantoja’s advances while utilizing a short elbow to prevent the champion from getting a distinct advantage over him.

Pantoja routinely threatened Erceg’s back in the middle rounds, but Erceg remained calm and fought off “The Cannibal.” The fourth was yet another round where Erceg found success with his striking and won the exchanges on the feet.

With the fight hanging in the balance, both corners felt confident that their fighter had the edge. With blood streaming down his face from a cut in the hairline from an elbow, the champion continued to charge in recklessly and get countered. But Pantoja took advantage of an overeager Erceg and slid to his opponent’s back.

Pantoja wouldn’t be able to settle into his comfort zone as Erceg escaped and slipped in a short elbow. But Pantoja remained undeterred and was pleasantly surprised when Erceg’s inexperience came into play with a takedown attempt that was reversed with 90 seconds left. Pantoja maintained control as a panicked Erceg tried to explode to his feet before ultimately taming “Astro Boy” until the final bell.

Erceg’s title opportunity might have come because he was in the right place at the right time and was available when everyone else ranked above him was either dealing with an injury or unavailable. But his performance will certainly move him up the rankings, and it might not be the last time we see Erceg challenging for championship gold.

Pantoja extended his winning streak to six and appears to have rounded into his final form by knocking off another contender in the division. With scores of 48-47, 48-47 and 49-46, Pantoja secured his second title defense and will wait to see which flyweight emerges as next in line for a title opportunity.

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