UFC 301 takeaways: Pantoja not setting himself apart, Aldo is still king

UFC 301 was an action-packed affair, with the 13-fight card in Rio de Janeiro delivering an epic flyweight title bout between Alexandre Pantoja and Steve Erceg. Jose Aldo returned to the UFC after a two-year hiatus and reminded fight fans why he’s one of the best ever in MMA. Plus, rising stars such as Michel Pereira look poised to take on some fascinating fights after winning big on Saturday night.

Andreas Hale, Brett Okamoto and Jeff Wagenheim react to event’s the biggest moments.

Pantoja is still on top, but he’s not untouchable

Hale: Pantoja is the reigning and defending lord of the flyweights, but how much of a gap is there between him and the rest of the 125-pound division?

It’s tough to say.

On one hand, Pantoja has already knocked off seven of the flyweight division’s top contenders during his six-year tenure in the UFC. It’s not a particularly deep division, and it requires some new blood. On the other hand, Erceg presented a significant challenge to overcome and exploited some holes in Pantoja’s game that others might eventually take advantage of.

Pantoja is undeniably the best grappler in the division and is excellent at taming his opponents once they fall into his clutches. He also has an iron chin that has prevented the 34-year-old from being stopped at any point in his nearly 17-year MMA career. But his approach to the standup by rushing forward with a whirlwind of punches is bound to catch up to him at some point. Erceg routinely caught the Brazilian charging in with short elbows and followed them with hooks that scored points for the Aussie fighter.

Fortunately for Pantoja, few in the division possess the physical qualities that Erceg does. Erceg had a unique combination of height, reach and boxing ability to truly test Pantoja. If they fight again a year or two down the line, it wouldn’t be too farfetched to favor Erceg, considering that it was his inexperience that cost him.

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

But worrying about what may be waiting for him in the future isn’t Pantoja’s problem. He’s dealing with what is put in front of him — regardless of their ranking and tenure — and he’s done well thus far.

Who will be next is anyone’s guess. The undefeated Muhammad Mokaev may be the most deserving, but his style hasn’t been aesthetically pleasing enough for the UFC to catapult him into a title opportunity. Brandon Moreno is on a hiatus following his lengthy stay near the top of the division, and Amir Albazi is nursing a neck injury. It feels like everyone in the division needs to fight again to determine who is first in line to fight for the title, which would give Pantoja a bit of time as the division sorts itself out.

Right now, it’s the Pantoja era, and there is no clear threat to his throne. Not yet, at least.

The King of Rio gave the people what they wanted

Wagenheim: Nearly a decade ago, Aldo produced one of the most iconic UFC moments right there in Rio de Janeiro, reacting to a knockout over Chad Mendes with a run deep into the crowd, where he celebrated with his ecstatic countrymen. For that alone, he embodies the nickname of “The King of Rio.” But Aldo hadn’t fought there in five years and hadn’t won in the home of Ipanema Beach since the 2014 victory over Mendes.

Until Saturday.

Aldo walked to the cage wearing a crown, and while that drew an ovation from the crowd, what really pleased the masses was a vintage performance by the 37-year-old, who retired in September 2022 and last year was inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame. After a dominant performance against Jonathan Martinez, Aldo put the crown back on his head and told the adoring crowd that he is not finished as a fighter.

Aldo is fighting at bantamweight now, not the featherweight division he twice ruled as champion. On this night, he looked like he could hang with top-10 135-pounders on a given night. Is another title run in his future? The fans in Rio no doubt would love that. But this performance was enough to send the crowd home feeling like they’d witnessed a homegrown all-time great do what he does best. What more could they hope for?

What’s next for top stars after UFC 301?

Okamoto: After a drama-filled 13-fight night in Rio, here’s what should be next in matchmaking for the big winners and stars from UFC 301.

Alexandre Pantoja, flyweight champion

Who Should be Next: Mohammad Mokaev

Mokaev is the front-runner for Pantoja’s next defense. Pantoja has already taken out many of the top names, some multiple times. Amir Albazi is out until at least fall with a neck injury. Manel Kape is a possibility, and I could see a world in which it goes to him, but he had the recent mishap of missing weight and is also coming back from injury. Mokaev has won every fight the UFC has put in front of him, and he’s been shouting loudly for the opportunity.

Wild card: Manel Kape

Because he’s a new name and has been a noticeably standout flyweight on his best nights. Kai Kara-France is also an intriguing name and matchup, but I think the UFC would favor the “new” name in Kape. It doesn’t help that Kara-France is coming off back-to-back losses, despite the fact he’s still ranked very high.

Jose Aldo, bantamweight

Who Should be Next: Sean O’Malley, maybe

It’s obvious: Aldo’s still got it. He’s still a problem at 135 pounds, even at 37 years old. And he’s still a very beloved figure. He doesn’t need to make a move any time soon. He’ll have the luxury of sitting back and seeing what offers come to him, and I can certainly see a world in which that offer ends up being a UFC title shot. O’Malley is smart and knows there’s money in a title defense against Aldo. Does the UFC make that fight if he beats Merab Dvalishvili later this year and calls for Aldo? I think so.

Wild card: Boxing

I hope not, but Aldo still has an interest in boxing and should pursue what he’s most passionate about. I still think he’s at a championship-level in MMA, so that’s where I’d like to see him, selfishly. But boxing is definitely an option.

Anthony Smith, light heavyweight

Who should be next: Nikita Krylov

What a win for Smith. He’s done well going into his opponent’s backyard before, and he did it again in Brazil: a first-round finish over an undefeated opponent who was heavily favored against him. That means his eyes are looking back up the rankings, For me, it settles on Krylov. Krylov is just about the only person ranked ahead of Smith right now that he hasn’t fought. There’s the champ, Alex Pereira, and former champ and sometimes training partner Jamahal Hill. Jan Blachowicz is an option as well. But to me, Krylov makes the most sense.

Wild card: Blachowicz

I’m not sure why I prefer Krylov over Blachowicz. We haven’t seen Krylov in a minute, but he’s on a three-fight win streak. Either option makes a ton of sense. Smith says he’s not thinking about the title as much as he used to, but this is still a final run at the title, whether he’s officially calling it that or not. A win over either Blachowicz or Krylov would move him in that direction.

Michel Pereira, middleweight

Who should be next: Roman Dolidze

Pereira did exactly what he was supposed to do against an opponent that was blatantly outmatched. He almost messed it up by backflipping into Ihor Potieria’s face while he was on the ground, but the commission didn’t hold it against him and he extended his win streak. Dolidze was supposed to fight Anthony Hernandez at UFC 302 in June, but Hernandez withdrew due to injury. If Pereira is willing to make a quick turnaround, let’s go. That is a fire matchup and a top-10 opponent for Pereira, which I believe he’s ready for.

Wild card: Jack Hermansson

Hermansson has fallen into the role, for now, of middleweight gatekeeper. He just did it against Joe Pyfer in a main event, and stopped Pyfer’s ascension in its tracks. This would be a ranked opponent for Pereira, and an opponent with some juice behind his name for Hermansson.

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