Alexandre Pantoja vs. Steve Erceg prediction, pick: Is an upset looming at UFC 301?

MMA Junkie analyst Dan Tom goes in depth to break down the biggest fights in the UFC. Today, he takes a closer look at the UFC 301 main event between flyweight champion Alexandre Pantoja and challenger Steve Erceg.

Alexandre Pantoja UFC 301 preview

Alexandre Pantoja

Staple info:

  • Height: 5’5″ Age: 34 Weight: 125 lbs. Reach: 67″

  • Record: (27-5 MMA, 11-3 UFC)

  • Last fight: Decision win over Brandon Royval (Dec. 16, 2023)

  • Camp: American Top Team (Florida)

  • Stance/striking style: Orthodox/muay Thai

  • Risk management: Fair

Supplemental info:
+ UFC flyweight champion
+ Regional MMA titles
+ Amateur muay Thai accolades
+ Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt
+ 8 KO victories
+ 10 submission wins
+ 10 first-round finishes
+ KO power
+ Aggressive pace and pressure
+ Counters well in combination
+ Hard leg kicks
+ Solid clinch fighter
^ Strikes well off the breaks
+ Underrated wrestling ability
+ Superb transitional grappler
^ Slick submissions, good ground-and-pound

Steve Erceg UFC 301 preview

Steve Erceg

Staple info:

  • Height: 5’8″ Age: 28 Weight: 125 lbs. Reach: 68″

  • Record: (12-1 MMA, 3-0 UFC)

  • Last fight: Knockout win over Matt Schnell (March 2, 2024)

  • Camp: Wilkes Martial Arts (Australia)

  • Stance/striking style: Orthodox/muay Thai

  • Risk management: Good

Supplemental info:
+ Regional MMA titles
+ Jiu-jitsu black belt
+ National wrestling gold medal (Aus.)
+ Muay Thai state title
+ 2 KO victories
+ 6 submission wins
+ 5 first-round finishes
+ Consistent pace and pressure
+ Gets better as the fight goes on
+ Educated lead hand
^ Jabs, hooks, timing change-ups
+ Well-rounded striking arsenal
+ Strong inside the clinch
^ Sneaky elbows off frames
+ Solid wrestling and scrambling ability
+ Good from front-headlock
^ Dangerous submission in transition

Alexandre Pantoja vs. Steve Erceg point of interest: Muay thai maelstrom

The main event in Rio features a flyweight title fight between two men who are familiar with the art of eight limbs.

A well-rounded martial artist who is clearly comfortable on the feet, Steve Erceg poses threats in multiple phases.

A large flyweight who isn’t afraid to fight to his frame, Erceg does a decent job of staying long with a solid jab and active kicking game. Whether Erceg is looking to punish opponents down low with leg kicks or craftily come up high with question mark kicks, the 28-year-old challenger demonstrates excellent control of his lower extremities.

When it comes to his boxing game, Erceg shows an educated left hand that can offer change-ups in both his shot selection and timing. Inside the clinch, Erceg offers the knees you’d expect from a fighter with his height and is also good about sneaking in elbows that he likes to fold over frames.

Erceg has some excellent cross-counters in his repertoire that I see serving him well in this matchup, but he’ll need to respect the heat that Alexandre Pantoja will be sending back his way.

As his nickname “The Cannibal” would suggest, Pantoja is an offensive marauder who isn’t afraid to shed blood in order to feed himself.

An inherent pressure fighter, Pantoja is typically at his best when coming forward and looking to corrall opposition toward the cage. Although Pantoja’s technique and defense can sometimes leave much to be desired, the Brazilian bruiser can flow through offensive phases like second nature and counters well in combination.

In fact, Pantoja has quietly developed his counter-striking savvy in his latter years, which, in turn, gives him both more breathing room and options to operate from on the feet.

Demonstrating excellent instincts in the clinch, Pantoja has a good feel for body knees and strikes off the break. Nevertheless, both fighters offer a plethora of threats in closed quarters, making grappling a real possibility on both sides.

Alexandre Pantoja vs. Steve Erceg breakdown: Protect your neck

Nov 11, 2023; New York, NY, USA; Steve Erceg (red gloves) fights Alessandro Costa (blue gloves) during UFC 295 at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Considering the potential for chaos on the feet, no one should be shocked if these two end up tangling on the floor.

Erceg, who – akin to Alexander Volkanovski – is also a national wrestling gold medalist in Australia, is not beyond switching gears and going for takedowns.

From double legs along the fence to reactive shots in the open, Erceg appears to be a well-versed wrestler from multiple spots. And when opponents attempt to shoot in on Erceg, the Australian standout shows a strong front-headlock that he’s able to parlay into positive positions and potential chokes.

Pantoja wields some underrated reactive doubles in his back pocket, but the Brazilian champion will need to respect the submission counters of Erceg. Luckily for Pantoja, he seems to prefer to work from bodylock positions – which are great for avoiding front-headlock scenarios.

Despite not officially working on his wrestling until teaming up with Henry Cejudo post-“TUF,” Pantoja has always been a dangerous threat from the bodylock.

Parlaying off of his previously mentioned clinch striking, Pantoja is quick to lock his hands around his opposition and shuck them off to a side whenever possible.

Displaying good cage awareness, Pantoja wastes little time when it comes to wedging himself in between the fence and the back of his opposition. And once Pantoja is able to get the slightest bite on a position, the Shooto Brazil vet will jump at the opportunity to shift the fight’s dynamic.

We’ve yet to see Erceg face the level of grappling and physicality that Pantoja brings to the table, but Alessandro Costa was able to find brief success when applying himself from said positions.

Erceg was able to successfully scramble and eventually beat the fighter in the example above, but I’ll be curious to see how the challenger’s scrambling stacks up with someone like Pantoja.

In victory or defeat, seldom will you see anyone get to Pantoja’s back for prolonged periods or put him in precarious submission threats. In fact, the 16-year pro has a knack for turning negative positions around through his superb legwork and scrambling ability.

Pantoja, who has incredible transitional instincts and chair sits, should have an edge when it comes to finding the back. And if Pantoja ends up on top, the American Top Team rep has some fantastic ground striking that’s not talked about enough.

Like a snake striking its prey on the nature channel, Pantoja possesses incredible accuracy and pop to the punches that slightly arc around his opponent’s guard.

Alexandre Pantoja vs. Steve Erceg odds

The oddsmakers and the public are favoring the sitting champion, listing Pantoja -200 and Erceg +154 via FanDuel.

Alexandre Pantoja vs. Steve Erceg prediction, pick

Dec 16, 2023; Las Vegas, Nevada, USA; Alexandre Pantoja (red gloves) is given the championship belt by UFC president Dana White after defeating Brandon Royval (not pictured) to win the UFC Flyweight title during UFC 296 at T-Mobile Arena. Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Even though I’m a big fan of Erceg and his style, I’m a bit surprised to see him drawing the same respect that Brandon Royval did in his last fight based on just three showing inside of the octagon.

Then again, there’s nothing that MMA gamblers love more than fading older fighters (as I suspect that many are trying to make back whatever they lost betting against the criminally underrated champion).

Still, I can’t really blame anyone for suspecting that the bottom could drop out on a fighter like Pantoja given all the miles that a career of going to war has potentially put on his body. And though I don’t expect the champ to come out and look completely shot this Saturday, I do worry what he looks like in the latter rounds of this fight.

Despite being the more proven product at the championship level, there’s no denying that Pantoja needs his pockets to recoup considering the inherent aggression that he brings to his fights.

Pantoja may have passed the test against a cardio machine like Royval last time out, but Erceg is arguably a more well-rounded threat given his wrestling and punching power. Erceg also appears to be a building fighter in nature, showing the ability to adjust on the fly and get better as the fight wears on.

That said, I still have a hard time picking against Pantoja in this spot.

Aside from the obvious experience edge on paper, I believe that the champion’s style presents problems that will be difficult for Erceg to deal with. Not only will Pantoja bring a level of physicality and skill that his counterpart has yet to see, but his clinch tactics and bodylock sensibilities (as pointed out in the previous section) should serve him well against Erceg.

I wouldn’t be shocked if Erceg attempted to smother his Brazilian foe like Dustin Ortiz and Askar Askarov did before him, but Pantoja has traditionally been difficult to do that to in these latter stages of his career.

And though I could see Erceg’s jab and counters having some serious play on the feet, it will likely only encourage Pantoja to kick out his counterpart’s supporting leg and counter even harder in combination (which was the champ’s answer for both Brandon Moreno and Royval in recent outings, even when he was tired).

Add in the fact that Erceg inherently leaves his head upright to be tagged by overhand rights and counters alike, and I can’t help but pick Pantoja to take the Australian challenger to task within the first two rounds. But if Pantoja fails to finish Erceg by the third frame, then I suspect that “Astro Boy” will be incredibly live in the latter portions of this fight.

The official pick is Pantoja by second-round submission.

Prediction: Pantoja inside the distance

Alexandre Pantoja vs. Steve Erceg start time, where to watch

Pantoja and Erceg are expected to make their walks to the octagon at approximately 12:30 a.m. ET (9:30 p.m. PT). The fight streams on ESPN+ pay-per-view.

For more on the card, visit MMA Junkie’s event hub for UFC 301.

Story originally appeared on MMA Junkie