The most impactful storyline at UFC 296 will shine a spotlight on what’s right in front of our eyes, sparkling with the promise of ascendance. Behold those golden championship belts — two of them! — that will be up for grabs on Saturday at T-Mobile Arena, as luminous as the neon lights outside on the Las Vegas Strip.
Leon Edwards will defend his welterweight championship against two-time title challenger Colby Covington in the main event, right after Alexandre Pantoja puts his flyweight belt on the line against a familiar foe, Brandon Royval, whom he submitted barely two years ago (ESPN+ PPV, 10 p.m. ET, prelims on ESPN2/ESPN+ at 8 p.m.).
Never say never in MMA, but this shapes up as a last-chance expedition to reach the sport’s peak for both challengers. For the champs, Edwards will make his second defense and Pantoja his first; this is just the way of life at the top of the mountain. Line them up, one hungry climber after the next, and if the champion has staying power, he’ll send ’em all tumbling down.
There are storylines up and down this fight card — from redemption to resilience to refocusing. Here’s what will catch our eye on Saturday:
The enemy of my enemy is my opponent?
Welterweight championship: Leon Edwards vs. Colby Covington
This will be Covington’s first trip inside the Octagon in 21 months. And get a load of this: It will be just his fifth fight since 2019 — but his third try for the title in that time. “Chaos” Covington is 2-2 in his past four bouts, but here we go again. The UFC appears to really want this guy to get his hands on a belt. Could that be because his most notable cheerleader is a certain former U.S. president who’s popular with a significant segment of the MMA fan base? That’s a storyline to watch this weekend, especially with said ex-president expected to be at cageside.
But I’m electing to focus on the Covington persona from a different angle: What happens to a heel turn when it has to reverse itself?
Three of Covington’s past four fights have been against bitter enemies — the two title-fight losses to Kamaru Usman and, most recently, a victory over former BFF Jorge Masvidal. The animosity surrounding those grudge matches has been absent from the leadup to Edwards vs. Covington fight week. Moreover, these two have inadvertently found themselves on the same side of the battle lines.
Edwards feuded with Masvidal before Covington ever did, most famously as the recipient of a “three-piece with a soda” sucker punch during a backstage confrontation in 2019. Covington might even relate to Edwards’ experience after he was himself the target of a Masvidal sneak attack last year outside a Miami Beach restaurant.
And then Edwards twice did what Covington could not in his two tries — defeat Usman. Considering all of the heat generated during Covington’s rivalry with Usman, he surely had to take pleasure in seeing the former champ get knocked down a couple of pegs. Which put him in the peculiar position of being happy to see Edwards win.
Can Covington now drum up the animus that seems to fuel him? Or will he set aside the mind games and rely on his domineering physicality to reach his elusive goal?
How’d you get back here already?
Men’s flyweight championship: Alexandre Pantoja vs. Brandon Royval
These two fought just a little over two years ago, and Pantoja choked out Royval early in Round 2. Why are they at it again?
One key matchmaking factor that’s different: Pantoja is the champion now after dethroning Brandon Moreno in July, so his job is to take on the top 125-pound contender. That’s Royval, who bounced back from the 2021 defeat to score three straight wins, the last two of them first-round finishes of fighters in the ESPN flyweight top 10.
The first meeting with Pantoja didn’t end well for Royval, but it was fast-paced and fiery for as long as it lasted — can’t complain about getting more of that.
What does this guy have against cageside judges?
Rakhmonov has fought 17 times and has won every one of those bouts — all 17 by either knockout (eight) or submission (nine). Even an MMA judge can see why they’ll likely be unnecessary for this fight.
“Wonderboy” should provide a stiff test, though, even at age 40 and amid a barren stretch of just four wins in his past 10 fights. Thompson may no longer be the same puzzling karate whiz who challenged for the UFC title two times, but among the 24 bouts on his résumé, he has been finished just once.
Is there no end to this dark road?
When Ferguson knocked out Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone in June 2019, it was his 12th straight victory and set up a title shot against Khabib Nurmagomedov. But “El Cucuy” had heard that song before — matchups with Khabib had fallen apart four times previously — and sure enough, pandemic-related travel restrictions scuttled yet another showdown of two of the hottest fighters on the roster.
Since then, Ferguson hasn’t even been lukewarm. He has lost all six fights, with four losses coming by finish. Ferguson, 39, has looked like a ghost of the mystifying force he once was. Is the UFC using him as fodder to build up the lightning rod from Liverpool, “Paddy The Baddy”? Or will Ferguson’s unconventional recent training with former Navy SEAL David Goggins change his trajectory?
When the cage door closes, it’s just one-on-one
The first thing Garry will notice is a familiar face across the Octagon. He and Luque trained together until recently at Kill Cliff FC in South Florida. Another thing Garry will notice once the cage door locks shut: It will be just Luque and him in there. OK, there’ll be a referee, too, but he’s trained to not take sides. And right now, it seems that the rest of the MMA world is taking sides against Garry.
Let’s not dwell on the melodrama. Suffice to say it involves Garry’s personal life, a couple of gyms where he no longer trains and multiple fighters with low opinions of him. However, there’s one aspect of Garry’s life that no one disparages: his fighting ability. Will he continue his unbeaten run by tuning out the negative attention? Or will the distractions trip him up?
Styles remake fights
Kudos to Emmett for taking this short-notice bout. He had spent a full training camp preparing for Giga Chikadze, a creative, tricky striker. After Chikadze injured his groin and had to withdraw, Emmett accepted a booking that couldn’t be more different. Mitchell is a virtuoso grappler who’ll present a completely different challenge.
I suppose you don’t turn down fights when you’ve dropped two in a row to fall in the 145-pound hierarchy, as Emmett has. His power punching could get him back on track, if only Emmett can keep his back off a canvas that Mitchell would contend is as flat as the earth.
Will the engine rev up this time or stall again?
The story of the UFC 289 main event back in June was that Amanda Nunes, the greatest in the history of women’s MMA, was retiring as a two-division champ. That the GOAT was the focus of attention was a good thing for Aldana, the woman Nunes beat in her farewell fight.
If not for the retirement, fans and pundits might have dwelled more upon the disappearing act of Aldana. She barely put up a fight in losing 50-44 on two scorecards and 50-43 on the third. Sure, Nunes is an all-time great, but Aldana just froze in there, landing single digits in strikes in three of the five rounds. Can she turn it back on against Rosa?
Are these the real championship rounds?
As fight fans know, the championship rounds are Rounds 4 and 5 of a title bout, the extra 10 minutes that test the mettle of an athlete vying to be the best in the sport. But does anything test one’s devotion to MMA more than what Garbrandt is going through at this point in his career?
He was 11-0 and UFC men’s bantamweight champ when he lost a grudge match to former teammate TJ Dillashaw back in 2017. Garbrandt also lost a rematch nine months later — and has continued to lose nearly every fight since. He is 2-5 since capturing the belt in 2016, with all but one of the losses coming by brutal knockout. Yet he keeps going. Where does Garbrandt go from there if he falls to the similarly unranked Kelleher?
Now that you’re all grown up …
As recently as two years ago, O’Neill was a prospect on the rise, undefeated and slotted in the top three in ESPN’s 2021 ranking of the best 25 fighters under age 25. Then things unraveled. She was heavily favored against Roxanne Modafferi in February 2022 but had to eke out a split-decision win. Then O’Neill tore an ACL and was out for over a year. Her return fight this past March was in London, the Scottish native’s first appearance in the United Kingdom. O’Neill lost that bout to Jennifer Maia. In October, she was scheduled to fight in the other locale where her family had set down roots, Australia, but another injury scuttled those plans.
Finally, on Saturday, O’Neill has her opportunity for a bounce-back. Can her volume punching — O’Neill’s 8.77 strikes landed per minute are the most of any fighter in UFC history — reinvigorate a promising career?