UFC 296: Block Six Picks Preview
The UFC is gearing up for an explosive conclusion to the year, featuring a loaded UFC 296 card headlined by the welterweight championship bout between Leon Edwards and Colby Covington at T-Mobile Arena.
Edwards, whose early UFC career was characterised by challenges, underwent a transformative journey culminating in a stunning title win against Kamaru Usman. On the flip side, Covington, once heralded as a promising prospect, seeks redemption following a mixed trajectory post-title shot.
Edwards, known as "Rocky," navigated a path of resilience and adaptability, steadily climbing the welterweight ranks. Despite initial setbacks, including losses to Claudio Silva and Kamaru Usman, Edwards honed a well-rounded and conservative fighting style. His ascent remained somewhat under the radar, with fights often scheduled in Europe and not garnering significant attention. It wasn't until 2018, with a main event against Donald Cerrone, that Edwards began to secure the spotlight.
A subsequent co-main event win against Gunnar Nelson and a dominant performance against Rafael dos Anjos positioned Edwards as a legitimate title contender. However, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted his momentum, leaving him stranded in England for 18 months. Edwards returned with a promising bout against Belal Muhammad, which ended in a no-contest due to an eye poke. He then faced Nate Diaz in a high-profile matchup, dominating for most of the fight, only to be stunned in the closing moments. However, the story took a dramatic turn in a rematch against Usman, where Edwards secured a historic victory with a left kick to the head.
Now holding the welterweight title, Edwards faces the challenge of maintaining his elite status against Covington, whose path has seen a notable slowdown post-his first loss to Usman. Covington's victory over Tyron Woodley was followed by a lacklustre rematch with Usman and a dominant yet uninspiring win over Jorge Masvidal. While Covington remains a tenacious and durable competitor, questions linger about his peak form.
The matchup between Edwards and Covington presents an intriguing clash of styles. Edwards, displaying newfound confidence, is expected to encounter a resilient Covington, who may be on the athletic downswing. Despite Covington's potential challenges, Edwards is favoured to secure a victory, likely through a decision. As the welterweight division continues to evolve, this title bout promises to be a pivotal moment in the careers of both fighters.
The flyweight division in the UFC has consistently delivered thrilling title fights, and UFC 296's co-main event is serving up another explosive championship bout in the division.
Alexandre Pantoja has been a standout contender since joining the promotion in 2017. Despite setbacks in the past, he finally secured the title earlier this year with a hard-fought victory over Brandon Moreno. Pantoja's relentless aggression and entertaining style make him a formidable champion.
His first title defence comes in a rematch against Brandon Royval, who, despite lacking Pantoja's experience, has made a mark with his fast-paced and unpredictable fighting approach. Royval's journey to this title shot includes notable wins over Tim Elliott, Kai Kara-France, and quick finishes against Matt Schnell and Matheus Nicolau.
While Royval's unpredictability adds an element of excitement, Pantoja's grappling prowess and ability to control exchanges give him an edge. The explosive energy of both of these fighters underlines the potential for a quick and entertaining fight, but a look at the resumes from each side of the octagon would lean to Pantoja securing an early submission victory, showcasing his championship caliber in this rematch.
Further down the UFC 296 card, there looks to be a changing of the guard within the Welterweight contenders, with Stephen Thompson meeting what seems an inevitable future champion in Shavkat Rakhmonov.
Blockasset athlete, Rakhmonov's ascent in the welterweight division has been remarkable, decorated by dominant victories since his UFC debut. Despite occasional inactivity due to a lack of willing opponents, he convincingly passed the Neil Magny litmus test and secured a submission win against Geoff Neal.
Now facing Thompson, a seasoned fighter who, despite losing some of his prime edge, remains formidable, Rakhmonov presents a unique challenge. Thompson's recent struggles against wrestling-heavy game plans could be exploited by Rakhmonov's size advantage and grappling skills.
While Thompson may have speed on his side, Rakhmonov's ability to close distance and control the fight, coupled with his mat prowess, suggests a submission victory late on in the fight, in favour of the Kazakh fighter.
Meanwhile, there could be a similar narrative in the Lightweight ranks, when the formerly formidable Tony Ferguson meets rising star Paddy Pimblett in the octagon.
While the matchmaking for this may be viewed cynically (Ferguson is on a six-fight losing streak), it promises an intriguing contest.
Pimblett, whose reputation has grown due to his actions both inside and out of the octagon, has grown into a formidable lightweight since his UFC debut, showcasing aggressive striking and a relentless wrestling and grappling game.
Despite a controversial split decision win in his last fight, Pimblett remains a force after a year-long hiatus due to injury. Ferguson, on the other hand, is in the midst of a disheartening skid following his previous 12-fight win streak.
Pimblett comes into this match-up as the overwhelming favourite, but he hasn't met an opponent with the pedigree and heart of Ferguson yet in his fledgling UFC career. The prediction leans towards Pimblett securing a third-round submission victory, but the UK fighter won't have it all his own way.