UFC 296 Preview

The UFC is ending its 2023 schedule in style with a stacked final fight card of the year taking place Saturday at T-Mobile Arena.

UFC 296 is headlined by a welterweight title fight between undisputed champion Leon Edwards and polarizing challenger Colby Covington, and features a riveting men’s flyweight title bout in the co-main event.

The card, unfortunately, lost two notable 170-pound matchups within the past couple days. An anticipated tilt between top-10 welterweight contenders Ian Machado Garry and Vicente Luque was removed from the main card due to Garry coming down with pneumonia and a preliminary matchup between Randy Brown and Muslim Salikhov was cancelled after Brown also fell ill.

Featherweights Josh Emmett and Bryce Mitchell were bumped up from the preliminary card and will now kick off the pay-per-view main card.

Here’s a closer look at the four featured matchups and their corresponding betting odds.

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Edwards to win -160 | Covington to win +130 | Draw +6500
Edwards by decision +160 | Covington by decision +250
Edwards by KO/TKO/DQ +375 | Covington by KO/TKO/DQ +700
Edwards by submission +1000 | Covington by submission +1100
Over 4.5 rounds -200 | Under 4.5 rounds +150
Fight to go the distance: Yes -180 | No +135

Covington has tended to toe the line between effective marketing tactics and conducting himself without basic human decency when promoting his fights. Unfortunately, he crossed that line at Thursday’s press conference with a nasty remark about Edwards’ late father.

The typically reserved Edwards threw a water bottle towards Covington and had to be restrained by security. Will that interaction affect Edwards’ temperament on fight night? Do Covington’s pre-fight tactics give the challenger an early advantage by getting under his opponent’s skin?

Edwards is looking to make Covington the first fighter in UFC welterweight history to go 0-3 in undisputed title fights. Covington, a former interim titleholder, went 0-2 against former champion Kamaru Usman, while Edwards went 2-0 against Usman when they met in title fights. In this instance, MMA math would suggest Edwards should have his way with Covington based on how each did against Usman, yet experienced fans know styles ultimately make fights and there’s a reason Covington isn’t a bigger underdog, according to oddsmakers.

In fact, Covington opened as the betting favourite when this matchup was initially announced. Edwards cashed in as an underdog both times against Usman and is as motivated as ever to not only win convincingly but also to knock out his opponent.

Covington can win this fight if he wears on Edwards and forces him to fight off his back foot and constantly defend with his back against the fence. Covington is not as smooth or refined as Edwards when striking but he weaponizes pace and aggression to put his unlimited gas tank to good use.

Both fighters have average fight times of over 16 minutes and this fight is projected to go the distance. This should be a high-level chess match.

Pantoja to win -188 | Royval to win +162 | Draw +6500
Pantoja by decision +650 | Royval by decision +750
Pantoja by KO/TKO/DQ +400 | Royval by KO/TKO/DQ +350
Pantoja by submission +140 | Royval by submission +750
Over 2.5 rounds +100 | Under 2.5 rounds -140
Fight to go the distance: Yes +330 | No -500

Suffice it to say, this 125-pound title fight is not getting enough attention for the incredible matchup it is. This Fight of the Night contender is a rematch of a 2021 Pantoja submission win but is clearly being overshadowed by the rest of this stacked card. The Brazilian champ has an excellent jiu-jitsu base and is a master of taking his opponent’s back. That was ultimately Royval’s downfall in their first meeting.

Pantoja won the title in July in a blood-and-guts war against Brandon Moreno, so we’ll see if the current champ is the same fighter after absorbing 133 significant head strikes in that five-round split decision win. The co-headliner isn’t expected to get out of the second round just like their first fight.

Royval, despite his previous loss to the champ, is a live dog here. He has looked terrific in his recent outings. If he’s too aggressive he’ll get his back taken again and it could be a short night, however don’t be surprised if we see a more disciplined Royval and this title changes hands for a third time this year.

Rakhmonov to win -600 | Thompson to win +450 | Draw +8000
Rakhmonov by decision +350 | Thompson by decision +750
Rakhmonov by KO/TKO/DQ +225 | Thompson by KO/TKO/DQ +1400
Rakhmonov by submission +120 | Thompson by submission +2800
Over 1.5 rounds -130 | Under 1.5 rounds -110
Fight to go the distance: Yes +230 | No -330

Describing “Wonderboy” as not your average 40-year-old is putting it lightly. The elite karate-style striker is turning 41 in February yet is welcoming with a smile on his face a fight with the division’s current boogeyman. Rakhmonov is 17-0 with 17 finishes and closing in on a title shot. The veteran is hoping to play spoiler. Outside of his knockout loss to Anthony Pettis, Thompson hasn’t taken too much damage in his UFC career and showed in his win over Kevin Holland last December he can still out-strike anyone in the division. Talented wrestlers and grapplers with heavy top games have always given Thompson his toughest fights, and Rakhmonov leaning on his wrestling and submissions might be his best path to victory.

Rakhmonov has been hit clean in several of his UFC wins, including in March against Geoff Neal, so he must be mindful to not leave his chin exposed and rely too heavily on his proven durability versus a pinpoint accurate striker like Thompson.

Ferguson to win +250 | Pimblett to win -334 | Draw +6500
Ferguson by decision +600 | Pimblett by decision +200
Ferguson by KO/TKO/DQ +800 | Pimblett by KO/TKO/DQ +300
Ferguson by submission +1400 | Pimblett by submission +250
Over 2.5 rounds -115 | Under 2.5 rounds -125
Fight to go the distance: Yes +120 | No -160

Pimblett, like Pantoja, has a knack for taking the back of his opponents and he’s expected to get the job done against a veteran like Ferguson, a former interim lightweight champion who has lost six consecutive fights dating back to 2019. Pimblett is 4-0 in the UFC although his decision win over Jared Gordon last December is considered controversial with many feeling Gordon should’ve earned the nod that night.

Ferguson’s clear advantages are his high levels of experience and quality of competition. Ferguson, 39, has consistently faced the best 155-pounders the sport had to offer but that wear-and-tear has also contributed to him looking like a shadow of his former self in recent appearances.

All 24 fighters scheduled to compete in Nevada successfully made weight on Friday. Here is the full UFC 296 lineup:

— Leon Edwards vs. Colby Covington (for welterweight title)
— Alexandre Pantoja vs. Brandon Royval (for men’s flyweight title)
— Shavkat Rakhmonov vs. Stephen Thompson
— Tony Ferguson vs. Paddy Pimblett
— Josh Emmett vs. Bryce Mitchell

— Alonzo Menifield vs. Dustin Jacoby
— Irene Aldana vs. Karol Rosa
— Cody Garbrandt vs. Brian Kelleher
— Casey O’Neill vs. Ariane Lipski
— Tagir Ulanbekov vs. Cody Durden
— Andre Fili vs. Lucas Almeida
— Martin Buday vs. Shamil Gaziev

(Betting odds above via Bet365 as of Friday afternoon and subject to change)

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