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UFC 296: Five Things We Learned

Leon Edwards Colby Covington UFC 296
UFC 296 was a strong night of fights that taught a few lessons about champions, contenders, and rising prospects. (Photos by Per Haljestam, USA TODAY Sports)

UFC 296: Five Things We Learned

The final UFC event of 2023 is in the rearview mirror. UFC 296 was stacked with important fights which means we saw impactful outcomes. Let’s discuss the five biggest lessons we learned during UFC 296.

Leon Edwards expands on his Welterweight legacy:

At UFC 296, Leon Edwards picked up his second title defense with a dominant decision victory over Colby Covington.

Edwards did not finish Covington, but he executed a solid game plan. The fight was fought at his pace, he kept his back off the fence, landed leg kicks and did well in grappling exchanges. It was not a fight that will be rewatched for entertainment.

Nevertheless, Edwards still walked away with an easy victory.

This win quietly impacts Edwards’ legacy. Obviously, a title defense will always help a champion’s legacy. What is more impressive is that Edwards has wins over Kamaru Usman and Covington, two fighters who ran the welterweight division for multiple years.

In terms of legacy, it is very meaningful that Edwards was able to defeat the two bitter rivals that symbolize a generation of fighters, something that will be remembered regardless of how the remainder of his career transpires.

Additionally, Edwards will now begin to take on a new generation of fighters. That begins with Belal Muhammad and Shavkat Rakhmonov. The most impressive thing a champion can do is outlast several generations of fighters, which is one of the reasons Jon Jones is the GOAT. Edwards is on the verge of fighting a second generation of welterweights.

Edwards is in a great position. Let’s see if he capitalizes.

Colby Covington is hardly recognizable:

The UFC 296 was not as kind to Colby Covington. The former interim champion is now 0-3 in undisputed title fights and the 35-year-old did not perform well either.

This was a strange performance from Covington. The wrestler did not proactively grapple until the third round. Once he started grappling, his takedowns looked poor. That was a strange game plan for a fighter who needs to use his wrestling and cardio to win.

I would like to note that Covington would have given Edwards openings if he looked to wrestle. I am not suggesting a game plan shift would have ensured he won this fight. Instead, I’ll say it is strange Covington did not even take the risk. I do not believe Covington gave everything he had in the octagon, and ironically enough, it looked like Covington resigned himself to losing a decision. That was not something I expected heading into this fight.

To add insult to injury, UFC CEO Dana White said he felt Covington “looked old and slow.” I can not disagree with that statement.

Alexandre Pantoja has the potential to be a great champion:

Alexander Pantoja deserves some flowers for his decision victory over Brandon Royval. In my eyes, he showed attributes that lend to a long title reign.

One of the concerns that I’ve had about Pantoja is that he has the skills to beat everyone and he could lose to anyone. Pantoja is willing to engage in a brawl and has suspect cardio, which can get him hurt and tired. That is how upsets happen. In theory, Royval was the fighter that could draw out that brawl and take advantage if Pantoja gassed. That is not how the fight played out, however.

Pantoja didn’t fall for the Royval brawl. Instead, he exploited Royval’s biggest flaw–takedown defense–and earned a decision win. That is the sign of a fighter that can hold that belt for a long time.

As someone who has criticized Pantoja’s cardio, I would like to take a moment to compliment his ability to work around that flaw. In Pantoja’s last two fights, he has used control time to manage his gas tank while fighting through moments of tiredness. Rarely, a fighter with a cardio flaw can effectively work around those issues, so Pantoja deserves credit for that.

Shavkat Rakhmonov will fight for Gold soon:

Shavkat Rakhmonov is one of the best prospects in the UFC. At UFC 296, he proved that once again as he submitted Stephen Thompson.

Rakhmonov is on the path to gold. At the moment, he and Belal Muhammad are battling for a title shot. It is hard to be overly confident that either fighter is given the opportunity, but I’d favor Muhammad. Still, at worst, Rakhmonov needs one more win to fight for a title.

I cannot tell you how the UFC will approach booking Rakhmonov. I can tell you that he will find himself in a title fight soon. It sounds like it is time to stop calling Rakhmonov a prospect. That man is a contender now.

It is not time to count Josh Emmett out:

In the build-up to UFC 296, many people counted out Josh Emmett (I was a part of that group). In his most recent outing, Ilia Topuria beat him up badly. Come to find out, it was not time to doubt Emmett.

Emmett landed one of the most brutal knockouts in recent memory against Bryce Mitchell. In my opinion, it is the knockout of the year.

Emmett showed that he still has power in his hands. As long as that holds true, he can finish any fighter in the division.

This fight reestablishes Emmett in the featherweight division. I am not saying he will be a champion, but he will not be viewed as a stepping stone moving forward.

***

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