UFC 296 roundtable: Is Colby Covington about to be the undisputed king of the welterweights?

UFC 296 is set to cap off the year with a bang. Or two.

It’s been an eventful year for MMA’s No. 1 promotion, with Jon Jones returning, Sean O’Malley, Sean Strickland, and Alex Pereira (again) claiming a UFC title, and a flurry of fast-risers shaking up the rankings. If Colby Covington returns from a lengthy hiatus to dethrone Leon Edwards and finally become the undisputed welterweight king, that could cause the most jarring impact of all.

The last pay-per-view of 2023 also features Alexandre Pantoja’s first title defense in a rematch against Brandon Royval, plus longtime fan favorites Stephen Thompson, Tony Ferguson, and Vicente Luque staring down the next generation of contenders.

MMA Fighting’s Alexander K. Lee, Mike Heck, Steven Marrocco, and Damon Martin take a seat at the roundtable to break down a pay-per-view event that has serious ramifications for 2024.

1. Fill in the blank: A Colby Covington title win makes 2023 the _____ year in UFC history.

Marrocco: MMA gods’ most banner year. We’ve tantalized them over and over again with fights that seemed so certain on paper, only to be upended by their control over octagon chaos.

We’ve seen Dustin Poirier get caught by a head kick, Aljamain Sterling walk into Sean O’Malley’s power punch, Sean Strickland walk down Israel Adesanya, and Grasso win the flyweight title against Shevchenko, and then remain champ in the rematch. All of these were in the second half of 2023. It’s like the MMA gods were telling us, ‘Oh, you thought there would be stability at the top this year? Sorry, better luck next year.’

Here we have Covington, a guy who hasn’t fought in 18 months, getting a title shot for – checks notes – serving as a backup to Edwards vs. Kamaru Usman 3. MMA math says he shouldn’t win. Edwards had the number of Usman, his kryptonite. There’s no way he should be able to take out Edwards, right? And yet, it just seems like the perfect opportunity to throw a wrench in the welterweight division. Usman probably had less tread on the tire – read: bad knees – in that trilogy, and if Covington brings his usual hustle to the fight, keeping Edwards’ off-balance between takedowns and high-volume strikes, he presents a stylistic threat that could get the job done. More chaos to close out 2023.

Belal Muhammad should be fighting Edwards for the title. He has earned the opportunity with a superior resume. He should be next. But if Covington wins the welterweight belt, 2023 will have nothing on 2024 for chaos.

Lee: Is it fair to say, most depressing?

Look, I get it if you’re a fan of the crop of new champions we got this year, namely Strickland, O’Malley, and *gulp* quite possibly Covington, and there’s certainly reason to be. Strickland stayed on his grind to position himself as an unlikely challenger for Israel Adesanya and then handled “The Last Stylebender,” O’Malley could be the face of MMA for the next five years, and Covington… well, at this point I’m not sure why anyone is such a big supporter of this guy, but I know you’re out there.

What one can’t deny is that all three of these fighters are so polarizing, and not for reasons that in any way make watching the UFC more enjoyable. Strickland’s whole gimmick is that he’s willing to offend everyone and everyone, which is utterly boring. O’Malley has constantly been criticized for not having to fight the best fighters in his division, even as he continues to rack up Ws. And Covington is somehow waltzing into a title shot despite not fighting since March 2022 and not owning a win over a current UFC welterweight since Rafael dos Anjos five-and-a-half years ago.

You can only applaud this trio for making the most of their opportunities, but I don’t think there’s ever been a time where we’ve ever been more unsure that many of the UFC fighters at the top of their divisions are truly the best in the business. If Covington beats Leon Edwards, is anyone really going to be convinced that he’s the true king of the loaded welterweight division? If so, then maybe the state of MMA fandom is in worse shape than I thought.

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Colby Covington
Photo by David Becker/Getty Images

Martin: Most predictably unpredictable.

By all accounts, Covington shouldn’t even be getting a title shot against Edwards. He’s 2-2 in his last four fights. He hasn’t fought for nearly two years, and his last win over a fighter on the current UFC roster came back in 2018 when he beat dos Anjos.

Covington’s other three wins since then came against two guys who are now retired (Jorge Masvidal and Robbie Lawler) and a third that appears likely to be headed that way soon (Tyron Woodley). No, Covington isn’t getting his title shot based on merit but rather name value.

When Covington fights, people pay attention — some because they love his MAGA schtick and rehearsed catchphrases, and a lot of others just hoping he’ll get flatlined. But Covington actually claiming an undisputed UFC title in his third try after doing nothing to actually earn the opportunity would cap off a weird year for championship fights in the UFC.

Let’s not forget 2023 was also the year where the UFC couldn’t give away the light heavyweight title, and O’Malley became champion after he knocked out Aljamain Sterling with an eerily similar résumé as Covington, with his only win over a current UFC fighter coming against Petr Yan in a split decision. Then there’s Alexa Grasso and Sean Strickland pulling off two of the unlikeliest upsets in UFC history, with both taking titles off incumbent champions when neither was given much of a shot beforehand.

While Covington isn’t an astronomical underdog like those two, returning to action after such a long layoff and beating Edwards — who took out Covington’s own personal boogeyman in Kamaru Usman — would be a stunning way to end 2023. It’s almost like we should come to expect this kind of utter chaos (no pun intended).

And then in 2024, we’ll get to hear all about how Covington deems no one worthy to fight for his title, and he ends up luring Masvidal back from retirement for a rematch because why the f*** not?

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Brandon Royval
Photo by Matt Davies/PxImages/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

2. Is Brandon Royval the 2023 Fighter of the Year if he beats Alexandre Pantoja?

Lee: Oh. I see how it is. You want me to say it. You’re going to make me say it, aren’t you?




Questionable (and, fine, hilarious) nickname aside, few things would put a wider smile on my face than Brandon Royval ending the year with UFC gold around his waist. Maybe it’s because he competes in the perpetually under-promoted flyweight division, but Royval has consistently been one of the most entertaining fighters in the world since Day 1. He fights with reckless abandon, is always willing to finish, and he’s shown he belongs in there with the elite 125ers. He even showed out in the first Alexandre Pantoja fight until the future champion took his back and secured a choke.

Since that loss, he’s taken on tough flyweight matchups that others might avoid, submitting the always dangerous Matt Schnell (only the second fighter to do that) and needing a little more than two minutes to end the six-fight win streak of Matheus Nicolau. If he wins the big one on Saturday, I’m putting his Pantoja and Nicolau wins against anyone else’s 2023 résumé.

It’s his year.

Martin: Royval claiming the bantamweight title and avenging a past loss to Pantoja would be ultra-impressive but not enough to secure a Fighter of the Year award. Because Pantoja just won the belt earlier this year, he’s not a long-reigning champion so that lessens the impact around beating him in his first title defense.

Plus, Royval definitely had his moments in the first fight with Pantoja so him winning the rematch wouldn’t be all that surprising — at least not compared to what Sean Strickland pulled off in September.

At this point, Strickland seems far and away like the leading candidate to claim that Fighter of the Year award. He started 2023 coming off of two straight losses and he ends it as UFC middleweight champion. No one predicted that and if they tell you otherwise, they’re lying.

If not for Dricus Du Plessis suffering a foot injury while drubbing Robert Whittaker in his last outing, Strickland wouldn’t have even gotten the chance to fight Israel Adesanya for the title. He made the most of the opportunity by pouring on the punishment and beating Adesanya in a fairly one-sided fight.

Royval could go out and decapitate Pantoja in the first 10 seconds in their fight at UFC 296 and it still wouldn’t measure up to Strickland winning a UFC title just over one year after he got posterized by Alex Pereira.

Heck: Royval probably wouldn’t get the nod for a couple of reasons: One, Pantoja retaining after beating Brandon Moreno to capture the belt earlier this year gives him a better chance, and two—while unfair to some degree—much like this incredible fight in general, it would be too under the radar compared to a Strickland, or an Islam Makhachev, or even Pereira capturing a second title.

Royval, or Pantoja, would certainly get a nomination on my list with a victory on Saturday.

What Royval would secure is solidifying his spot on the “must-see TV” list for years to come. Heck, for my money, he’s already on that list, but a title win puts it over the top. The guy is a lightning rod, and adding 10 pounds of gold will make him shine even brighter.

If Pantoja wins, he has a better case for Fighter of the Year, but still won’t win it. In the end, a Pantoja wins locks him multiple year-end award nominations — including Fight of the Year with Moreno.

3. Why is Tony Ferguson vs. Paddy Pimblett happening?

Martin: Because MMA is a cruel sport that rarely affords anybody a gracious goodbye, and it feels like this might be the last time we see Tony Ferguson compete.

Part of perhaps the greatest “what if” in MMA history after numerous cancellations surrounding a Khabib Nurmagomedov fight, Ferguson has now dropped six in a row – he’s been finished in four of those and didn’t really come close to winning the other two – and it seems like a lifetime ago when he was considered one of the best lightweights in the sport.

That said, Ferguson is still a well-known commodity who likely commands a hefty paycheck, so there’s little chance the UFC was going to throw him on a random preliminary card against a newcomer from the Contender Series just to help him get a win.

Enter Paddy Pimblett — a rising star with a lot of hype, but is not nearly as polished when it comes to his skill level in the cage. He needs a big name to add to his résumé, and Ferguson certainly still fits that bill. While there’s danger in every fight, he likely faces less risk in this matchup than he would against other notable veterans in the division.

Make no mistake, this is still a winnable fight for Ferguson, even if he is standing on his last legs. But it certainly seems like the UFC is setting this up as his final hurrah with Pimblett set up to take out a legend.

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Paddy Pimblett
Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Heck: While Pimblett believes this is a “lose-lose” fight for himself – and he’s not wrong – it’s a win-win for the UFC. If Pimblett wins, he gets a divisional all-time great lit up in green on his wiki page, and no matter how the fan base or anyone else will feel about it, the UFC will promote that to the nines. And if Ferguson wins? Holy freaking moly, will he get the pop of the century that the UFC can use in promo videos until the end of time.

Let me also say that I was staunchly against this matchup when the maniacal AK put it out there into the universe a couple of years ago. However, the more time that has passed, the more I understand it. As long as Pimblett keeps winning, they can push him up the ranks, and of the known names or ranked guys in this division right now, Ferguson is, at this point in his career, a name he can beat. No disrespect, but would you confidently pick Pimblett against a guy like Jalin Turner or Benoit Saint Denis right now? No, you wouldn’t, and those are two guys in the back end of the top 15. If he wins, you can give him a stiffer, yet still somewhat strategic next step. If he loses, much like his longtime teammate and friend Molly McCann when she lost to Erin Blanchfield, you find out what the ceiling truly is, and he can still be a super popular fighter, but just not in the title hunt. And guess what? You can make a damn good living being that.

For Ferguson? This is a fight he can win, and as far as what is realistically available to him to get him off the schneid in terms of fighting style, name value, and whether or not he’ll take hide-your-face-in-your-hands damage, this is as good as it can get for “El Cucuy.” The former interim champion, in most people’s eyes, is supposed to lose this fight, but he will have the entire T-Mobile Arena cheering loudly for him to get a win. And if he pulls it off, it would be so on brand for 2023, wouldn’t it?

Marrocco: I agree with Mike’s thoughts on matchmaking Xs and Os, and I would add this: The fight brings arguably the biggest emotional charge to the evening. Colby Covington’s act is very tired at this point. Pantoja vs. Royval and Rakhmonov vs. Thompson are great fights, and not much more. But save for the out-of-cage drama that’s made Ian Machado Garry one of the most talked-about fighters on the roster, no pair on the fight card brings the level of investment from the old heart strings.

Ever since Ferguson’s troubles outside the cage in 2019, fans have been deeply invested in his journey. They want to see him make a comeback, and nothing would be sweeter than doing it against the UFC’s golden boy. Pimblett, meanwhile, is the polarizing character you want to see beaten to a pulp or wearing UFC gold. Lately, it seems like more of the former for a lot of fans, and the drama of putting him in there with a beloved figure has People’s Main Event written all over it.

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Ian Machado Garry
Photo by Cooper Neill/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

4. What is the sleeper storyline of UFC 296?

Heck: Although he has taken over the headlines over the past couple of weeks, I’m still going with Ian Machado Garry. The man has had a tough go of it leading into the biggest fight of his career against Vicente Luque between people going in on his personal life, and the current champion of his division, among other fighters, questioning his gym etiquette — and as cool of a customer as he has been since turning pro, this negativity has to be getting to him in some way.

But do you know what changes narratives in sports? Winning, and winning impressively. If the undefeated welterweight contender can show he has thick skin and goes out and dusts Luque on this stacked card, the weight on his shoulders will lighten tremendously. Machado Garry has A TON of pressure on him to perform on Saturday, but if you keep a rock from pressure, it can’t turn into a diamond. If Machado Garry wins, he will get a massive fight next, and will likely be a win or two away from a title shot.

If he loses, it’s going to be a tough stretch for Machado Garry, no doubt about it. He’s going to have to take it in the proverbial teeth for a little while, but as Sean O’Malley proved when he lost to Marlon Vera, time and great performances can heal all wounds. I’m truly fascinated to see how Garry will, one, conduct himself this week, and two, if he goes from a shiny rock to becoming a diamond when the lights are bright.

Marrocco: I’m wondering if Shavkhat Rakhmonov will cut the line in the welterweight title chase. The guy has just been on such a tear, and even though Geoff Neal made him look human, he’s seemed somewhat of an inevitability at 170 pounds.

Stephen Thompson is a two-time title challenger, and with his most recent win over Kevin Holland, he showed he still has some left in the tank to show the younger generation what’s what. I’m fascinated to see whether Rakhmonov elects to test his standup skills against Thompson’s sniper striking, and whether Thompson can rise to the moment. This looks like a setup for Rakhmonov, but that’s just the kind of thing the aforementioned MMA gods love to obliterate.

Lee: I’ll go deep cut here to talk about a fight that was recently added to the card, Josh Emmett vs. Bryce Mitchell.

Emmett was supposed take on Giga Chikadze next weekend, but a groin injury forced Chikadze out, and in stepped Mitchell. This one is understandably flying under the radar, but the bout has major implications for the careers of both fighters.

Should Emmett be finished or lose a one-sided decision, you have to ask if he’ll decide to hang up the gloves. That would be three straight losses and with Emmett just a few months shy of his 39th birthday, another setback would have him thinking hard about whether or not he can put himself and his loved ones through another grueling fight camp. He fought for an interim UFC title earlier this year and there’s not much left for Emmett to prove in what has been an excellent career. Frankly, even if he wins, that might be the right time to go out on a high note.

Mitchell, in contrast, is still a fighter on the rise. The 29-year-old recently bounced back from his first pro loss by beating Dan Ige and still has plenty of room to improve. The loss to Ilia Topuria may have set a clear ceiling for Mitchell in the eyes of his detractors, but a fighter with his toughness and grinding style can put together a win streak in a hurry.

And before anyone rules out Mitchell’s chances of becoming a future champion, I redirect you to Question 1 to remind you that one can never say never when it comes to MMA.

Fonte: mma fighting