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Alexandre Pantoja of Brazil reacts after his victory against Steve Erceg of Australia in a UFC flyweight championship bout during the UFC 301 event at Farmasi Arena on May 04, 2024 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Alexandre Loureiro/Zuffa LLC)
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The Bigger Picture: UFC 301

Reflecting On A Special Night In Rio De Janeiro And How Events Like UFC 301 Resonate And Are Received.

Saturday night at Farmasi Arena, the home team won 10-3, but the evening was about so much more than just the final tally in the “Brazil vs. The World” battles that made up UFC 301.

With a little time to digest, process, and ruminate on what transpired, my takeaways from the UFC’s return to Rio de Janeiro lean heavily towards appreciation, the future, and enjoying nights like this for what they are.

A Beautiful Night in Brazil

Jose Aldo of Brazil reacts after his victory against Jonathan Martinez in a bantamweight bout during the UFC 301 event at Farmasi Arena on May 04, 2024 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Alexandre Loureiro/Zuffa LLC)
Jose Aldo of Brazil reacts after his victory against Jonathan Martinez in a bantamweight bout during the UFC 301 event at Farmasi Arena on May 04, 2024 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Alexandre Loureiro/Zuffa LLC)

There is something about events outside of North America that resonate in a different way to me; think London after COVID, the first trip to Toronto or those early Montreal shows headlined by Georges St-Pierre, and Australian or New Zealand events headlined by locals and non-locals alike.

Saturday’s pay-per-view in Rio de Janeiro was one of those nights — an evening built around talents from throughout the host nation, geared towards those in attendance and the people watching at home that had followed the careers of the newer Brazilian names before they reached the biggest stage in the sport, and had a deeper, more tangible connection to the high-profile stars that closed out the show at Farmasi Arena.

We all love Jose Aldo, but the people in Rio love him more, and their love isn’t simply because of the highlights he’s produced or the tremendous fights he’s gifted us over the years.

Alexandre Pantoja of Brazil reacts after his victory against Steve Erceg of Australia in a UFC flyweight championship bout during the UFC 301 event at Farmasi Arena on May 04, 2024 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Alexandre Loureiro/Zuffa LLC)
Alexandre Pantoja of Brazil reacts after his victory against Steve Erceg of Australia in a UFC flyweight championship bout during the UFC 301 event at Farmasi Arena on May 04, 2024 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Alexandre Loureiro/Zuffa LLC)

It’s because he’s one of them — a poor kid with the scars of a difficult early life visible to all, having risen to become something more than just a tremendous fighter and one of the best of his generation. He’s a beacon of hope, a respite from whatever else might be going on in a life that is probably going to get more difficult, complicated, messy, stressful, or whatever else once the 30 minutes that encompassed his return, fight with Jonathan Martinez, and post-fight interview with Daniel Cormier had expired.

The same goes for Alexandre Pantoja, perhaps even more so in some ways.

RELATED: Alexandre Pantoja Post-Fight Interview | Octagon Interview

He’s not an icon the same way Aldo is, nor do we talk about him with the same kind of reverence, because while the former featherweight champion and UFC Hall of Fame inductee was an unquestioned generational talent early on, Pantoja has been a grinder, hovering around the Top 10 for a number of years before finally breaking into the Top 5, claiming the title and successfully defending the belt twice.

Where Aldo has performances that are etched in the memories of every fan that saw them as they happened (or soon after), the flyweight titleholder has been all guile and heart, tenacity and moxie, with a little good fortune mixed in during the course of his championship run, and that is even more identifiable than being a genius-level talent.

Jose Aldo of Brazil punches Jonathan Martinez in a bantamweight bout during the UFC 301 event at Farmasi Arena on May 04, 2024 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Alexandre Loureiro/Zuffa LLC)
Jose Aldo of Brazil punches Jonathan Martinez in a bantamweight bout during the UFC 301 event at Farmasi Arena on May 04, 2024 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Alexandre Loureiro/Zuffa LLC)

And you feel that connection every time there is a big international event. You even feel it with some of the smaller ones, like when “The Korean Zombie” said his final farewell last year in Singapore or countless Brazilian fight nights over the years.

These moments mean something more to the people in those regions, the athletes mean more to them than North American fighters do to North American audiences, and it’s not just because of the vastness of those two nations and the proliferation of talent coming from the United States.

RELATED: Alexandre Post-Fight Press Conference

These men and women represent the hopes and dreams of so many in their home nations, and to see them chasing their own dreams, making some version of them come true is an exhilarating feeling that their compatriots experience vicariously. Their successes show that dreamers from all areas and all circumstances can reach the highest level and have their moments, and that’s just not something that North American sports fans feel the same way, at least not en masse.

It’s beautiful to see and feel every time it happens, and I hope that someday, everyone appreciates the joy events like UFC 301 bring to fans who get to to root for their compatriots in the type of way those in Rio did on Saturday night.

A Bitter Pill That Will Make Him Better

Steve Erceg of Australia prepares to face Alexandre Pantoja of Brazil in a UFC flyweight championship bout during the UFC 301 event at Farmasi Arena on May 04, 2024 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Alexandre Loureiro/Zuffa LLC)
Steve Erceg of Australia prepares to face Alexandre Pantoja of Brazil in a UFC flyweight championship bout during the UFC 301 event at Farmasi Arena on May 04, 2024 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Alexandre Loureiro/Zuffa LLC)

You could feel the heartbreak Steve Erceg was experiencing as he spoke with Daniel Cormier following his unanimous decision loss to Pantoja in the UFC 301 main event.

“DC” mentioned the “one round” comment the challenger had made to his coaches after the scores were read and Bruce Buffer boomed “And… STILL!” making his defeat official and the fifth-round decision to grapple sting even more. That choice likely cost Erceg the fight and the flyweight title, and that is a bitter pill to swallow.

But it is going to make him better, and he showed on Saturday night in Rio that he’s already pretty damn good.

Steve Erceg of Australia punches Alexandre Pantoja of Brazil in a UFC flyweight championship bout during the UFC 301 event at Farmasi Arena on May 04, 2024 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Alexandre Loureiro/Zuffa LLC)
Steve Erceg of Australia punches Alexandre Pantoja of Brazil in a UFC flyweight championship bout during the UFC 301 event at Farmasi Arena on May 04, 2024 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Alexandre Loureiro/Zuffa LLC)

Erceg showed early on that he was going to be there every step of the way with Pantoja, navigating the early chaotic rush of the champion that felt designed to see if the unassuming Australian was up for the moment. He was, and then some, as Erceg not only dealt with the rush, but turned right around and won the second round, bringing the fight level after two frames, and showing Pantoja and everyone else that this was going to be a dogged battle on a hot, sweaty night in Brazil.

As is always the case when a fighter steps into the championship spotlight for the first time, there were questions about how Erceg would handle himself, how he would deal with the increased attention, the specter of UFC gold hanging in the balance, with the added wrinkle of venturing to Pantoja’s hometown and fighting in front of a raucous, partisan crowd sprinkled in for good measure, and he handled it all with aplomb, showing that he’s better than the ranking he carried coming into the fight and will continue to be a force in the flyweight division for the foreseeable future.

It’s understandable that fans and observers question the skills and levels of someone like Erceg when they’re stepping up to this tier for the first time; experience is our best instructor and he simply had not logged any time in the Octagon with a Top 5 fighter prior to Saturday night.

 Opponents Alexandre Pantoja of Brazil and Steve Erceg of Australia face off prior to their UFC flyweight championship bout during the UFC 301 event at Farmasi Arena on May 04, 2024 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Alexandre Loureiro/Zuffa LLC)
Opponents Alexandre Pantoja of Brazil and Steve Erceg of Australia face off prior to their UFC flyweight championship bout during the UFC 301 event at Farmasi Arena on May 04, 2024 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Alexandre Loureiro/Zuffa LLC)

But you can also look at what those athletes had done, how they carried themselves, the hurdles they cleared on the way to that first massive test and feel comfortable drawing some reasonable conclusions about how they were likely to acquit themselves once things began.

Erceg’s road to Rio was more challenging than I think most realize, between opponent changes and travel issues, and he successfully worked through it all to turn in three excellent performances in 10 months to force his way into the rankings and land opposite Pantoja in a championship bout in only his fourth UFC appearance.

He showed he belonged, showed he was on the champion’s level, and then made a costly miscalculation at the worst time possible, and it cost him.

I feel for him, but I feel even worse for whomever ends up sharing the cage with “Astroboy” next because as good as he looked on Saturday night, I have no doubt that he’ll be even better whenever he returns.

A Brazilian Wave is Coming, Quickly

 Caio Borralho of Brazil reacts after his knockout victory against Paul Craig of Scotland in a middleweight bout during the UFC 301 event at Farmasi Arena on May 04, 2024 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Alexandre Loureiro/Zuffa LLC)
Caio Borralho of Brazil reacts after his knockout victory against Paul Craig of Scotland in a middleweight bout during the UFC 301 event at Farmasi Arena on May 04, 2024 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Alexandre Loureiro/Zuffa LLC)

When Amanda Nunes announced her retirement following her win over Irene Aldana last summer in Vancouver, “The Lioness” threw down the gauntlet for her fellow Brazilians, imploring them to “get their s*** together” and win a championship.

At the time, she was the only Brazilian in possession of UFC gold, and in abdicating her throne, it meant the country that is integral to the history of the sport was without a champion in the biggest promotion in the world.

WATCH: José Aldo Post-Fight Interview

A month later, Pantoja claimed the flyweight belt, and in November, Alex Pereira won the light heavyweight title, both men rising to the moment, as well as Nunes’ challenge.

With UFC 301 in the books, it feels safe to say that there are more Brazilian talents that could be in a position to add to the country’s rich legacy of champions and contenders in the UFC.

Michel Pereira of Brazil punches Ihor Potieria of Ukraine in a middleweight bout during the UFC 301 event at Farmasi Arena on May 04, 2024 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Alexandre Loureiro/Zuffa LLC)
Michel Pereira of Brazil punches Ihor Potieria of Ukraine in a middleweight bout during the UFC 301 event at Farmasi Arena on May 04, 2024 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Alexandre Loureiro/Zuffa LLC)

Michael Pereira has been running roughshod over everyone he’s faced since relocating to the middleweight division, ill-timed backflip notwithstanding, and Caio Borralho pushed his record to 6-0 with a sharp second-round knockout win over Paul Craig to further assert his presence as a potential threat in the 185-pound ranks, as well.

Joanderson Brito wrapped the prelims by kicking a “bullet hole” in the shin of Jack Shore, and has won five straight, all by stoppage, since dropping his promotional debut, and several others shone in big spots on Saturday night, as well, though it’s not just UFC 301 competitors that are a part of this gathering storm.

WATCH: José Aldo Octagon Interview

Diego Lopes has been a revelation in four fights, Renato Moicano is enjoying a later-career renaissance, Natalia and Karine Silva are climbing the ranks at flyweight, and several of the most exciting recent additions from Dana White’s Contender Series hail from the talent-rich nation and show varying levels of promise.

Nunes challenged her fellow Brazilian fighters, and not only have they responded, but it feels like another stretch where Brazilian talents dominate could be on the horizon.

Quick Hitters

Anthony Smith reacts after his submission victory against Vitor Petrino of Brazil in a light heavyweight bout during the UFC 301 event at Farmasi Arena on May 04, 2024 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Alexandre Loureiro/Zuffa LLC)
Anthony Smith reacts after his submission victory against Vitor Petrino of Brazil in a light heavyweight bout during the UFC 301 event at Farmasi Arena on May 04, 2024 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Alexandre Loureiro/Zuffa LLC)

Anthony Smith took full advantage of Vitor Petrino’s mistake and showed that he still has something left in the tank. It was a good win for the veteran, who should remain a key part of the light heavyweight ecosystem going forward.

Iasmin Lucindo continues to come along, registering her third straight win by out-hustling Karolina Kowalkiewicz over three rounds on Saturday’s prelims. The youngest female fighter on the roster remains a work in progress, but you can see the progress she’s making, and that’s all you can ask of a 22-year-old competing on the biggest stage in the sport.

Drakkar Klose is 9-2 in the UFC and has won four straight in the lightweight division after getting the better of things opposite Joaquim Silva at UFC 301. He’s the quintessential “better than most recognize” fighter in a talent-rich division, but also a perfect person to point to when discussing how difficult it is to succeed consistently in that top, top tier.

Mauricio Ruffy of Brazil punches Jamie Mullarkey of Australia in a lightweight bout during the UFC 301 event at Farmasi Arena on May 04, 2024 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Alexandre Loureiro/Zuffa LLC)
Mauricio Ruffy of Brazil punches Jamie Mullarkey of Australia in a lightweight bout during the UFC 301 event at Farmasi Arena on May 04, 2024 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Alexandre Loureiro/Zuffa LLC)

Mauricio Ruffy was in his bag on Saturday night and looked outstanding in putting away Jamie Mullarkey before the end of the first round, but can we please, please just allow him to be a 1-0 fighter in the UFC that has now shown some promise before we start making Conor McGregor comparisons?

Alessandro Costa is now 2-2 in the UFC and has to be viewed as a real person of interest in the flyweight ranks after his second-round stoppage win over Kevin Borjas to kick off the evening. His losses have come against elite contenders, he trains with a great team, and he’s clearly talented, so it’s going to be interesting to see who he’s matched up with next.

And with that, I’m out.

See you again after UFC 302.

UFC 301: Pantoja vs Erceg took place live from Farmasi Arena in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on May 4, 2024. See the Final Prelim and Main Card Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass!