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Steve Erceg of Australia poses for a portrait after fighting Alessandro Costa of Brazil in a flyweight fight during the UFC 295 event at Madison Square Garden on November 11, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC)
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Coach Conversation | Alexandre Pantoja vs Steve Erceg

Xtreme Couture Head Coach Eric Nicksick Breaks Down The UFC Flyweight Title Fight Between Alexandre Pantoj And Steve Erceg

Ahead of every championship fight, UFC staff writer E. Spencer Kyte will sit down with one the sharpest coaching minds in the sport to break down the action and provide UFC fans with insights into each championship pairing from the men that spend their days getting these elite athletes prepared to compete on the biggest stage in the sport.

Order UFC 301: Pantoja vs Erceg

For the UFC 301 flyweight title clash between Rio de Janeiro’s own Alexandre Pantoja and Australian challenger Stephen Erceg, Kyte called upon Xtreme Couture leader Eric Nicksick to give his expert analysis of the combatants, how things might play out, and the elements he believes will be keys to watch for in the fight.

Best Trait of Each Fighter

Alexandre Pantoja (L) of Brazil and Steve Erceg of Australia pose for photo prior to the UFC 301 at Sugar Loaf on April 29, 2024 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Zuffa LLC)
Alexandre Pantoja (L) of Brazil and Steve Erceg of Australia pose for photo prior to the UFC 301 at Sugar Loaf on April 29, 2024 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Zuffa LLC)

Kyte: At a time in the sport where everyone is pretty solid everywhere, generally speaking, what is the one thing that each of these competitors do better than anyone else? What is the one element to their game that stands out the most?

Nicksick: With Pantoja, obviously, it’s his jiu jitsu, but I think that comes with a caveat.

I think his approach to jiu jitsu is very different than most. I love the fact that he doesn’t rush from position to position; he stays in positions until they expire, and then he transitions to something different. What I mean by that is that he’s effectively looking for good ground-and-pound or control during that time, where a lot of guys that are jiu jitsu specialists, they scramble a little too much and they lose a little of that control or guys get up.

I think that’s where he’s different than most — he’s very good at staying in that position until he’s forced to do something else, which is usually give your back up, and that’s where he’s most dangerous. I’m a big fan of his style; I think it’s a fun jiu jitsu style predicated on not a lot of ground-and-pound, but he will cook you.

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Kyte: I agree that it’s his jiu jitsu, 100 percent. In talking with some people lately, looking at the last couple fights — I think your description is perfect: if you’re gonna let him hang out in positions, he’s happy to stay there, look for stuff, but not be hyper-aggressive with it.

Do you think it runs the risk at some point of either getting stood up or, with the way judging prioritizes effectiveness and damage, he’s running the risk of ‘You’ve gotta start throwing a little more!’

MORE UFC 301: Get To Know The Challenger | Fight By Fight Preview

If you’re (Pantoja’s coach, Marcos da Matta), are you telling him, ‘It’s good to get to where you are, but we’ve gotta start going a little more because we need to keep these spots, do some damage so that if the guy gets up and lands three or four good shots, our two minutes, three minutes of control is now for nothing because he’s clipped us”?

Nicksick: You’re absolutely right there, and more on the latter side when it comes to damage because judges are instructed to prioritize damage over control.

How To Watch UFC 301: Pantoja vs Erceg In Your Country

I think you run that risk of too much control over a little damage there. What I do like and what you can do in those positions is that you don’t have to be overly aggressive in your ground-and-pound but look to cut with short elbows.

Kyte: Just fire off some little shots, show that you’re doing something.

Nicksick: Correct! I always think about visible damage, so if a guy gets up with a cut or he’s moused up, at least the judges have something that they can use and say, ‘He did mess him up on the ground.’

But I agree with you 100 percent that you run that risk of ‘he held me on the ground for four minutes, but I got up and cracked him with a knee and hit him with an uppercut,’ and that round is going the other way. You’re absolutely right.

Kyte: I just still think of that Moreno fight, that final round is tight because Pantoja gets the back, but he doesn’t do much, and when they’re in space, Moreno is firing and having success. It’s all gas and it’s a difficult round.

Given what the criteria is, to this day, I will argue the Moreno side.

Nicksick: It’s a subjective thing, but you’re told over and over what the judges are scoring these rounds on. It’s not a pretty picture if you’re on the Pantoja side.

Kyte: He’s in a tough spot. I want to see if he’s a little more aggressive this time around.

Okay, what’s the best trait of Steve Erceg? Limited action in the UFC, but he’s looked great in those three fights.

Order UFC 301: Pantoja vs Hill

Nicksick: He’s looked really good in those fights. (David) Dvorak was the first one, right? Very impressive on short notice, taking that fight.

The interesting thing with him — I remember looking at him early on with Manel (Kape) in the division. This guy actually has more submissions on his record, a very good ground game; I think he has six wins via submission. But it’s his striking that you’ve seen in the UFC — very clean, very elusive.

What’s his height in comparison to Pantoja?

Kyte: He’s 5’8” where Pantoja is 5’5” but the reach is about the same, 68 inches to 67.5.

Nicksick: When you see (Erceg), he looks like he’s a torso-long guy; he’s not a long, lanky striker by any means.

Kyte: A Dominick Reyes type where it’s all midsection.

Nicksick: Exactly! So it’s interesting to me that when you see him fight, he feels like the taller, lankier fighter, but he’s actually not in a lot of ways.

From what we’ve seen in the UFC, his best trait is his striking, but I think it’s his mixed leads; he’s very clean out of both stances. What is interesting when you get a guy that can move out of both stances like he can is the defense — is he sound of out both stances with his defense?

ATHLETE PROFILES: Alexandre Pantoja | Steve Erceg

What I think will be good for him using both stances this fight is that it will be tough for Pantoja to get a bead on which type of takedown he’s gonna want to shoot on a guy like that. He’s never a sitting target; he’s not giving one stance. A guy that can do that, move very fluidly in and out, I think that’s going to be key to this and that’s going to be his game plan, I would imagine, is to keep this dude at the end of his punches and stay long.

Path to Victory for Each Fighter

Alexandre Pantoja of Brazil faces Brandon Royval in the UFC flyweight championship fight during the UFC 296 event at T-Mobile Arena on December 16, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Zuffa LLC)
Alexandre Pantoja of Brazil faces Brandon Royval in the UFC flyweight championship fight during the UFC 296 event at T-Mobile Arena on December 16, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Zuffa LLC)

Kyte: Everyone would love a 10-second knockout or a quick submission, but that’s not often how these things go, especially not at the championship level. Instead, it’s usually the competitor that has crafted the better game plan and did the better job of executing things inside the Octagon that comes away with their hand raised and the gold around their waist.

So, how does either man get it done on Saturday night?

Nicksick: I think this is a very winnable fight for Pantoja, but it could also be a trap fight — one of those where he didn’t prepare as well or he overlooked this kid; that could be a problem.

Path to victory for Pantoja is obviously the ground game, but he looked to me like he got a little tired in the Moreno fight, and that could have cost him, so in this fight, it’s utilizing his ground game, but more to pressure and cook — not over-exerting himself too much in order to be fresh in the latter rounds.

MORE: Key Stats From The Main Event

When he scores takedowns, my biggest thing for him would be cooking the positions and staying heavy, work the ground-and-pound.

mixing his leads, not being a sitting target. Stay in the center of the Octagon, don’t put your back up against the cage, and then in the wrestling exchanges, I always tell guys to wrestle three seconds longer than you think because there is going to be a re-shot behind it, and I think that is where Pantoja is very, very good.

Once you think you have disconnected, wrestle three seconds longer. We also always tell guys to re-direct, meaning before you throw that strike, you want their belly button be going a different direction. I think those things will be important for Erceg in this fight.

I think he’s got a good shot, bro. I think this kid is dangerous, man.

Steve Erceg: The One You Don't See Coming | UFC 301
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Steve Erceg: The One You Don't See Coming | UFC 301
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Kyte: I do too! I wrote it somewhere in the lead up to this that he’s a lot better than people maybe know or understand because it’s just three fights and you can explain away short notice against Dvorak, who is on a bit of a slide now, then he beats Alessandro Costa, who took a round from him, and then he knocks out Matt Schnell, who everybody likes, but is one of those guys that gets touched up and if you find the mark, what happened happens.

I think this guy is a lot better than people understand. I’m really looking forward to this fight because I think it’s one where even if he loses, he comes away and we go, ‘This guy is good; he’s gonna be hanging out here for a little bit,’ because he’s only 27.

MORE UFC 301: A Breakdown Of Every Brazilian On The Card | Caio Borralho's Five Fights

Nicksick: Like the Diego Lopes-Movsar Evloev fight where he lost the fight, but won.

I’m with you. I actually feel this is one of those fights where it’s two-two going into five and maybe being in Brazil will help this kid.

Kyte: With Pantoja, when it comes to path to victory, it’s one of those things to me where watching the last two fights, he beat Royval clean, but it was just an all right performance — grind it out, get the win.

I remember talking to “Parrumpa” when we were down in Austin, and he was saying, “I always have to get after him to keep his emotions in check, be smart, be smart.” I actually think Pantoja is more dangerous when he’s a little crazy. The opportunities to finish are there more, and I wonder if this is a fight where he has to get out there and press more, or maybe he does because this is — this isn’t just a champion going back to Brazil; this is a kid from Copacabana going back home with the belt.

I wonder if we see a little more from him in the first and second.

Alexandre Pantoja Still Hunting | UFC 301
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Alexandre Pantoja Still Hunting | UFC 301
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Nicksick: A little more aggressive on the back-takes, a little more aggressive on the submission attempts? I could see that. I actually think he needs to, even from a marketing standpoint.

You don’t want to fight this fight too safe because, to your point earlier, if Erceg can crack you a few times, win those damage rounds, you’re gonna have to find a finish because it might be too close for you.

Kyte: It would be super-beneficial for him to have a fight like the Alex Perez fight, especially given that Alex just looked amazing. If you go out on the heels of that one, where you’ve got that win in your back pocket already, beating him in 90 seconds, and you blow this guy that is at No. 8 in the division out of the water, put it on him, have the celebration at home…

MORE UFC 301: Fighters On The Rise | The Best Fights To Happen In Rio

I wonder if “Parrumpa” gets in his ear about it. I wonder if it’s just something he instinctively does on Saturday.

Nicksick: I’m with you. It’s such an interesting division for me now with Manel because the Matheus Nicolau fight was yours twice now and here we are. We’re sitting on the sidelines.

I understand why, but there is no excuse on us missing weight, because this should have been us traveling to Brazil, fighting for a title. It’s going to be interesting.

X Factor

Steve Erceg of Australia reacts after knocking out Matt Schnell in a flyweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on March 02, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Steve Erceg of Australia reacts after knocking out Matt Schnell in a flyweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on March 02, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

Kyte: If there were one thing that was going to significantly impact how this fight plays out — that swings it in one direction or the other — what would it be?

Nicksick: To me it’s Brazil, and that goes a bunch of different ways.

Is the hometown pressure going to be on the hometown guy or is it one of those things where he can go out and show out for his country, do his thing? It’s such an interesting dynamic.

Remember when Gustafsson fought in Stockholm?

Kyte: Got the big stadium show in Stockholm and then Anthony Johnson went over and tuned him up quick.

Nicksick: You’re getting tickets for your family, you’re dealing with this and that; those things become distractions to me. There are just so many things you can point to with it.

On the other side, the crowd plays a factor into judging in the way they hear and feel things; they can’t turn their ears off.

Alexandre Pantoja Fight Week Interview | UFC 301
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Alexandre Pantoja Fight Week Interview | UFC 301
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Kyte: Even just the dynamics of it all: Erceg is a guy from Australia that had never fought outside of Australia prior to the UFC, and it’s been North America so far. Now you’re going down there and it’s a title fight.

We’ve talked about it — it’s different; it just is. There is way more asked of you, and while you seem like a guy that can roll with it pretty well, mild mannered, pretty quiet, but it’s gonna be different when there are hundreds of Brazilians telling you all week that “You’re Gonna Die!”

Nicksick: To me, honestly, that’s why Brazil is the X factor.

You can spin it in nine different directions, but it is its own entity. Everything about it can make or break you on both sides, for Pantoja and Erceg.

Kyte: And the entire card is “Brazil vs. Somewhere Else,” so we could have this — I remember when Mike Malott was fighting in Toronto, he was talking about fighting out here in Vancouver and said, “I’m the last guy from this country making the walk, so in Vancouver, the pressure was on because we were 5-0 and I don’t want to be the a****** that loses!” and for Toronto it was “What if nothing is going our way? I can bring it back!”

We’ve seen it on every side, and now it’s 14 fights of “Brazil vs. Someone Else” so does Pantoja need to win one for his country?

It’s a big, weird X factor of a country.

Nicksick: I agree, man. They can be ravenous, and they may be on your a** too!

One Coaching Curiosity

Steve Erceg Fight Week Interview | UFC 301
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Kyte: Coaches see the sport differently and look at the sport differently than anyone else, picking up on different things and paying attention to movements, habits, or intangible pieces that others might not notice, but that could have a significant impact on the action inside the Octagon.

Every matchup offers its own unique collection of elements that might pique a coach’s interest and get them paying a little closer attention to once the fight gets underway.

So what is that one thing in this matchup?

Nicksick: I love what you said about “Parrumpa” in terms of how he’s going to monitor his guy in a couple of those positions.

From a coaching element, I think that’s important and one thing I’ll be looking at is the aggressiveness out of Pantoja.

The champions that make those runs, they put dudes away. In order to be great, they put dudes away, putting them out in the kind of fashion that made them resonate as a champion.

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Kyte: Or crushed them for 24 minutes and change like we talked about in the BMF Coach Convo — handed them that extended, absolute a**-whipping on you where there is nothing to say afterwards.

Nicksick: Yep; can’t say s*** about it.

I just wanna see what Parrumpa’s game plan is. I understand it’s going to be predicated on his jiu jitsu, but I want to see how aggressive it is. Are they going to be okay getting away with a decision?

I think you’re right that there is a lot more pressure on Pantoja to perform and look good doing it in this setting than there is on Erceg. He’s playing with house money, and that’s where I think he’s very dangerous in this fight.

It’s very interesting for me on both sides of this.

Kyte: I don’t think he’s getting counted out, but I think it’s one of those ones where the expectation is that Pantoja beats him — he’s the vet, he’s at home, all that stuff — and there is something about fights like that that always get me excited.

Erceg is better than people understand.

Nicksick: 100 percent.

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!