UFC 301: Alexandre Pantoja survives bloody wounds and bad advice to retain flyweight belt vs. Steve Erceg

By the end of UFC 301, Alexandre Pantoja's head was covered in blood, but his hands were still holding the flyweight belt. He'll take that.

With a Rio de Janeiro crowd cheering him on in a big night for Brazilian MMA, Pantoja notched his second flyweight title defense against challenger Steve Erceg on Saturday with a unanimous decision win (48-47, 48-47, 49-46). His record is now 28-5.

It was a more competitive fight than some might have expected, given that Erceg signed with the UFC less than a year ago and was only 3-0 with the promotion. Then again, the last guy to get a championship bout for his fourth fight was Alex Pereira, who stunned Israel Adesanya for the middleweight title.

Erceg certainly did the more notable damage in the fight. An elbow opened a big gash above Pantoja's forehead in the third round, leaving the champion with blood flowing into his left eye for the rest of the fight. Another elbow cut Pantoja again by the right eye in the fifth.

Pantoja was definitely in trouble, but he might not have known how much due to some perplexing counsel from his corner. Most observers — and two of the three judges — had Pantoja winning the first and third rounds, while Erceg took the second. Pantoja's corner, however, told him he took all three in a clean sweep after the third and fourth rounds.

Erceg clearly won the fourth round to push the fight into a 38-38 tie on two cards, leaving Pantoja in an interesting situation. Fighters can play rounds very differently when they think they have a win on the cards waiting for them.

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - MAY 04: 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 via Getty Images)
Steve Erceg was a worthy challenger, but it was Alexandre Pantoja's night. (Photo by Alexandre Loureiro/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

When asked via interpreter by ESPN's Daniel Cormier if he thought he was winning entering the fifth, Pantoja didn't answer, instead praising Erceg and saying he would like to take a break after three title fights in the past 10 months:

"What an incredible guy, an incredible opponent. I think I need a little bit of a break, I've fought three times in the past year, so now I'm going back to Arraial do Cabo with my girl."

Erceg, meanwhile, definitely knew what was at stake. He wasn't happy with how he fared:

I thought if I could win the last round at least, I could give myself a chance. I just blew it.

The Australian, unfortunately, has a point. The fifth round was evenly matched up until about the final minute, with Erceg appearing to be in a good position after getting that second cut on Pantoja's face. Then he did something ill-advised.

Erceg went for a takedown and landed it, only for Pantoja to quickly reverse and take control for the rest of the fight. Pantoja had little legitimate reason to expect a loss by the final buzzer.

The challenger said he didn't realize Pantojoa could do that, with the disappointment evident on his face:

"I was surprised by how well he could scramble. I usually beat guys there, so it was a shock."

It's still a credit to Erceg that he took Pantoja to the scorecards, and some UFC fighters even had him winning the whole thing, bad fifth round and all. Many thought it was too early for him to get a title shot, but he showed he at least deserved to be there.

But it was Pantoja's night. He still has yet to record a finish in a title fight, but he once again showed impressive wrestling skills and an impressive chin. Now we see how long "a little bit of a break" can actually last.