UFC 301 primer: The return of a legend, and more Brazilian favorites pack main card in Rio

When you step back and look at the UFC events schedule for the first half of 2024, Saturday night’s UFC 301 fight card is not the one that jumps out at you. Instead it’s more like the one that sits between the truly good stuff the same way a dreary work week sits between two fun weekends.

But Saturday’s pay-per-view offering from Rio de Janeiro is not without merit or interest, especially when you can depend on the energy of a Brazilian crowd for the first time this year.

On that note, one thing to remember is that the UFC has sometimes booked these types of events with a heavy emphasis on pleasing the locals. Lots of Brazilian fighters. Lots of advantageous matchups. Lots of wins for the home team. Of the five fights on the main card, four feature Brazilians as the betting favorite. (And the other sees the return of a Rio legend in José Aldo, who’s only a slight underdog.)

That doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll be one big party for the Brazilian crowd. What it does mean is that any main-card fighter visiting from foreign soil had better be prepared for a few boos and the occasional shouted reminder of his mortality.

Here’s a closer look at what to expect from the pay-per-view portion of UFC 301:

(All lines via BetMGM)

Who they are: Craig is a Scottish submissions expert who frankly ought to be much too big to ever make middleweight, yet somehow he does. Borralho is a Brazilian who has yet to lose in the UFC while very gradually building something resembling hype.

Why it matters: Borralho has beaten some decent fighters on his slow rise through the division, but no known names just yet. Craig is a known name. He’s also the kind of guy who can surprise an up-and-comer who isn’t ready for the next level. Is that Borralho? The point of this fight seems to be to find out.

MIAMI, FLORIDA - MARCH 09: Michel Pereira of Brazil celebrates after defeating Michal Oleksiejczuk of Poland during their middleweight bout at UFC 299 at Kaseya Center on March 09, 2024 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images)
Michel Pereira looks to extend his seven-fight win streak Saturday at UFC 301. (Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

Who they are: Pereira is a born showman who had to learn to limit his own personal brand of eccentricity once he discovered that mid-fight backflips sometimes don’t leave enough gas in the tank for an eventual victory. Potieria has the rare distinction of owning a nickname we haven’t already seen a dozen times (“The Duelist”), but he’s still trying to get back above .500 in the UFC.

Why it matters: Is Pereira going to become more than just a fun sideshow? You’d think he would be by now, considering he’s won seven in a row. On paper, Potieria seems like he’s here to lose in entertaining fashion to help hype up a Brazilian crowd that always appreciates seeing one of its own triumph. The downside for Pereira is that, when you show up as a 7-1 favorite, you really need to win.

Who they are: Smith is a former title challenger and UFC commentary mainstay who is well-liked but also maybe a little bit written off at this stage of his career. Petrino is an undefeated Brazilian who asked for Smith by name, hoping to add him to a résumé that’s starting to get pretty respectable.

Why it matters: Smith is at a career crossroads. At 35, his hopes of fighting for another UFC title get very dim if he can’t win this one. Petrino is almost a decade younger and with nary a blemish on his record. The way these things usually go in this sport is that the young eat the old, and the sustenance propels them onward into the future. Every so often that narrative gets disrupted. How about this time?

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - MAY 01: (L-R) Opponents Jonathan Martinez and Jose Aldo face off during the UFC 301 media day at the Windsor Marapendi Hotel on May 01, 2024 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
UFC Hall of Famer José Aldo, right, gets right up in Jonathan Martinez's face during Wednesday's UFC 301 media day. (Photo by Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Who they are: Martinez is another young man who dreams of glory. His six-fight winning streak suggests he might be capable of it. Aldo was a featherweight great in his time, genuinely one of the finest fighters south of lightweight to ever strap on a pair of gloves. It’s just that now he’s drifting into his late thirties and he’s already retired once. Reasonable people might find themselves wondering if he should have stayed that way.

Why it matters: Aldo called it quits after a loss to Merab Dvalishvili in 2022 snapped a three-fight win streak and closed the door on his dream of recapturing UFC gold. Now his focus seems more on fighting out his contract to free him up for any number of potential futures. The upshot for Martinez is that he gets a chance to add a very meaningful pelt to the wall. But even an Aldo diminished by age is still, well, Aldo. And beating him in Brazil is never going to be easy.

Who they are: Pantoja is the reigning UFC men’s flyweight champ, and he is very, very good. Erceg is ranked No. 10 in the division, which makes his sudden appearance in a title fight a little surprising. He’s got three straight wins in the UFC, which is not nothing. Then again, those are also his only fights in the UFC.

Why it matters: Well, there’s the 125-pound title. Pantoja snatched it up last summer and now seems to be at the height of his powers as an all-around fighter who’s especially great on the ground. Erceg is a colorful, likable chap from Western Australia, but he might be getting this big shot a little too soon. On the other hand, a win over Pantoja to claim the title would make him a major somebody overnight. That’s at least partially because it seems so unlikely.