Saturday nights mean many things for many people. For MMA fans, Saturday nights are kept open year-round so that you can watch fights.

The sport’s top promotion, the UFC, has one last Saturday of fights on its docket for 2023, this week’s UFC 296. It’ll be the last pay-per-view event from the UFC, as well as the last event proper on the schedule, before a monthlong hiatus necessitated by college football’s bowl season taking up the TV schedule of rightsholder ESPN between Dec. 16 and Jan. 8.

Live coverage of UFC 296 begins Saturday with the early prelims at 6 pm ET/ 3 pm PT on ESPN+ and UFC Fight Pass, followed at 8 pm ET/ 5 pm PT on ESPN2 and ESPN+ with late prelims. Main card action closes the night at 10 pm ET/ 7 pm PT on pay-per view.

Championship Doubleheader Begins with Flyweight Title in UFC 296 Co-Main Event

All told, barring any late cancellations between now and the weekend, the final version of UFC 296 features a total of 13 fights. The itinerary for the night is capped by a championship doubleheader at the top of the show.

It starts with the UFC 296 co-main event, where the UFC Flyweight Championship is at stake. Incumbent titleholder Alexandre Pantoja (26-5 MMA, 10-3 UFC) defends his strap against No. 2 contender Brandon Royval (15-6 MMA, 5-2 UFC.)

This contest is the second head-to head meeting between the two under the UFC banner, a rematch of a fight from Aug. 21, 2021 That night, Pantoja scored a second-round submission by way of rear-naked choke. It’s the third head-to-head contest between them when factoring in an exhibition bout airing during the 2016 season of The Ultimate Fighter, won by Pantoja due to the same method listed above.

How will the professional rematch pan out?

UFC 296 Co-Main Event Fighter Comparison and Betting Odds

Heading into the UFC 296 co-main event on Saturday night, challenger Brandon Royval stands as the taller competitor at 5-foot-9, compared to the 5-foot-5 frame of champion Alexandre Pantoja. Royval owns a one-inch reach advantage (68 inches to 67 inches) and a two-inch leg reach advantage (38 1/2 inches to 36 1/2 inches) over his opposition.

As of Wednesday evening, the oddsmakers  have Alexandre Pantoja installed as a -205 favorite on the money line, with Brandon Royval countering as a +158 underdog. If you plan on betting on this or any other fight happening this weekend, please wager responsibly.

Pantoja Has Kind Words for Royval Ahead of UFC 296 Co-Main Event

Champion Alexandre Pantoja enters the UFC 296 co-main event having posted a record of 4-1 over his last five fights. At the current time, he’s on a four-fight winning streak.

Most recently, he scored a split decision victory against Brandon Moreno (21-7-2 MMA, 9-4-2 UFC) on July 8 in UFC 290. Pantoja used his Wednesday media availability to speak highly of his adversary.

“I know how good Royval is,” Pantoja began. “I fight with him and I make it a very good grappling [match.] He’s a very good grappler. In the first round, everybody can watch a high-level grappling with me and him. When I go to the Octagon, I don’t want to make mistakes, you know? I’m very aggressive and I train too much, all my life. I trained jiu-jitsu, Muay-Thai.”

The time for pleasantries has come and gone. Will Pantoja make it five in a row with a successful defense of the title?

Brandon Royval Already Looking Ahead

In the other corner, challenger Brandon Royval has gone 3-2 in his last five fights. Going into this title tilt, he’s won three in a row, with two of those wins being first-round stoppages.

On Tax Day, he scored a first-round knockout (knee strike followed by punches) of Matheus Nicolau (19-3-1 MMA, 7-2 UFC) during UFC Kansas City. Even though the fight against Pantoja happens this Saturday, Royval appears to be thinking about his next opponent, including a potential rematch of the UFC 296 co-main event.

“That was going to be my first callout,” Royval said about fighting Pantoja for a second time. “Two out of three. I want to fight him immediately. I want to fight him at UFC 300. I want to fight him as quickly as possible and I want to end this right now. I want to end this discussion of who is the better fighter, because I know in my head that I’m way better and way more skilled than he is.”

Looking too far ahead is a dangerous approach for any fighter, especially one who’s trying for a championship. Royval has to take this one moment at a time in the UFC 296 co-main event.

Analysis, Film Study, and Prediction

Saturday’s co-main attraction is another toss-up. While both fighters are submission specialists, Brandon Royval has a slight edge thanks to his black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

Pantoja Has Awesome Submissions

If you comb through the video of Alexandre Pantoja’s past fights, you’ll notice that he can lock in the submission with ease. One need look no further than the first UFC fight against Royval from 2021.

During the second round of a scheduled three, the men exchanged shots, with Royval briefly turning into the aggressor. Pantoja reversed the script with a takedown and from there, he applied the torque to secure a rear-naked choke in under two minutes.

If Pantoja finds himself on the receiving end of an onslaught of strikes, look for him to shoot for a takedown. His ground game could tell the story in the UFC 296 co-main event.

Watch Royval’s Knees

In the other corner, just as Alexandre Pantoja has a brilliant ground game, Brandon Royval’s striking is equally amazing, as illustrated by his last fight against Matheus Nicolau. During the first round of three, the two men stalked one another for a moment before Royval threw some feints.

Nicolau landed a left hook and quickly moved away to avoid a counterpunch by Royval, but it would prove immaterial in the long run thanks to a well-placed knee strike to knock Nicolau down. Smelling blood in the water, Royval unleashed some ground and pound shots until the referee moved in and waved off the fight.

Look for Brandon Royval to land a vicious knee on Saturday night. It could be the opening he needs to take the strap away from Alexandre Pantoja in the UFC 296 main event.

Final Thoughts

Although Saturday is the first full day of the bowl season, you might want to tell the running back to grab a seat on the bench. This championship fight is an early gift from Santa Claus to MMA fans the world over.

Prediction: Brandon Royval by First-Round TKO. 

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