With many different storylines and intriguing matchups, UFC 296 has a lot to offer as the final chapter of 2023.
At the top of the card, Leon Edwards returns to defend his welterweight belt against former interim champion Colby Covington, who will attempt to claim the undisputed belt for the third time. Flyweight champion Alexandre Pantoja will also defend his belt in the co-main event against no. 2 ranked contender Brandon Royval in a rematch to a 2021 bout that earned the champion a Performance of the Night bonus.
The main card will also feature rising contenders Shavkat Rakhmonov and Ian Machado Garry facing fan-favorite veterans Stephen Thompson and Vicente Luque, who will attempt to turn back their younger counterparts. Former interim lightweight champion Tony Ferguson will also be on the pay-per-view card after claiming headlines for completing 'Hell Week' with David Goggins in preparation for his fight with Paddy Pimblett.
Despite the loaded main card, several more interesting fights will prelude it including big names Cody Garbrandt, Josh Emmett, Irene Aldana and Bryce Mitchell.
The first fight of the night will begin at 6 p.m. ET / 3 p.m. PT with the main card beginning at 10 p.m. ET / 7 p.m. PT. The prelims will be streaming on ESPN2 and ESPN+ with the main card on ESPN+ pay-per-view.
Randy Brown vs. Muslim Salikhov prediction
What a fight this is to open the night. Both Brown and Salikhov are high-level strikers, setting the table for an intriguing matchup. However, despite Salikhov's extensive Wushu Sanda background, he has struggled with bigger opponents with power. As one of the bigger welterweights, Brown will be taller by five inches and have an eight-inch reach advantage and has often used those tools to his advantage. Additionally, Salikhov showed signs of wear and tear in his last loss to Nicolas Dalby, a byproduct of being 39 years old with hundreds of fights under his belt.
Prediction: Brown by decision
Martin Buday vs. Shamil Gaziev prediction
This fight will be the heavyweight version of an unstoppable force vs. an immovable object as Gaziev is 11-0 and has only been to one decision while Buday has shown a tendency to use his size and strength to outlast opponents. Buday did look impressive against Josh Parisian in his most recent win, but his fight style plays into exactly what Gaziev wants. Buday does not hold a ton of power and though Gaziev trains with Ciryl Gane, his bread and butter is with his pressure and grappling. Gaziev enters the UFC in style.
Prediction: Gaziev by knockout in round two
Andre Fili vs. Lucas Almeida prediction
Though he has never been a contender at featherweight, Andre Fili is one of the most underrated fighters in the division's history. He has settled into a gatekeeper role, but his losses are truly only to the elite. Almeida is receiving a questionable step up in competition after getting submitted by Pat Sabatini and these are the matchups Fili feasts on. Fili has never lost two in a row in his 33-fight career and coming off of a defeat to Nathaniel Wood, the Samoan will be fighting with a chip on his shoulder. Fili has seen everything in this division and Max Holloway continues to praise the Washington native as one of the toughest fights in his career.
Prediction: Fili by decision
Tagir Ulanbekov vs. Cody Durden prediction
Durden has been on an impressive run with four wins in a row since losing to Muhammad Mokaev and he deserves to fight a ranked opponent, but the matchup could not be worse. Where Durden excels is with his wrestling and cardio, but Ulanbekov is amongst the best wrestlers in the division. Ulanbekov looked great in his last outing — a submission win over Nate Maness — and unless Durden can extend the fight to the later rounds, Ulanbekov should roll.
Prediction: Ulanbekov by submission in round one
Alonzo Menifield vs. Dustin Jacoby prediction
For whatever reason, the UFC has not seemed to get behind Jacoby as Menifield is surprisingly the highest-ranked opponent he has ever faced. Regardless, Jacoby is still one of the best strikers in the division. Menifield always has fight-ending power and is the superior grappler, but Jacoby's 60% takedown defense paired with his unique sniping ability for a light heavyweight should give him the edge. Menifield often leaves himself open in exchanges, which could give him trouble against a former Glory Kickboxing competitor.
Prediction: Jacoby by knockout in round two
Casey O'Neill vs. Ariane Lipski prediction
At one point in time, Casey O'Neill was considered a future champion before losing to Jennifer Maia. That loss may have temporarily halted her title aspirations, but O'Neill should still bounce back at UFC 296. Lipski looked great against JJ Aldrich before squeaking past Melissa Gatto, but she has struggled her entire career with power and pressure, two of O'Neill's strengths. Lipski is just 5-5 in the UFC and is 0-2 so far against ranked opponents.
Prediction: O'Neill by knockout in round three
Cody Garbrandt vs. Brian Kelleher prediction
It is unclear if the UFC wants Garbrandt to pick up a win or if they truly want to test him, but Kelleher is a sneaky tough matchup for the former bantamweight champion. Garbrandt has always held elite power and speed but is currently struggling with confidence and fundamental striking defense. Kelleher is not a volume striker but certainly holds one-punch power and finishing instincts and an often underrated submission game which could cause Garbrandt issues if he attempts another wrestling-heavy gameplan. This is much closer than the odds suggest.
Prediction: Kelleher by submission in round one
Irene Aldana vs. Karol Rosa prediction
Aldana may have fallen flat against Amanda Nunes, but she is still one of the best strikers in the women's bantamweight division. Rosa has the power advantage but has gotten out-struck multiple times, including even in her last win over Yana Santos. Aldana seemed to struggle with the lights of a title fight but before that she had knocked out three of her last four opponents.
Prediction: Aldana by decision
Josh Emmett vs. Bryce Mitchell prediction
Mitchell may have beaten Dan Ige at UFC Vegas 79, but he was getting rocked by the Hawaiian early on in the fight. Mitchell certainly showed his toughness, but also a difficulty handling power and defending on the feet before he can secure a takedown. Emmett is a very similar fighter to Ige but with less speed and more power, and the former title challenger is also a credentialed wrestler. Many forget Emmett's wrestling ability as he tends to win fights with his power but this matchup is one Mitchell would likely have preferred on a full camp.
Prediction: Emmett by decision
Tony Ferguson vs. Paddy Pimblett prediction
Despite losing six in a row, fans remain loyal to Tony Ferguson and will continue that trend at UFC 296, especially with the hate that Pimblett continuously receives. However, this is a very difficult matchup for Ferguson. With as much criticism Pimblett gets for his defense, he is still extremely durable. Ferguson still holds power but Pimblett has yet to get dropped in the UFC. Ferguson has slowed considerably in recent years and the unpredictability he once had is long gone. Ferguson's best chance is to win in round one and Pimblett has not been finished since 2013.
Prediction: Pimblett by knockout in round three
Shavkat Rakhmonov vs. Stephen Thompson prediction
We have seen the story of Thompson knocking off a rising contender as an underdog many times before, but history will not repeat itself this time. Although Thompson is the much better striker — and Rakhmonov struggled in that department against Geoff Neal in his last outing — the path to victory for the Kazakh is clear as day. As a high-IQ fighter, Rakhmonov will not stand and dance with Thompson for very long, so expect him to shoot for takedowns early and often. Thompson has shown his takedown defense has worn down at age 40 with his recent losses to Gilbert Burns and Belal Muhammad and Rakhmonov is the most complete wrestler he will have faced to date.
Prediction: Rakhmonov by decision
Alexandre Pantoja vs. Brandon Royval prediction
What makes Royval so fun and successful is his pace and ability to begin chaos, but as evidenced in their last fight, that style plays right into Pantoja's strengths. Pantoja himself can get wild at times but is more of a calculated madman than Royval's all-out style. Royval is most comfortable in grappling exchanges but Pantoja showed his superiority in that area the first time they met with a submission win. Pantoja is nearly impossible to finish and arguably the best grappler in flyweight history which makes it tough to see where Royval can get it done.
Prediction: Pantoja by submission in round three
Leon Edwards vs. Colby Covington prediction
After nearly two years on the sidelines, Covington shockingly returns to the octagon in his third attempt to claim undisputed gold. However, not only is Covington coming off of a long layoff but he is fighting for the first time since dealing with a lengthy lawsuit with Jorge Masvidal. It is hard to trust anybody to remain focused on their career, much less a professional fist fighter.
For the fight itself, Edwards is still being undervalued despite being the belt holder and the betting odds reflect that. While many people recall Edwards getting dominated by Kamaru Usman in their first title fight, the champion actually displayed an impressive ability to return to his feet and avoid takedowns. Usman's primary advantage over Edwards was his physical strength, something Covington will not have.
Covington will be in Edwards' face the entire fight which will test the Englishman's distance management, but his striking is far superior to Covington and his cardio has never shown to be problematic. Covington loves to make fights dirty and kill opponents with output but the last dangerous striker he faced was a 37-year-old Robbie Lawler in 2019. The fights with Usman have prepared Edwards very well for this matchup.
Prediction: Edwards by decision