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Edwards, Pantoja retain belts at UFC 296; Trump attends

Updated December 17, 2023 - 12:59 pm

The third time was not the charm for Colby Covington on Saturday night.

Leon Edwards controlled the main event of UFC 296 at T-Mobile Arena in the exchanges on the feet and then neutralized the challenger in the ground game until the final round to retain the welterweight belt, relegating Covington to an 0-3 mark in UFC title fights.

It was far from exciting. Edwards chose his spots wisely, wearing out Covington’s leg with kicks from the outside.

Edwards, who hasn’t lost since 2015, picked up his 12th straight victory in his second successful title defense by winning all three scorecards 49-46.

The champion said he had a difficult couple of days after Covington made a disparaging remark about Edwards’ murdered father at the news conference. He had to figure out a way to control the emotions before they stepped in the cage.

“This fight was very emotional for me,” Edwards admitted. “He used my dad’s death for entertainment. After the press conference I was crying backstage because of the rage. It took a lot for me to calm down. I spoke to my mom and my team and shut it all down, got focused to win the fight.

“He’s a good competitor, but he’s a dirty human being.”

Edwards got the last word with the victory. He wasn’t the only champion to retain his belt on the card.

Alexandre Pantoja had a few nervous moments in his first title defense, but was mostly in control as he cruised to a unanimous-decision victory over Brandon Royval to retain the flyweight belt.

Pantoja submitted Royval in their first meeting and was hoping to finish him again. He had to settle for nearly sweeping the scorecards.

“Maybe this fight was too boring,” said Pantoja, who felt he may have been too cautious in protecting the title. “Brandon is a tough guy, and I need to keep this belt for my family and for Brazil. Brazil needs some idols right now.”

Royval was too slow in the early exchanges and found himself in several tough positions on the mat when the fight went to the ground. He did appear to have a jolt of energy late, though. Pantoja wore down as he spent much of the fourth round chasing a choke, allowing Royval to close out the frame raining blows down on the champion until the bell sounded.

Royval carried that momentum to the final round, landing at will early in the round until Pantoja was able to secure a takedown and ride out most of the round on the ground to get to the scorecards.

Welterweight Shavkat Rakhmonov improved to 18-0 as a professional and 6-0 in the UFC, making his case for a title shot by choking out Stephen Thompson with just four seconds remaining in the second round.

It was the first time the 40-year-old Thompson, a former two-time title challenger, had been submitted in a pro fight. Rakhmonov has eight knockouts and 10 submissions on his resume, having never been taken the distance.

Former interim lightweight champion Tony Ferguson got battered for 15 minutes by Paddy Pimblett on his way to a seventh straight defeat.

Pimblett, a rising star, won all three rounds of a unanimous decision to capture his seventh straight victory, including five since signing with the UFC.

It may signal the end of the line for Ferguson.

“An absolute legend of the sport and my division. It’s an honor to share the cage with him,” Pimblett said. “I’m disappointed I didn’t finish, but he’s one of the toughest guys to ever step in the cage, so the fact I won every round makes me proud.”

Featherweight contender Josh Emmett got the main card off to a thunderous start with a booming one-punch knockout of Bryce Mitchell.

That came moments after former President Donald Trump entered the arena in UFC president Dana White’s entourage, along with musician Kid Rock and former “Saved By The Bell” star Mario Lopez.

Former bantamweight champion Cody Garbrandt headlined the preliminary card with a first-round knockout of Brian Kelleher.

Garbrandt is known for his power, but hadn’t finished an opponent since 2020 and has now won two fights in a row for the first time since 2016.

Irene Aldana, who lost a women’s bantamweight title fight to Amanda Nunes in June, bounced back with a unanimous-decision victory over Karol Rosa in a bloody battle.

Contact Adam Hill at ahill@reviewjournal.com. Follow @AdamHillLVRJ on X.

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