UFC 296: A Viewer’s Guide to the Action

Alexandre Pantoja, UFC
Alexandre Pantoja, UFC 290 ceremonial weigh-in Credit: Eddie Law/Cageside Press

The last UFC pay-per-view card of the year, UFC 296, hits Las Vegas on Saturday, December 16, 2023 and promises to be an action-packed card full of high-ranked and exciting athletes in compelling match-ups. It will not be easy for a deep fight card like this one, but someone needs to let the public know which fights they should be most keen to tune in for. So, without further ado, a list of the most entertaining fights down to the least, and what time you can expect to see them at UFC 296.

Note: times below are estimates and subject to change, based on how quickly certain fights finish, or alternately, whether they go the distance.

Pantoja vs Royval

(11:30 PM EST/8:30 PST)

Champion Alexandre Pantoja lifted the belt out of Brandon Moreno’s grasp in what is the current frontrunner for 2023’s ‘Fight of the Year,’ and now faces another Brandon who is an all-action fighter in Royval. Like Moreno, Pantoja has beaten Royval in the past and showed dominant grappling abilities to do it. For fans who hate grappling, that could prove bothersome, but Pantoja is an aggressive and slick jiu-jitsu player who possesses some of the best back-take skills in MMA history.

There is also the potential that it does end up being like many of these duo’s fights: an all-out war between offensive dynamos in the UFC’s lightest male division, where insane scrambles are expected and the technical level of all top fighters is extremely high. Pantoja is best known to the public as the bane of Moreno, but ‘The Cannibal’ has been putting on fun fights for five years, like his war with Deiveson Figueiredo. Grappling is what he excels most at, but Pantoja has heavy hands, a warrior’s spirit, and an iron chin which has never allowed an opponent to finish him.

Royval is known as a lanky, awkward striker and a scrambly, awkward grappler, which makes for fun fights and insane sequences.  Once, Brandon Royval got dropped with a right hand from Kai-Kara France. He stumbled back to his feet unsteadily and threw a Hail Mary spinning back-elbow when France came forward to finish the job, knocking down the Kiwi. Royval has won ‘Fight of the Night’ three times in seven UFC fights, winning in each one against Matt Schnell, Tim Elliott, and the aforementioned France. His length and wild style often forces fighters into wrestling him, where they find his long limbs to be doubly effective at choking them out. Pantoja proved to be his kryptonite last time, not afraid of him in any realm, but Royval has only improved since.

The Fight We’re Not Getting

A thrilling fight between Ian Garry and Vicente Luque was scheduled, which was originally listed as the second best fight of UFC 296, but the fight was cancelled when Ian Garry fell ill with pneumonia and the flu. No new opponent for Luque was found to keep him on the card.

Rakhmonov vs Thompson

(11 PM EST/8 PST)

Although on paper it seems as though Shavkat Rakhmonov will buzzsaw through Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson with his wrestling, he is not the most insistent wrestler in the world and is content to strike when takedowns do not come easy, as seen in his last fight against Geoff Neal. Neal has better takedown defense but worse distance management than ‘Wonderboy,’ so if the karate specialist can keep his range and space between the two of them then he could force a striking war. Although he makes use of his footwork to pick the best spots, ‘Wonderboy’ is always in action-packed fights when his opponent is willing; he only evades for a moment before going back into the fire, using his head as bait to get fighters to overextend before punishing them with a variety of weapons. It bodes well that each fighter was in a ‘Fight of the Year’ candidate in their last outing; Shavkat choked out Neal after a three round war and Thompson made Kevin Holland bow out after the fourth round in what was by then a one-way beatdown.

Rakhmonov is the heavy favorite on the betting line, but even a fight where he does just march right through the still-quick forty-year-old ‘Wonderboy’ should be entertaining. Rakhmonov has one of the best top games in MMA today, with a variety of submissions to choose from and a menacing top game which makes great use of the knee-on-belly technique from side control. His ground and pound is ferocious and he is one of the few fighters in modern MMA who can finish a good opponent with a Kimura.  The Kazakh fighter is obviously no lay and pray wrestler, so it is unlikely for this fight to end up being dull no matter where it is contested.