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Alexandre Pantoja is looking to make the most of his first career headlining opportunity Saturday in the main event of UFC 301 as the flyweight champion defends his title against rising contender Steve Erceg. Their five-round battle is set to close the curtain on the main UFC 301 fight card (10 p.m. ET) from Farmasi Arena in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Although Pantoja has won five consecutive fights to emerge as one of the most dominant flyweights in recent memory, he has never been pegged to appear in a main event until getting the nod before his hometown crowd for UFC 301. The Brazilian fighter faces a dangerous opponent in the No. 10 Erceg, an ambitious prospect who has shown a polished skill set while winning his first three UFC fights.

Pantoja is a -190 favorite (risk $190 to win $100), while Erceg is priced at +160 in the latest UFC 301 odds. In the co-main event, Jonathan Martinez (-135) takes on former champion Jose Aldo (+115) in a bantamweight showdown. Before locking in any UFC 301: Pantoja vs. Erceg picks, make sure you see the MMA predictions and betting advice from SportsLine expert Daniel Vithlani

From breaking down film and following fighters and their camps closely, to tracking sharp action and betting market signals, Vithlani covers the breadth of the MMA betting landscape top to bottom. He also trains amateur boxers and speaks regularly with MMA fighters to understand the sport's nuances. 

Vithlani made his SportsLine debut in January 2023 and swept the main card for UFC 283 with a 5-0 record and has been a consistent winner ever since. Over the past 10 UFC pay-per-view events, Vithlani has gone 7-3 on main-event picks and his main-card selections in that span have netted his followers a profit of more than $1,200. 

His highlights include calling an upset for Sean O'Malley (+210) against Aljamain Sterling (-250) at UFC 292 as part of a 4-1 main card and his UFC 299 winners included underdog selections on Dustin Poirier (+190) against Benoit Saint Denis (-230) and Michael Page (+110) against Kevin Holland (-130). Anyone who has followed him has seen massive returns. 

Now, with UFC 301 on deck, Vithlani has studied the card from top to bottom and released his top picks. You can only see his picks and analysis at SportsLine

UFC 301: Pantoja vs. Erceg preview 

Pantoja (27-5) is arguably the most decorated fighter on the UFC roster to have never headlined an event for the promotion until now. For comparison's sake, light heavyweight journeyman Anthony Smith, a one-time title challenger who is also on the UFC 301 main card despite going 1-3 in his past four outings, has appeared in eight UFC main events. 

Pantoja is 11-3 in 14 UFC appearances since his January 2017 debut. Moreover, he is 5-0 combined against top-ranked contender Brandon Royval and No. 2-ranked Brandon Moreno, who is perhaps the most popular flyweight in the history of the division. 

The 34-year-old Brazilian's struggle for recognition can be chalked up to a low-key demeanor that is nearly absent of any self-promotion, and an effective but workmanlike style that has led to few highlight-reel finishes that fans prefer. What's more, the flyweight division has long been the least popular among UFC observers. 

However, an impressive win in a title defense before an adoring hometown crowd could provide Pantoja with some long overdue recognition. But he'll have to get past an inspired prospect who is looking to make the most of a fortunate opportunity. 

Although Erceg (12-1) has just three UFC fights under his belt and is ranked No. 10, he benefits from the lack of depth at flyweight and the promotion's recent trend of fast-tracking dynamic prospects into title shots, especially those who have shown their wares in other promotions. 

Seeing as the top two flyweight contenders are already 0-5 combined against Pantoja and no other fighters in the top 10 have a title-shot-worthy resume, the promotion turned to Erceg, a power puncher who is also a former champion in the Eternal MMA promotion. 

The 28-year-old Australian has earned performance bonuses in two of his three outings and is coming off a second-round knockout of battle-tested journeyman Matt Schnell. You can see more UFC 301 picks at SportsLine.

UFC 301 predictions

We'll share one of Vithlani's UFC 301 selections here: He is siding with Michel Pereira (-535) to get his hand raised against Ihor Potieria (+400) in a middleweight showdown on the main card.

Pereira (30-11-2) was once known almost exclusively for his showmanship in the cage, which included flips and other high-risk moves during live action. However, the 30-year-old Brazilian has since locked in on the fundamentals and has reeled off a seven-fight winning streak that includes four finishes to emerge as a rising contender.

Potieria (20-5) is a versatile fighter and former standout in the World Warriors Fighting Championship promotion who had a 15-fight winning streak upon joining the UFC. However, the 27-year-old Ukrainian fighter has struggled to get his footing in the UFC, going 2-3 in five appearances.

"Pereira is on a roll and looks to be in the best form of his career. Pereira has toned down his wild, flying attacks and channeled that explosive power into a much more technical striking game. Potieria is likely to walk into a Pereira counterpunch that puts him away. I like Pereira to find a knockout in the first two rounds," VIthlani told SportsLine. You can see more UFC 301 picks at SportsLine.

How to make UFC 301 picks 

Vithlani has strong picks for Pantoja vs. Erceg and other bouts on the UFC 301 card. He's also backing a fighter who "is younger and more dangerous" to emerge with a dominant victory. Those picks are only available at SportsLine

Who wins UFC 301: Pantoja vs. Erceg, and how exactly does each fight end? Visit SportsLine now to get detailed picks on UFC 301, all from the MMA expert who profited more than $1,500 on his UFC main-card picks in 2023, and find out. 

UFC 301 odds, fight card:

See full UFC 301 picks, predictions and best bets here.
Alexandre Pantoja (-190) vs. Steve Erceg (+160)
Jonathan Martinez (-135) vs. Jose Aldo (+115)
Anthony Smith (+390) vs. Vitor Petrino (-520)
Michel Pereira (-535) vs. Ihor Potieria (+400)
Paul Craig (+410) vs. Caio Borralho (-550)
Joanderson Brito (-165) vs. Jack Shore (+140)
Elves Brener (+230) vs. Myktybek Orolobai (-285)
Karolina Kowalkiewicz (+345) vs. Iasmin Lucindo (-425)
Alessandro Costa (-125) vs. Kevin Borjas (+105)
Maurico Ruffy (-165) vs. Jamie Mullarkey (+140)