UFC 296 predictions — Leon Edwards vs. Colby Covington: Fight card, odds, prelims, preview, expert picks

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On Saturday night, two title fights headline the final UFC card of 2023. Welterweight champion Leon Edwards will put his belt on the line against two-time former title challenger Colby Covington and Alexandre Pantoja looks to make the first defense of his flyweight title in a rematch with Brandon Royval. The pair of title fights top the marquee at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas for UFC 296.

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Many believe Covington is receiving a third shot at becoming world champion on nothing more than name value and marketability. There may be something to that as Covington’s most recent win over a current member of the UFC roster came against Rafael dos Anjos more than five years ago. Despite that, Covington presents a real threat to Edwards, who won the title with a hail mary knockout over Kamaru Usman before taking a wide decision in the rematch.

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Pantoja and Royval first met in August 2021 with Pantoja winning by submission in the second round. Pantoja followed that up with two wins, most recently defeating Brandon Moreno to win the flyweight championship this past July. Royval has won three straight since losing to Pantoja, clawing his way to a championship opportunity.

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Two rising stars are also in action against talented veterans on the main card as Shavkat Rakhmonov faces off with Stephen Thompson in the welterweight division while the brash Paddy Pimblett takes on Tony Ferguson, who will be looking to snap a six-fight losing skid when the pair meet in a lightweight battle.

Can’t get enough boxing and MMA? Get the latest in the world of combat sports from two of the best in the business. Subscribe to Morning Kombat with Luke Thomas and Brian Campbell for the best analysis and in-depth news, including a complete preview of UFC 296 below.

With so much happening on Saturday night, let’s take a closer look at the full fight card with the latest odds before we get to our staff predictions and picks for the PPV portion of the festivities.

UFC 296 fight card, odds

  • Leon Edwards (c) -160 vs. Colby Covington +135, welterweight title
  • Alexandre Pantoja (c) -175 vs. Brandon Royval +150, flyweight title
  • Shavkat Rakhmonov vs. Stephen Thompson, welterweights
  • Paddy Pimblett -330 vs. Tony Ferguson +260, lightweights
  • Bryce Mitchell -230 vs Josh Emmett +190, featherweights
  • Irene Aldana -200 vs. Karol Rosa +170, women’s bantamweights
  • Cody Garbrandt -205 vs. Brian Kelleher +170, bantamweights
  • Casey O’Neill -190 vs. Ariane Lipski +155, women’s flyweights
  • Dustin Jacoby -250 vs. Alonzo Menifield +205, light heavyweights
  • Tagir Ulanbekov -175 vs. Cody Durden +150, flyweights
  • Andre Fili -180 vs. Luca Almeida +155, featherweights
  • Martin Buday -150 vs. Shamil Gaziev +125, heavyweights

With such a massive main event on tap, the crew at CBS Sports went ahead with predictions and picks for the main card. Here are your pick makers: Brent Brookhouse (Combat sports writer), Brian Campbell (Combat sports writer, co-host of “Morning Kombat”), Shakiel Mahjouri (writer), Michael Mormile (producer) and Brandon Wise (senior editor).

UFC 296 picks, predictions

Edwards (c) vs. Covington Edwards Edwards Edwards Edwards Covington
Pantoja (c) vs. Royval Royval Pantoja Pantoja Pantoja Pantoja
Rakhmonov vs. Thompson Rakhmonov Rakhmonov Rakhmonov Rakhmonov Rakhmonov
Pimblett vs. Ferguson Pimblett Pimblett Ferguson Ferguson Pimblett
Mitchell vs. Emmett Emmett Mitchell Mitchell Mitchell
Records to date (2023)
40-24 38-26 40-42 39-20 41-23

Edwards vs. Covington

Campbell: For as good as Covington is at securing top position and outworking opponents with endless cardio, it’s hard to ignore both his layoff (21 months) and his age (he turns 36 in February). The expectations still hold strong that Covington will be game and that the fight will largely be competitive. But Edwards simply doesn’t make big mistakes and has a perfectly balanced skill set to adapt to anything Covington brings. The man known as “Chaos” certainly provided that in trying to incite Edwards at the press conference by insulting his late father, but it’s more likely the intimidation attempt blows up in Covington’s face with a stoppage defeat. 

Mahjouri: Covington does not deserve the title shot, plain and simple. Covington’s claim to fame is two losing efforts to Kamaru Usman and recent victories over three retired fighters. His wrestling pressure is unmatched at welterweight but everyone is painfully aware of Covington’s gameplan. Edwards’ two consecutive fights against Usman have sharpened his takedown defense and ability to get off his back. The champ is well-prepared for what Covington offers. It won’t be fun and it’ll be competitive at times, but Edwards likely takes a decision by landing the bigger strikes.

Wise: Stripping away the awful schtick and the terrible trash talk, it is still hard to look past Covington being a difficult style matchup for most of the division. Yes, he has not tasted defeat twice against Kamaru Usman, but Usman was the perfect man to cause him trouble. Edwards himself had issues with Usman’s wrestling and ground attacks, with some conspiracy theorists suggesting he cheated a few times in scrambling out of takedowns. Covington’s smothering style is sure to cause enough problems, it’s just a matter of if he’s able to score from those top positions against a fighter who has developed a strong standup game.

Pantoja vs. Royval

Campbell: If you’re scoring at home, Pantoja did submit Royval two years ago in the second round of their wild, non-tile fight. But a lot has changed for both in the ensuing years, as the loss forced Royval to rein in a bit of his recklessness in order to be more technical and consistent (without compromising his dual-threat finishing skills). And Pantoja has elevated himself to champion status, now riding a four-fight win streak thanks to his split decision over Brandon Moreno to win the title in July. That fight, however, saw Pantoja show an almost inhumane level of toughness as he left it all in the cage in the biggest moment of his career. Will that lead to a hangover effect for the Brazilian finisher in a division that has known nothing but wild parity since Henry Cejudo walked away? It’s very possible. Royval is game and operating at the peak of his powers. Fireworks are undoubtedly expected but a more calculated Royval — provided he can avoid giving Pantoja is back over five rounds — has enough dynamic skill to get the job done.

Brookhouse: There’s one big question for Royval heading into the match: Where is the path to victory? Pantoja is incredibly difficult to stop, has grit for days and is better on the ground. I don’t know that Royval has improved all that much since the first fight while Pantoja has proven his quality against someone as good as Brandon Moreno. I simply see no path to a win for Royval. Pantoja is simply too good and should succeed in defending his title on Saturday night.

Mahjouri: Royval has improved since losing to Pantoja in August 2021, but so has the champion. Both fighters specialize in controlled chaos but Pantoja executes it better. He has better striking accuracy, more reliable takedown defense, and has faced better overall competition. My biggest concern for Pantoja is the damage he took in a Fight of the Night victory over Brandon Moreno. That amount of damage will catch up with you at some point. I don’t suspect Pantoja has a long title reign in him but he has enough to fend off Royval.

Rakhmonov vs. Thompson

Mahjouri: You will find few fighters as savvy as “Wonderboy,” but the veteran is in for a world of hurt against Rakhmonov. The Kazakh fighter has the skills and ferocity to trouble Thompson. Rakhmonov has finished all 17 of his professional fights, nine via submission and eight by knockout. Thompson’s durability is waning and he’s slowing down a touch at age 40. Thompson may catch Rakhmonov coming forward, but he’ll more likely wilt from the younger fighter’s power and grappling prowess.

Who wins UFC 296 Edwards vs. Covington, and how exactly does each fight end? Visit SportsLine now to get detailed picks on every fight at UFC 296, all from the MMA expert who profited more than $6,200 in 2022, and find out.

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