‘Angry’ Muhammad Mokaev rules out back-up fighter role for Pantoja vs Erceg at UFC 301

Interview: Alexandre Pantoja will defend his flyweight belt versus 10th-ranked Steve Erceg in May, after Mokaev was overlooked as a title challenger

Alex Pattle
Combat Sports Correspondent
Tuesday 19 March 2024 17:46 GMT
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Muhammad Mokaev has ruled out weighing in as the back-up fighter for the UFC 301 main event, after the 23-year-old was overlooked as a title challenger to Alexandre Pantoja.

Brazilian Pantoja will defend his flyweight belt in his home country on 4 May, as 10th-ranked Steve Erceg challenges for the gold.

Many fans have expressed surprise at the Australian’s place in the title fight, and seventh-ranked Mokaev has now admitted to being “angry” at the UFC and Pantoja over the situation.

The Russian-born Briton also ruled out serving as the back-up fighter for the UFC 301 main event, telling The Independent on Wednesday (19 March): “I’m ready to go for the belt any time, I can make weight in three or four days, but I’m not gonna specifically prepare and make weight for it in Brazil, just waiting for them to fight.

“I need some respect on my name, because I’ve done so many things for the UFC – staying active, saying ‘yes’ to every single name, fighting through injury and sickness. They didn’t give me the chance to fight. Me and [No 1-ranked] Brandon Royval, they basically said to us: ‘Who are you? We don’t know you, Erceg is fighting.’

“So, me and Royval should just be like: ‘We’ll fight each other, whoever wins will fight for the belt.’ Why would I go there and make weight for no reason. Anything can happen, injury and anything like this, but Erceg will definitely make weight.”

The unbeaten Mokaev last fought on 2 March, outpointing Alex Perez – one week after Royval defeated ex-champion Brandon Moreno via split decision.

Pantoja, who won the belt from Moreno in July and retained it against Royval in December, recently mentioned Mokaev as a potential challenger in his next title defence.

Mokaev is 12-0 (1 No Contest) as a professional, and 6-0 in the UFC
Mokaev is 12-0 (1 No Contest) as a professional, and 6-0 in the UFC (Getty Images)

Mokaev told Indy Sport: “[Pantoja] said, ‘If you beat Alex Perez, [I’ll fight you],’ not, ‘If you finish Alex Perez...’ He’s a man, he has to keep his word. Now he’s saying that Erceg is tougher than Royval and Moreno. That’s definitely not true. I think Moreno beats Erceg 10 times out of 10. But [Pantoja] doesn’t even mention my name now; where’s my name gone?

“Pantoja chose [Erceg], I know for a fact he chose between me and Erceg. I met Erceg at the UFC Performance Institute when he was preparing to fight Matt Schnell – very nice and chill, cool guy. [There’s] nothing to blame him for; it’s his dream to fight for the belt, it’s my dream to fight for the belt. I cannot hate him because he’s got the opportunity. In life, it’s written for him to fight for the belt. I’m angry at the UFC, but now I understand that I’m more angry at Pantoja.”

Erceg knocked out Schnell in impressive fashion on 2 March, on the same card as Mokaev’s victory over Perez. Still, the Australian, 28, was a surprise selection as Pantoja’s next challenger, given his relatively low ranking in the division.

“It could be a close fight,” Mokaev said. “I grappled with Pantoja straight after my UFC debut [in 2022], I don’t think he has like super-elite grappling. Erceg definitely has better striking, because Pantoja is one of the worst strikers in the division, I would say. [Pantoja] just swings around.

“I would say Tim Elliott and Alex Perez are better wrestlers than Pantoja,” Mokaev continued, referencing his own last two opponents. “Jiu-jitsu-wise, Pantoja is good, but he cannot mix wrestling and jiu-jitsu. I took him down, he’s good on the ground, but his defence on the wall wasn’t really great. Training is training, but he knows I’m the real deal.”

Alexandre Pantoja (left) during his decision win over Brandon Royval in December
Alexandre Pantoja (left) during his decision win over Brandon Royval in December (Getty Images)

Mokaev is now eyeing a clash with Royval this summer, amid rumours that the UFC could stage an event in Manchester in July. The promotion has also scheduled a Fight Night for 3 August in Abu Dhabi, where Mokaev is open to competing for the third time.

“Royval or Moreno, it doesn’t matter who I beat at this stage,” he said. “The UFC wants a spectacular win, I don’t think they care anymore about the rankings. Even if it’s an unranked guy, give me anyone; I just want to stay active and show them: If I really want to, I can do it in a spectacular way.

“[But] 100 per cent, it should be [based on] rankings. Where have the rankings gone? Erceg just turned up and said: ‘Okay, I’m from Australia, I’m fighting for the belt.’”

To relieve Muhammad Mokaev’s last fight against Alex Perez, please subscribe to UFC Fight Pass and watch UFC Fight Night®: Rozenstruik vs. Gaziev

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