Recap: Champions Retain Their Titles at UFC 296 to Close Out 2023

The UFC returned to the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas tonight to close out its year with a bang. The fans in attendance brought a chaotic energy for a loaded card headlined by two championship bouts and they were treated to some incredibly entertaining fights.

Let’s take a look at some of the highlights of the night and break down the three fights we looked at in our UFC 296 preview.

Prelim Highlights

In one of the early fights, Ariane Lipski squared off with Casey O’Neill in the women’s flyweight division. Lipski was the underdog in this bout but you would never know it as she opened with a big counter right hand. O’Neill is a very skilled striker but Lipski quite literally beat her to the punch at every exchanged, putting together probably her most impressive performance to date. Eventually, Lipski got the fight to the floor and looked for a choke, but O’Neill defended well. As she tried to escape though, Lipski caught O’Neill in an armbar and forced a tap for a huge submission victory.

It’s not often you get to see a former champion fighting on the prelims, but that was the case as Cody Garbrandt stepped into the octagon to face Brian Kelleher. Right away, it was clear the former bantamweight champ was the faster and more powerful striker, landing some good shots in the early going. However, Kelleher found his equalizer in the form of a low calf kick to Garbrandt’s lead leg, which was visibly hurting him. As Kelleher continued to chop at that leg, Garbrandt continued to put it together with his hands and eventually he landed that big shot that rocked Kelleher. As he tried to recover, Kelleher came forward again before getting hit with another good straight right that dropped him to the floor. Credit to Garbrandt who saw that Kelleher was out, face down on the floor, and simply walked off rather than following up with more strikes. It was a big win for the former champ, who called out Deiveson Figueiredo for a meeting in 2024. That is a fight a lot of fans would certainly love to see.

If the crowd wasn’t already feeling the energy, Irene Aldana and Karol Rosa got them there. It was a back and forth battle the whole way but the third round was a truly incredible test of wills as these two women, both bloodied and beaten by this point, just stood toe to toe and continued to tee off for five minutes. It was one of those unbelievable, feels-like-it-was-taken-out-of-a-movie moments. In the end, Aldana did just enough work to take home the unanimous 29-28 decision victory but this was a great showing for both fighters and they certainly earned some new fans tonight.

Main Card Highlights

The main card started out with a bang as featherweights Josh Emmett and Bryce Mitchell met in the octagon. Mitchell immediately applied pressure but didn’t look to shoot for the takedown right away, which was a bit surprising for the incredibly strong grappler. The two traded a few strikes in a bit of a feeling out process and then, in a blink, it was over. Emmett landed an incredible overhand right that sounded like the crack of the bat and put Mitchell to sleep immediately. It was one of the most violent knockouts in recent memory and an astonishing show of power from Emmett. After a briefly scary moment, Mitchell was able to recover and walk out of the octagon under his own power and fans can expect to see him back as strong as ever. For Emmett though, this was a huge win and the rest of the division surely took notice.

It was a matchup of generations when the UFC veteran Tony Ferguson met the rising young star Paddy Pimblett. And while it was a back and forth affair for the first few minutes, it didn’t take long for the younger, more athletic Pimblett to start asserting some dominance. He hurt Tony late in the first and tried to close out the fight, but Ferguson once again showcased his legendary toughness to make it to the bell. The second round saw more dominance from Pimblett, this time on the ground, but he once again couldn’t put Ferguson away. At the start of the third round, Piblett appeared to be fatigued and Ferguson looked to capitalize. It didn’t take long though for Pimblett to score another takedown and break Ferguson down until the final bell, securing a dominant decision victory.

Welterweight bout: Shavkat Rakhmonov def. Stephen Thompson

The biggest betting favorite on tonight’s card was Shavkat Rakhmonov, who came into this meeting with Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson” with a perfect 17-0 record and 17 finishes. Wonderboy provided a different puzzle for Rakhmonov, with his unique karate style. However, it didn’t take long for Rakhmonov to get his opponent pressed up against the cage where he could impose his will. While he didn’t inflict much damage in the first round, it was clear Rakhmonov had the strength and grappling advantage. Then, in the second round, Rakhmonov got Wonderboy to the ground and looked for submissions. Thompson defended well and showed a lot of heart but eventually, Rakhmonov was able to lock in a choke that forced a tap and locked up his 18th finish in as many fights. After the fight, Rakhmonov said he should be next in line for the championship and it’s hard to argue with that.

My pick: Rakhmonov via 3rd round knockout

Result: Rakhmonov via 2nd round submission

Flyweight Championship bout: Alexandre Pantoja def. Brandon Royval

We knew this fight was going to be wild and Alexandre Pantoja and Brandon Royval wasted no time proving that to be the case. The pace at which these 125-pounders fought was almost unfathomable. Royval was able to use his length advantage in the striking game a bit early but the story of the fight was the grappling game of Pantoja, who was able to score multiple takedowns and control the challenger on the ground. It was clear throughout that both of these guys are some of the best in the sport as all of their grappling exchanges were incredibly technical and impressive. Still, it was Pantoja who was getting the better of all of them. Even when Royval managed to escape a bad position and wind up on top, Pantoja was able to immediately explode and get back to his feet. Each round, Pantoja got the better in the grappling exchanges. Royval’s last-ditch effort came early in the fifth round when he took the center of the octagon and just let his hands go. He saw quite a bit of success with that as the champ appeared to be fatigued, but Pantoja was once again able to take the fight to the ground and grind out a decision victory. It was an entertaining fight because, even on the ground, these two put on a relentless pace throughout. But if Royval had been able to keep this fight on the feet, we may have had a very different result.

My pick: Pantoja via decision

Result: Pantoja via decision

Welterweight Championship bout: Leon Edwards de. Colby Covington

Much was made about the trash talking of Colby Covington and whether or not that would bait the champion Leon Edwards into fighting emotionally and not his usual calculated self. Right out of the gate though, Edwards showed that would not be the case as he came out as calm and collected as ever. Known for his relentless pace and pressure, Covington was much more reserved than usual, allowing Edwards to back him up right from the start.

And that was the story of the fight for almost five rounds. Edwards controlled the pace of the fight and used his clearly far superior striking to pick Covington apart on the feet, chopping away at the lead leg of the challenger and taking away his explosiveness. Covington did manage to score a few takedowns but Edwards also scored takedowns of his own and neither really got an advantage in the grappling game. Late in the fifth round, Covington got the top position and manage to hold it until the final bell, but it was a dominant performance for Edwards who retained his championship with a unanimous decision victory.

My pick: Edwards via decision

Result: Edwards via decision

The UFC will return to ESPN+ on Saturday, January 13th for UFC Fight Night: Ankalaev vs. Walker. Be sure to check back for a preview of the event.

Mike Mack
Mack is the Editorial Director for Marvel and ESPN content and he has covered comic cons, theme park events, video game showcases and other fun events. He is a fan of theme parks, sports, movies, Marvel Comics and is a self-proclaimed "nerd."