UFC 301 storylines: Returning heroes, upset specials and fights of intrigue in Rio

Steve Erceg puts Matt Schnell to sleep with a vicious right hand (0:42)

Steve Erceg sends Matt Schnell to the floor with a nasty right hand for a win by KO. (0:42)

The UFC heads back to Brazil on Saturday night to follow up on the wildly successful UFC 300 card. Although UFC 301 won't carry the star power of the event that preceded it, Rio de Janeiro will welcome home two of its heroes as UFC flyweight champion Alexandre Pantoja will defend his title against Steve Erceg in the main event and UFC Hall of Famer and former featherweight champion Jose Aldo comes out of retirement to face Jonathan Martinez in a bantamweight showdown.

This will be Pantoja's second title defense, and it will come against an unlikely opponent. Erceg is the UFC's No. 10-ranked flyweight. Since making his debut with the promotion less than a year ago, he has collected three wins -- including a blistering knockout of Matt Schnell in March -- and with most of the flyweights in the top 10 unavailable, Erceg looks to seize the moment and become the lowest-ranked fighter to win a title since the UFC introduced the rankings system in 2013.

Aldo steps back into action after a brief hiatus from the sport in 2022. The former featherweight kingpin tried his hand at boxing in 2023 with a majority draw against Jeremy Stephens and a unanimous decision win over Esteban Gabriel Espindola. But with one fight left on his UFC contract, Aldo returns home to test himself against the surging Martinez and his six-fight winning streak.

ESPN MMA reporters Brett Okamoto and Andreas Hale spotlight the top storylines to follow and matchups to watch during the fights this weekend.

Steve Erceg's chance to pull off a historic upset

Hale: Erceg isn't supposed to be here. Not this soon, at least. But after just three fights, he's getting the opportunity of a lifetime as the lowest-ranked fighter to challenge for a UFC title since Dan Henderson faced Michael Bisping for the middleweight championship in 2016.

Erceg didn't arrive in the UFC with much fanfare, nor did he blow fans away with his wins, aside from his second-round knockout of Matt Schnell. But there's a reason that he's just a +210 underdog, according to ESPN Bet. Erceg has the skill set to upset the apple cart and capture UFC gold.

The flyweight division has been volatile since Demetrious Johnson's exit from the UFC. Since Johnson's remarkable title reign, which saw him defend his championship 11 times from 2012 to 2017, no fighter has successfully defended the title more than twice. Pantoja already has one title defense but hasn't looked like an unbeatable force. He has holes in his striking that Erceg can exploit, and as long as "Astro Boy" can avoid being taken down, he stands a good chance of pulling off the upset.

Would it be a bigger upset than Matt Serra knocking out Georges St-Pierre at UFC 69 or Holly Holm's stunning finish of Ronda Rousey at UFC 193? Probably not. But the idea that the little-known fighter from Perth, Australia, didn't deserve the opportunity would be put to rest. Or Pantoja just runs him over, and the whole conversation is null and void.

Anthony Smith's final run

Okamoto: Admittedly, I am extremely biased here. I've worked with Smith a lot because of his analyst role with ESPN, and I visited his camp in Denver last week to discuss his mindset around a looming retirement.

Regardless, this is still the most intriguing storyline. Smith is in such a dilemma, deciding how much he has left. Some people would look at his recent record and his last knockout loss to Khalil Rountree Jr., and immediately say there's no reason for him to continue fighting. But at the same time, he's 35. Alex Pereira won the light heavyweight title at age 36. Jan Blachowicz won it at 37. Glover Teixeira won it at 42.

One can understand why Smith still believes a title could happen. He has taken a new approach this camp, by not focusing on the belt. He believes his obsession with it has hindered him in recent fights, and those closest to him agree. It has been a surprisingly light-hearted camp for a fight that carries such danger. His coaches are apprehensive about fighting in Brazil, which is understandable. One of his coaches described Brazil as the most hostile place in the world to win a fight. It takes its toll on food changes, sleep changes, etc. This is a massive challenge for Smith, but he's going into it confident.

And beyond that, I haven't even mentioned Vitor Petrino (11-0), who could be a serious addition to the top 10 if he goes out and dominates a veteran like Smith. There's a lot on the line for both in this one, and there will be plenty to discuss or debate afterward.

UFC 301 fights of intrigue

Michel Pereira's big body shots lead to first-round submission win vs. Michal Oleksiejczuk

Michel Pereira lands big shots to Michal Oleksiejczuk's body that lead to a first-round submission victory.

Okamoto: Michel Pereira vs. Ihor Potieria. This matchmaking is a little confusing. Pereira has looked really good lately. The guy who would get attention by doing backflips during fights and looked like a .500 welterweight is long gone. Pereira is fighting with purpose and confidence. He's a brick house of an athlete who doesn't seem to forfeit any speed for it.

This wasn't his original matchup -- but even his former opponent Makhmud Muradov felt like a bit of running in place. Pereira has won seven in a row. When are we going to see him in a ranked fight? He went through this phase of fighting entertaining opponents such as Niko Price and Khaos Williams, and it became clear he had a higher ceiling than that. Let's find it out. If he can record his third straight finish in Brazil, we'll see him in a relatively big, ranked fight.

Hale: Paul Craig vs. Caio Borralho. It's time to figure out just how good Borralho is. Craig is 1-3 in his past four fights but remains a dangerous finisher who enjoys taking advantage of his opponent's defensive deficiencies. Borralho is extremely athletic and explosive, which is why he hasn't lost in the UFC in five fights. But he hasn't faced someone who presents a significant threat standing or on the ground as Craig.

Could Craig catch an overly aggressive Borralho and derail this slow-moving hype train, or will the Brazilian impress and put himself on the radar for the upper crust of the middleweight division that needs new blood? If Craig falls short, would it be safe to say his best years are behind him? There's a lot on the line for both fighters, and both should fight like this is a make-or-break situation heading into Saturday's fight.