UFC 296 predictions: Leon Edwards vs. Colby Covington odds and expert picks for 2023 fight card

Leon Edwards is ready to compete against the best at welterweight before moving to another weight class. Before he can do that, he must defend the UFC welterweight title against the controversial Colby Covington at UFC 296 on December 16. The fight airs on ESPN+ from the T-Mobile Arena. 

Covington is 0-2 in welterweight title fights and hasn’t fought in almost two years. However, he has managed to return to the spotlight, potentially for the last time. He’ll face a tall task in Edwards who stunned Kamaru Usman with a 5th round KO kick back in August 2022 and then beating Usman again in their rematch last March.

The co-main event is a rematch for the UFC flyweight title, as Alexandre Pantoja defends it against Brandon Royval. Can Pantoja go 2-0 against Royval, or will “Raw Dawg” fulfill his dream and become champion?

Shavkat Rakhmonov looks to become the next welterweight contender, while Paddy Pimblett makes his return. UFC 296 also sees Bryce Mitchell, Cody Garbrandt, and Irene Aldana in action. 

WATCH: UFC 296: Leon Edwards vs. Colby Covington, exclusively on ESPN+

Here are SN’s official picks for every fight on the card along with

” target=”_blank”>full betting odds for UFC 296, courtesy of Bet MGM. 

UFC 296 predictions and odds

Leon Edwards (c) vs. Colby Covington for the UFC welterweight title

Per Bet MGM, Leon Edwards is the -160 favorite, while Colby Covington is the +130 underdog. 

Edwards has not lost since 2016, with the only blip on his resume being a no-contest against Belal Muhammad. “Rocky” lands 2.80 significant strikes per minute and has a strike accuracy mark of 53%. He lands 1.26 takedowns per 15 minutes and has a takedown defense of 69%. He got brought down nine times in two fights against Leon Edwards. 

Covington competes for the first time since March 2022. “Chaos” lands 4.10 significant strikes per minute and has a strike accuracy mark of 39%. He lands 4.05 takedowns per minute and has a takedown defense mark of 72%. When he grabs you, Covington can smother you, landing nine takedowns in three fights and ten alone against Robbie Lawler in 2019. 

The fight is Covington’s last shot at gold, as he doesn’t have a win against a current ranked fighter on the UFC roster. Covington has proven he can strike with the best, as seen against Kamaru Usman, while Edwards can hit with the best of them and control the distance. He can also block takedowns, which he needs to do against Covington. It won’t be easy, but Edwards is fresher than Covington, who has yet to taste gold. Make no mistake, Covington can score an upset here. But Edwards is the safer pick to retain his title.

Sporting News prediction: Edwards via unanimous decision 

Alexandre Pantoja (c) vs. Brandon Royval 2 for the UFC flyweight title

Per Bet MGM, Alexandre Pantoja is the -190 favorite, while Brandon Royval is the +155 underdog. 

Pantoja lands 4.41 significant strikes per minute and has a strike accuracy mark of 48%. He also lands 1.75 takedowns per 15 minutes, landing ten in his last three fights. Royval lands 3.45 significant strikes per minute and has a takedown defense of 39%. When the two fought in 2021, Pantoka landed 22 significant strikes to Royval’s 17 while landing three takedowns, eventually submitting Royval.

Since the fight, Royval has won three in a row. “Raw Dawg” is still in trouble on the ground, as seen by eight takedowns landed against Rogerio Bontorin. Pantoja, who just won the belt, can drop Royval if time allows. With flyweights, expect a barnburner. The Sporting News predicts another Pantoja win. 

Sporting News prediction: Pantoja via submission (round two)

MORE: SN Exclusive: Colby Covington talks UFC 296, Donald Trump

Shavkat Rakhmonov vs. Stephen Thompson; Welterweights

Per Bet MGM, Shavkat Rakhmonov is the -650 favorite, while Stephen Thompson is the +450 underdog. 

Thompson is 3-2 in his last five fights, beating Kevin Holland via knockout after landing 163 significant strikes. “Wonderboy” lands 4.20 significant strikes per minute. He is susceptible to the takedown, being dropped 12 times in three fights. Rakhmonov is on quite a roll, landing 113 significant strikes against Geoff Neal, adding to his 4.45 significant strikes landed per minute. He averages 1.49 takedowns landed per 15 minutes. “Nomad” will have a one-inch eight and two-inch reach advantage. 

An unstoppable force, Rakhmonov is moving his way to the top contender spot in the welterweight division. Thompson is fighting to stay at the top of the rankings. Rakhmonov’s volume shots may be too much for Thompson. Kicks may help Thompson maintain his distance, but by the cage, Rakhmonov will gladly take over and attempt to submit his opponent. The latter option seems likely here. The welterweight division is about to be put on notice. 

Sporting News prediction: Rakhmonov via submission (round two)

Tony Ferguson vs. Paddy Pimblett; Lightweights

Per Bet MGM, Paddy Pimblett is the -300 favorite, while Tony Ferguson is the +250 underdog. 

Ferguson lands 4.98 significant strikes per minute and has a strike accuracy mark of 45%. He also has a takedown defense of 66%. Pimblett has landed 4.19 significant strikes per minute since joining the UFC 2021. “The Baddy” has a 56% takedown defense. 

The former interim UFC lightweight champion Tony Ferguson is not the same man who was unbeaten from 2013-2019. Losing six in a row, Ferguson gets badly beaten and absorbs 4.26 significant strikes. However, this is Pimblett’s first fight since a controversial win against Jared Gordon almost a year ago. Requiring surgery, Pimblett faces a desperate man in Ferguson who enlisted the help of retired U.S. Navy SEAL David Goggins. 

If Ferguson can give Pimblett trouble early, he should get the win. However, durability will be a factor as the contest continues, and Pimblett may have the edge. It could be a tale of two fights. Pimblett is the safe pick. Instead, The Sporting News will look for the shocker and trust in Goggins’ work with Ferguson. 

Sporting News prediction: Ferguson via split decision

Josh Emmett vs. Bryce Mitchell; Featherweights

Per Bet MGM, Bryce Mitchell is the -225 favorite, while Josh Emmett is the +185 underdog. Mitchell replaces an injured Giga Chikadze.

MORE: How much have Leon Edwards and Colby Covington made in their careers?

Emmett’s five-fight win streak ended against Yair Rodriguez in February via triangle choke. He lost his last outing against Ilia Topuria, with 152 significant strikes landed to go against his 87. Ranked sixth in the rankings, Emmett lands 4.07 significant strikes per minute and has a takedown defense of 46%. That may have no luck against a guy like Mitchell, who lands 3.51 takedowns per 15 minutes. “Thug Nasty” landed 20 in his last five fights and five against Dan Ige. 

They have the same reach, but Mitchell has a four-inch reach advantage. Mitchell’s cardio, which is excellent on the floor, will be tested in the last-minute fight. However, if he brings Emmett down to the floor, can Emmett recover quickly? The religious-minded Mitchell can get caught, but he may tire Emmett out for three rounds just because he can. 

Sporting News prediction: Mitchell via unanimous decision  

Irene Aldana vs. Karol Rosa; Bantamweights

Per Bet MGM, Irene Aldana is the -185 favorite, while Karol Rosa is the +150 underdog. 

Rosa is 2-2 in her last four fights, while Aldana is 2-2, her last fight a loss against Amanda Nunes for the UFC bantamweight title. In that fight, Nunes bullied her, landing 142 significant strikes and six takedowns. While Aldana has a takedown defense of 75%, she has been taken down 14 times in four fights. Aldana lands 4.86 significant strikes per minute, while Rosa lands 5.44. She also lands 1.38 takedowns per 15 minutes, landing five in four contests. 

Aldana has a four-inch height and a one-inch reach advantage. However, Rosa is a dangerous fighter who can play the long game until she lands the perfect shot. Aldana can strike herself but hasn’t proven to watch for shots that can provide significant damage. If Rosa lands volume punches, Aldana will be in trouble.

Sporting News prediction: Rosa via unanimous decision

Cody Garbrandt vs. Brian Kelleher; Bantamweights

Per Bet MGM, Cody Garbrandt is the +180 favorite, while Brian Kelleher is the +150 underdog. 

After a brief run at flyweight, Garbrandt is back at bantamweight. A former champion, “No Love” lands 3.00 significant strikes per minute and has a 40% strike accuracy mark. He also averages 1.13 takedowns per minute. Kelleher lands 3.36 significant strikes per minute, and “Boom” has a 41% strike accuracy mark. Garbrandt is 2-2 in his last four and 2-5 in his previous seven. Kelleher is 2-3 in his last five and on a two-fight losing streak. 

Both fighters have had a rough few years, as Garbrandt returned to action in March for the first time since 2021, and his last few fights have gotten nixed due to injury. Kelleher is fighting for the first time since June 2022. Garbrandt has found a new admiration for the takedown game but is susceptible to getting dropped by shots to the chin. Kelleher has had extended time off to recover and work on his craft. If the latter lands one decent shot, he may force Garbrandt to back up before ending the fight.

Sporting News prediction: Kelleher via TKO (round three)

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Casey O’Neill vs. Ariane Lipski; Flyweights

Per Bet MGM, Casey O’Neill is the -190 favorite, while Ariane Lipski is the +160 underdog. 

Starting with Eternal MMA, O’Neill joined the UFC in 2021 and is 4-1 with the promotion, her win streak ending against Jennifer Maia in March. “King Casey” landed 137 significant strikes in that fight and 229 against Roxanne Modafferi. In total, she lands 8.77 significant strikes per minute. She also absorbs 5.90.

A former KSW flyweight champion, Lipski has had a 50-50 experience in the octagon, going 5-5, and is on a two-fight win streak. The “Queen of Violence” lands 3.94 significant strikes per minute and absorbs 4.20.  

If O’Neill needs to, she can grapple on the floor. However, Lipski edges her with a 78% (compared to 71%) takedown defense. So, the fight will end on the feet. O’Neill has volume, while Lipski’s shots can land harder. The Sporting News believes the latter factor, one shot that could end the fight, will make the difference. 

Sporting News prediction: Lipski via TKO (round two) 

Alonzo Menifield vs. Dustin Jacoby; Light Heavyweights

Per Bet MGM, Dustin Jacoby is the -300 favorite, while Alonzo Menifield is the +240 underdog.

Jacoby, ranked 15th at light heavyweight, is 2-2 in his last four fights. “The Hanyak” landed 120 significant strikes in a loss against Khalil Rountree Jr. and lands 5.56 significant strikes per minute. Ranked 14th, Menifield is on a four-fight unbeaten streak. After losing a point for grabbing the cage against Jimmy Crute, who took him down six times, he got revenge with a submission win in the rematch. ”Atomic” lands 3.82 significant strikes per minute and has a strike accuracy mark of 52%. 

A striking wizard, Jacoby may be the hardest puncher Menifield has faced in the octagon. There may be a chance Jacoby punishes his opponent through the fight, eventually wearing him down enough to get the early stoppage win. 

Sporting News prediction: Jacoby via TKO (round two)

Tagir Ulanbekov vs. Cody Durden; Flyweights

Per Bet MGM, Tagir Ulanbekov is the -165 favorite, while Cody Durden is the +140 underdog.

Ulanbekov is 3-1 in the octagon, with the lone loss against Tim Elliott. He lands 3.35 significant strikes per minute and has a takedown landed average of 3.81 Durden is riding a four-fight win streak and averages 5.41 takedowns per 15 minutes. He landed 19 in his last three fights. Ulanbekov has a three-inch reach advantage but hasn’t fought in over a year. 

MORE: Ranking the 25 best MMA fighters under the age of 25

If Durden can land hard shots early and force Ulanbekov down to the floor, he can smother him the whole fight. Durden has to be careful of Ulanbekov’s counter shots and takedown defense, but momentum is on Durden’s side. 

Sporting News prediction: Durden via unanimous decision

Andre Fili vs. Lucas Almeida; Featherweights

Per Bet MGM, Andre Fili is the -175 favorite, while Lucas Almeida is the +145 underdog. 

Fili is 1-3 with one no-contest to his name in his last five fights and is coming off a loss against Nathaniel Wood. He was rag-dolled by Bryce Michell but has managed to avoid further scrutiny on the ground with a 69% takedown defense. “Touchy” lands 3.83 significant strikes per minute and has even out-struck opponents in losses. Almeida is 1-1 in the UFC. He absorbs 5.29 significant strikes per minute and has managed to land 5.29 per minute. 

Almeida can end a fight with one shot, but how confident is he or the betting audience he will get it done? Fili’s overall game plan is using the range (three-inch reach advantage) to keep distance from Almeida while also working past his defense. 

Sporting News prediction: Fili via unanimous decision 

Martin Buday vs. Shamil Gaziev; Heavyweights

Per Bet MGM: Martin Buday is the -140 favorite, while Shamil Gaziev is the +115 underdog.

Gaziev has eleven wins, with seven of them coming via knockout. The Dana White’s Contender Series alum only needed four punches and one sleeper to beat Greg Velasco in September. Buday has 13 wins via knockout, also winning seven via the power punch. The DWCS alum lands 5.62 significant strikes per minute and has a strike accuracy mark of 52%. Winning five fights in the octagon, the only time he didn’t have the edge in significant strikes was against Lukasz Brzeski in 2022. 

It will be a firefight. Both can play on the ground, but it is anyone’s ballgame when on the feet. Buday’s experience in the octagon can help him take the fight, especially if he lands massive blows on the inside. 

Sporting News prediction: Buday via TKO (round one)

MORE: What’s next for Francis Ngannou following Tyson Fury fight?

Randy Brown vs. Muslim Salikhov; Welterweights

Per Bet MGM, Randy Brown is the -275 favorite, while Muslim Salikhovis is the +220 underdog. 

Brown is 5-1 in his last six, while multi-time Sanda champion Salikhov is 1-2 in his previous three. Brown lands 4.38 significant strikes per minute and has a strike accuracy mark of 47%, and the “King of Kung Fu” lands 3.37 significant strikes per minute and has a 62% strike accuracy mark. On the floor, Salikhov averages 1.31 landed per 15 minutes, landing six in his last four contests. 

Brown has a four-inch height and eight-inch reach advantage. While Salikhov can control the floor, how well is his endurance, especially at 39? There is also the level of competition both have faced, with Brown having an edge in the octagon. If Brown can work around a few irregularities in his game, he should be able to edge Salikhov.

Sporting News prediction: Brown via unanimous decision 

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