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Steve Erceg of Australia reacts after knocking out Matt Schnell in a flyweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on March 02, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

Steve Erceg Hopes To Open Some Eyes

Flyweight Title Challenger Steve Erceg Is Taking Everything In Stride Ahead Of His Headlining Bout At UFC 301

For two reasons, Steve Erceg couldn’t help but laugh when his manager called to let the Australian know he was getting a title shot. The first was that he was in the middle of eating KFC and figured it was best to leave it unfinished. The second was because he owed an apology to his father, who had suggested that Erceg was in line for a crack at the flyweight title. The younger Erceg dismissed him, as kids often do to their parents, but because his dad was proven correct, he knew he had some repenting to do. 

Once he took care of that business, Erceg turned his attention to the small business of preparing for the biggest fight of his life: a championship bout against Alexandre Pantoja in Rio de Janeiro at UFC 301. 

“I always wanted to be, when I was younger, the toughest guy in the room,” Erceg told UFC’s social media team when they visited him in Perth. “(I wanted to go) in the pub, walk in and be like, ‘Yep, everybody has to watch out for me.’ Not that I was getting into any fights or anything, (but) I just wanted to know I was the toughest guy around. I know I fight at flyweight, but taking the flyweight title means I’m at least the toughest 57kg guy around. Then, I’ll have to start proving that I’m the toughest guy, full stop, after that.”

Get Ten Dollars Off UFC 301: Pantoja vs Hill

If Erceg’s ascent to contender status seems quick, that’s because it was. The 27-year-old made his UFC debut at UFC 289 in June 2023, going on to pick up wins over David Dvorak, Alessandro Costa and Matt Schnell, as well as two performance bonuses over the proceeding nine months.

His work, combined with the fact that Pantoja holds wins over much of the division’s top-10 at this point, created the perfect storm for Erceg, who picked up an interest in mixed martial arts when he saw Frank Mir submit Brock Lesnar in February 2008. The Perth-born Erceg was a big WWE fan at the time (he said his favorites were The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin and Rey Mysterio), and given the hoopla around Lesnar’s transition to MMA, he needed to understand what on earth Mir did to get the win. 

Steve Erceg of Australia punches Alessandro Costa of Brazil in a flyweight fight during the UFC 295 event at Madison Square Garden on November 11, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Steve Erceg of Australia punches Alessandro Costa of Brazil in a flyweight fight during the UFC 295 event at Madison Square Garden on November 11, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

“Seeing a bigger guy get tapped by a smaller guy intrigued me, as a naturally smaller person, into learning what the hell happened,” Erceg said. “From then, I knew I at least wanted to learn what was going on in there, and I asked my dad to find a gym as quickly as he could.”

Erceg eventually made his pro MMA debut eight years later but split his first two bouts. From there, though, he hit a tear on which he still is riding the momentum — an 11-fight winning streak dating back to July 2018. He picked up the Eternal MMA flyweight title along the way, and he hopes to replicate that success on May 4.

His title challenge comes at an interesting moment in Oceania’s MMA scene. After Alexander Volkanovski lost his long-held featherweight title to Ilia Topuria at UFC 298, nobody from the region holds a UFC title for the first time since Robert Whittaker captured the middleweight belt in July 2017. Erceg said he drew a lot of inspiration from Volkanovski when he watched “The Great” challenge Islam Makhachev for the lightweight title for the first time in Perth. Although Volkanovski ultimately lost, Erceg couldn’t help but appreciate how Volkanovski carried himself and performed on the night.   

Alex Volkanovski speaks to Jack Della Maddalena and Steve Erceg during the UFC 305 Announcement Media Call at Scrappy MMA on March 27, 2024 in Perth, Australia. (Photo by Will Russell/Zuffa LLC)
Alex Volkanovski speaks to Jack Della Maddalena and Steve Erceg during the UFC 305 Announcement Media Call at Scrappy MMA on March 27, 2024 in Perth, Australia. (Photo by Will Russell/Zuffa LLC)

“I like the fact that, when people think of tough guys, they think of Australia (and) they think of New Zealand,” Erceg said. “They think of Izzy. They think of Volk. Dan Hooker. Jack Della Maddalena. They think of all these guys, and I just want to be another one of those guys, so when I bring the belt back—I don’t think necessarily champions are defined by the belt— we still have all those guys that, just because they don’t have the belt doesn’t mean they’re not champions in my eyes. They’re still really big role models and people to look up to, so I’d love to join those ranks.”

Other inspirations to Erceg include Thiago Alves and José Aldo (who fights in UFC 301’s co-main event), as well as fighters outside of MMA like Muhammad Ali, Floyd Mayweather Jr., Ramon Dekkers and Ernesto Hoost, but he names Roy Jones Jr. as his favorite combat sports athlete. 

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He has a stiff challenge in front of him in Pantoja. The 34-year-old Brazilian has long been a presence at the top of the division since making his UFC debut in January 2017, only a year after Erceg made his professional debut. Since then, Pantoja tallied an 11-3 record, including multiple wins over top contenders Brandon Moreno and Brandon Royval, as well as a five-fight winning streak he takes into UFC 301.

That also means Erceg has plenty of tape from which to study, and he believes he can find success if he stands his ground.

“People almost let him hold the center and cover-up while he’s resting,” Erceg said. “Many people seem to really want to wrestle him back because they’re worried about his jiu jitsu. The people that have been the most successful, I think, are the people who have used their whole game, not just trying to just stay away and strike. I’m looking to do the same thing. I’m going to mix up MMA and not let him dictate where the fight goes and what the pace of the fight looks like.”

That’s easier said than done, of course, especially considering 18 of Pantoja’s 27 professional wins have come before the final horn. “Cannibal” is as aggressive and game a champion as any on the roster, and he’ll have even more energy in his corner fighting in Brazil for the first time under the UFC banner. 

Get Your Tickets For UFC 302: Makhachev vs Poirier

It’s a hard task, but then again, that’s how title challenges usually work. The spotlight, the tension and the stakes are all unfamiliar for Erceg, who is welcoming it all with open arms. He’s even leaning into the jokes and memes comparing him with Steve Carrell’s character Michael Scott from The Office. 

“I’ve seen a lot of good ones,” he said. “I guess I can kind of see some of the similarities in the way we look and that sort of thing, and obviously I love The Office. I think (Carrell) is very funny, so if I can piggyback off that humor and put into some of my stock, I think that’d be hilarious.”

It isn’t surprising Erceg is taking it all in stride. After all, his moniker “Astroboy” came from his coach’s ex-girlfriend who said he shared some resemblance with the manga character. Jokes and memes aside, Erceg will have a bigger platform than ever in the lead-up to his most important fight to date. That also means more people wanting to get to know him. 

For Erceg, the message is simple.

“I hope people get to know that I’m just another hungry, game guy from Perth,” he said. “I’m going to scrap with anyone they put in front of me, and it’s going to be a fun fight. 

“I don’t know what else to say.”

That’s the polite way to say: I’m going to let my fists do all the talking, so sit back and watch. 

UFC 301: Pantoja vs Erceg took place live from Farmasi Arena in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on May 4, 2024. See the Final Prelim and Main Card Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass!