In the early days of UFC flyweight champion Alexandre Pantoja’s mixed martial arts career, it wasn’t uncommon for him to hear whispers of his potential.
“A lot of people from when I was very young said to me ‘When you go to the UFC, you’re going to take the belt’,” Pantoja recalled with UFC.com. “I felt that if I had that shot I would win that belt.
“And I did it.”
Pantoja’s path to becoming champion was a wild one that featured plenty of adversity and a resume of performances that helped him make the point that he was determined to make.
Alexandre Pantoja Octagon Interview | UFC 290
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Alexandre Pantoja Octagon Interview | UFC 290
The 33-year-old Brazilian got his foot into the door in 2016 on The Ultimate Fighter: Tournament of Champions, where he was the No. 1 ranked athlete on the show. He beat Brandon Moreno and Kai Kara-France in the first two rounds of the tournament before being ousted in the semifinals by Hiromasa Ogikubo.
Pantoja would receive a UFC contract shortly after the season finale and started off his UFC career 5-1, establishing himself in the flyweight rankings while adding another victory over Moreno to his resume.
At UFC 240, Pantoja faced a surging contender in Deiveson Figueiredo. He would lose to Figueiredo in a Fight of the Night-winning bout. Pantoja credits that loss to Figueiredo as a crucial moment in his career. It woke him up, changed his perspective on fighting, and was the launch pad for his title run.
“I appreciate Deiveson Figueiredo because he’s a very good fighter and a very talented guy. When I fought with him, we were at the top. He’s like me, very aggressive. He loves to come to the Octagon and gives everything; that’s my style, too,” Pantoja said. “I met with him a couple of times in the hotel and told him, ‘Let’s make Fight of the Night and be like Streetfighter.’”
And while Figueiredo was happy to meet fire with fire, Figueiredo also mixed things up to take Pantoja down at the end of the round or put his foot on the gas to end a frame in a positive light.
Pantoja thought he was going to have a battle and he did, but Figueiredo approached the fight as a smart battle – not ‘Streetfighter,’ like Pantoja did.
“You can’t go into the fight and give everything; you need to play the game,” Pantoja said. “You need takedowns, and you need to score all the time. You need to know that you don’t go into every fight and fight like a bulldog. It’s not like that. If you want to be a champion, you need to fight very smart.”
“The Cannibal” took the lessons learned from the fight with Figueiredo and from his defeat against Askar Askarov and reformulated his attack. It wasn’t about being better in one place of MMA or being more aggressive; it was about winning moments and winning moments at the right time.
That’s what he put into practice against Manel Kape in the first win of his run to the top of the flyweight division.
“I go into the fight just to win the game and that’s what happened. I won the game with a very dangerous fighter,” Pantoja recalled. “That’s why I learned so much from the fight with Deiveson Figueiredo.”
And although Pantoja admits he was trying to fight smarter, he was also being fueled at the same time by the desire to change the lives of his family back home in Brazil. That’s what the goal was for his fight with Brandon Royval – bring his family to the United States.
My body wasn’t 100% in that fight, but my mind was very strong because I knew everything I need to do to bring my family to the United States,” Pantoja said.
Pantoja delivered in a big way; he looked totally in control on his way to a second-round rear naked choke submission win over Royval. He earned a Performance of the Night bonus and was able to get the funds needed to bring his family to Florida.
“In that moment, I really didn’t think about the title. When I fought Royval, I was just thinking about my purses. Win the money and go back home with the purses. My body wasn’t 100%, but God gave me the victory and God gave me the bonus of the night.”
As he was being interviewed in the Octagon after the win, Pantoka looked outside the Octagon to see the then-champion, Moreno, doing play-by-play for the broadcast of his fight, and his mindset switched from money to UFC gold. He called for another fight with the champion, but little did he know things wouldn’t work out the way he hoped.
“In that moment, I thought my body could recover quickly and I could make a title fight with Moreno,” Pantoja said. “The same day the UFC called me to fight Moreno was the same day I was going to have surgery. It’s a special moment in my life, I’ll never forget it. I had to say no to fight for the belt.”
Pantoja’s injury paved the way for Moreno vs Figueiredo III, which Figueiredo won by a close unanimous decision. Pantoja had hoped that Moreno and Figueiredo would have their fourth fight settled by the time he was back, but that wasn’t the case.
Instead, an injury to Figueiredo pushed the UFC to make an interim UFC flyweight title fight between Moreno and Kara-France at UFC 277. That same night, Pantoja made his return to action, after nearly a full year of recovery and he beat Alex Perez by submission in under two minutes.
“Six months of therapy to recover my body, six months I didn’t step into the gym - I respected all the processes. Nine months after my surgery, I fought Alex Perez and won in 91 seconds. That proved how much I wanted to prove to the world who I am.
“That’s the point. Prove to the world who you are. How much hard work I do. How much I sacrifice for everything.”
Moreno defeated Kara-France at UFC 277 and they booked the fourth bout between Moreno and Figueiredo for UFC 283 in Rio de Janeiro, Pantoja’s hometown. That was difficult for Pantoja. Nothing would have been more magical than for him to become champion in his hometown, but it wasn’t in the cards.
“After my fight with Alex Perez, I knew I needed to wait for Moreno-Figueredo IV in Rio. I trained a lot to fight in Rio because that’s my town, and if something happened, I would be there ready to fight. I was prepared to fight but it didn’t happen, so I had more time.”
Pantoja remained patient and just continued to work. That’s why when he finally received that bout announcement, the one that said it was for the undisputed UFC flyweight title and the one that would make him a world champion, he was beyond ready.
There was nothing that was going to stop him.
“I prepared myself for one year for that fight with the belt,” Pantoja said. “When I went to T-Mobile Arena on July 8 to fight Moreno it was a very special day for me. It was my day. I worked very hard for that moment.”
That’s the story of how Pantoja proved to the world who he was.
And how he accomplished exactly what his peers thought he would.
At UFC 296: Edwards vs Covington on December 16 in Las Vegas, Pantoja looks to notch his first successful title defense when he faces Royval for the second time.
UFC 296: Edwards vs Covington took place live from T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada on December 16, 2023. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass!