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THE fireworks started on Tuesday here in Las Vegas, with the Fourth of July celebrations, but they’ll end on Saturday night when UFC 290 delivers two world title fights that have captured fans’ imagination in the fight capital.

Alexander Volkanovski, the pound-for-pound best fighter in MMA and current UFC featherweight king, defends his 145lb title against interim champion Yair Rodriguez.

The flyweight belt is also on the line in the co-main event where Brandon Moreno looks to retain his belt and avenge a 2018 defeat to Alexandre Pantoja, also now the #1 contender.

Aussie Volkanovski, 34, actually enters the T-Mobile Arena on the back of a defeat, only the second in his 27-fight career, after he fell narrowly short challenging for the lightweight crown in February.

The five-round points defeat he suffered in Perth actually enhanced the former rugby league player’s stature as he pushed 155lb champ Islam Makhachev to the wire in a debated defeat.

A rematch may yet still happen before the end of the year.

However, in the chief supporting contest Down Under, Rodriguez, 30, captured the interim belt with a second-round submission to lift himself above the chasing pack as the standout contender for featherweight gold.

The Mexican’s 15-3 record features just two defeats since he joined the UFC, both against former champions, but he’s quickly become a firm fan favourite thanks to a highlight reel that’s banked him nine performance bonuses.

A creative striker with real speed and power, he’s learned from those losses and is peaking at the right time. He’s also a part of a wave a generational talent out of Mexico that’s currently washing over the sport.

Of course, that Mexican wave also includes lord of the flies Moreno, who has established his 125lb reign after coming out on top from four fights with Deiveson Figueiredo.

The champ gets the opportunity to avenge one of the toughest defeats of his 21-6-2 career this weekend too, as it was Pantoja who sent him packing from the UFC five years ago.

Even though he spent just 18 months competing outside of the Octagon, and the loss likely inspired Moreno’s run to the title upon his return. Pantoja still has bragging rights.

During the same time frame, the 33-year-old Brazilian has gone 6-2 in the Octagon – highlighting just how competitive the division is – but is currently riding a three-fight win streak including back-to-back bonus-winning submissions.

With 18 finishes in his 25-5 record, including an exhibition submission victory over Moreno from The Ultimate Fighter show in 2016, Pantoja has that mental edge.

But both set a hot pace, aren’t shy when it comes to letting the leather fly and boast submissions for days. It’s as close as any title match-up you can make in the sport.

If Moreno can make it through five rounds, he’ll likely take a decision. But often champions have kryptonite opponents in their careers and Pantoja’s heavy hands and ground offence make 25 minutes seem like mission impossible.

In the main event, Rodriguez may be flying but the gulf in class from Volkanovski to the rest will be evident from the start: Too strong, too fast and too talented.

“And still…” the pint-sized Aussie’s grip on MMA isn’t ending any time soon.

TIP: Volkanovski & Pantoja Inside the Distance Double (43/20)


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