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Steve Erceg of Australia punches 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)
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UFC Monthly Report | March 2024

Reflecting On The Best Performances From The Last Month Of Action Inside The Octagon

It might be a little early to say this, but it feels like some things happened in March that are going to prove to be milestones we look back on over the rest of the year.

For starters, the Knockout of the Year race might be a battle for second place at this point, while a humble, unsung standout from Australia very well could have kicked off a chain reaction that ends up changing his professional life. On top of that, there were just a ton of quality performances, memorable finishes, and thoroughly entertaining fights spread out over five consecutive weekends.

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We don’t do a “Best Month of the Year” award when we hand out mid-year and year-end hardware, but if we did, March would definitely be the frontrunner right now.

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Let’s take a look at some of the best of the best from the past month’s action inside the Octagon.

Breakout Performance: Steve Erceg

 

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Erceg had an excellent rookie campaign in the UFC, especially considering he didn’t make his first appearance until June, when he turned up in Vancouver on short notice and out-worked Top 15 fixture David Dvorak. He followed it up with a similar effort against Alessandro Costa at UFC 295 in November, running his record to 11-1 and his overall winning streak to double digits in the process, but it wasn’t until last month that he landed on the wider radar.

Steve Erceg of Australia punches 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 of Australia punches 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)

Positioned against Top 10 fixture Matt Schnell in the main card opener of the March 2nd event at the UFC APEX, Erceg detonated a left hook on the jaw of the veteran from Louisiana during a pocket exchange just seconds into the second round.

Schnell was out as soon as it landed and Erceg didn’t bother following up, understanding that his night was over.

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The timing of the performance couldn’t have been better for “Astroboy” either, as it was announced shortly thereafter that he would face Alexandre Pantoja for the flyweight title in the main event of UFC 301 in Rio de Janeiro in May.

People that follow the sport closely were excited for Erceg to reach the UFC last year, and his efforts during that first seven months on the roster validated that excitement, but his win over Schnell got everyone paying attention and put the division on notice that the standout from Perth is a legitimate threat in the 125-pound ranks.

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 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)

And by the time his one-year anniversary rolls around, he could be UFC flyweight champion.

Honorable Mentions: Vinicius Oliveira, Christian Leroy Duncan, Ludovit Klein, Payton Talbott, Youssef Zalal, Joaquin Buckley, Kyle Nelson

Submission of the Month: Fernando Padilla submits Luis Pajuelo (UFC Vegas 89)

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Padilla’s size and reach has always been one of the elements that makes him such a fascinating addition to the featherweight ranks, and it was on full display in this one.

From the outset of this one, Padilla was using those assets to his advance, keeping Pajuelo at range with front kicks to the body, chopping low kicks, and long jabs, making it difficult for the Peruvian newcomer to get inside and find success. When Pajuelo did work inside, Padilla was effective there too, dropping him with a straight left hand along the fence.

Fernando Padilla of Mexico secures a guillotine choke submission against Luis Pajuelo of Peru in a featherweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on March 23, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Fernando Padilla of Mexico secures a guillotine choke submission against Luis Pajuelo of Peru in a featherweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on March 23, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

And when Pajuelo started working back to his feet, those long arms became a factor once again.

After swarming, but failing to finish on the canvas, Padilla fished his arm under the neck as Pajuelo stood up, instantly cinching in a deep, tight D’arce choke that left the debutant no choice but to tap immediately.

Still just 27 years old, Padilla is definitely a name to track in the featherweight division, as his size is going to be a problem for a lot of people. The raw materials are there for him to build into being a contender, so it’s all going to come down to the work he puts in and the matchups that come his way over the next couple years.

Honorable Mentions: Michel Pereira vs. Michal Oleksiejczuk, Marcin Tybura vs. Tai Tuivasa, Macy Chiasson vs. Pannie Kianzad, Mike Davis vs. Natan Levy, Jaqueline Amorim vs. Cory McKenna, Zalal vs. Billy Quarantillo, Julian Erosa vs. Ricardo Ramos

Knockout of the Month: Vinicius Oliveira knocks out Benardo Sopaj (UFC Vegas 87)

Vinicius Oliveira Flying Knees Benardo Sopaj | UFC Fight Night: Rozenstruik vs Gaziev
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Vinicius Oliveira Flying Knees Benardo Sopaj | UFC Fight Night: Rozenstruik vs Gaziev
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The second it landed, it was clear that Oliveira was the clubhouse leader in the Knockout of the Year race and that it is going to take something otherworldly to unseat him from that position.

As the third round began, Oliveira had all the momentum in his fight with Sopaj, but that didn’t stop the recent Dana White’s Contender Series graduate from continuing to press the action and looking to make a statement. As the round wore down and Sopaj’s energy reserves continued to dwindle, a heavy low kick and clubbing left hand sent him staggering back into the fence, and that’s when it happened.

Oliveira raced forward and elevated, connecting with the cleanest flying switch knee I have ever seen in all my years watching mixed martial arts.

When I say that he landed flush, I mean he put the point of his knee on Sopaj’s chin and sent him falling to the canvas in a heap.

Vinicius Oliveira of Brazil reacts after his knockout victory against Benardo Sopaj of Albania in a bantamweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on March 02, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Vinicius Oliveira of Brazil reacts after his knockout victory against Benardo Sopaj of Albania in a bantamweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on March 02, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

Just an absolutely preposterous way to close your UFC debut and immediately put yourself on the map with the MMA audience.

Honorable Mentions: Erceg vs. Matt Schnell, Dustin Poirier vs. Benoit Saint Denis, Jack Della Maddalena vs. Gilbert Burns, Edmen Shahbazyan vs. AJ Dobson

Fight of the Month: Jack Della Maddalena vs Gilbert Burns (UFC 299)

When it comes to selecting the Fight of the Month for this series, I will admit to having a bias towards the more technical bouts that carry greater stakes than your garden variety slobberknocker between a couple of neophytes or mid-pack talents.

Jack Della Maddalena of Australia elbows Gilbert Burns of Brazil in a welterweight fight during the UFC 299 event at Kaseya Center on March 09, 2024 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Jack Della Maddalena of Australia elbows Gilbert Burns of Brazil in a welterweight fight during the UFC 299 event at Kaseya Center on March 09, 2024 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

We all have our preferences, and I’m not afraid to admit mine, which is why Della Maddalena and “Durinho” get the nod here.

I adored every piece of this fight: from the constant cat-and-mouse between the ranked welterweights on the feet to the entertaining scrambles whenever they spilled to the ground, this one could have gone the distance and it very much would have been in the running for FOTM honors. But when you factor in how it ended, coupled with learning after the fact that the Australian needed a finish in order to win and broke his arm at some point during the fight, well, it just made it impossible not to shout it out here.

What we got in this matchup is exactly why people were excited to see it when it was first announced: Della Maddalena had done well through his first two years on the roster, but was taking a step up against a former title challenger, while Burns had the opportunity to get right by knocking off an ascending talent.

Jack Della Maddalena Octagon Interview | UFC 299
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Jack Della Maddalena Octagon Interview | UFC 299
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For more than 13 minutes, we got a competitive, entertaining clash between elite talents where each man had their moments and every interaction was captivating.

And then, with 90 seconds or so remaining in the fight, Della Maddalena landed a perfectly timed knee as Burns looked to change levels and attack a takedown that kicked off the finishing 3sequence.

This was an outstanding fight the whole way through, and the kind of performance from the streaking Australian that cements him as a serious contender in the welterweight division.

Honorable Mentions: Oliveira vs Sopaj, Petr Yan vs Song Yadong

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