Alexandre Pantoja recalls tapping Brandon Royal with both eyes closed in first fight: ‘A work of art’
Alexandre Pantoja has a unique approach to rear-naked chokes in MMA. Seven of Pantoja’s 10 submission wins have come via the technique — plus one neck crank — and he’s so used to attacking from his opponent’s backs, he prefers to do it with both eyes closed.
Pantoja makes the first defense of his 125-pound title on Saturday at UFC 296 when he faces Brandon Royval in a rematch of a bout Pantoja won with a rear-naked choke in 2021. That victory, which Pantoja described as “a work of art,” saw the Brazilian champ hunt for the fight-ending sequence without opening his eyes.
“I don’t know if I have to train more armbars and triangle chokes or something else, but it’s more of me wanting to take the back all the time and seeing it as an easy position for me,” Pantoja said with a laugh on MMA Fighting’s Trocação Franca podcast. “The UFC posted a video not that long ago and I saw that I had my eyes closed in every submission. I usually do this move with my eyes closed because I already know where to go, and when I close my eyes my senses are more keen to do this move, you know? It’s natural.
“I’ve done jiu-jitsu for such a long time, and when I’m on the back I really close my eyes to feel every single muscle [of my opponent] moving, and I already know where to go. Seeing things really does more harm that good. I think it’s pretty natural, really.”
Pantoja thanks the help of training partners Jussier Formiga, Kyoji Horiguchi, Adriano Moraes and other studs from American Top Team, plus head coach Marcos Parrumpa, as the reason why he continues to evolve as a grappler 15 years into his MMA career.
“But I also want to look out for more standup fights, you know?” Pantoja added. “I’ve been training that a lot. I wasn’t able to show that [against Brandon Moreno] because I was so anxious for that moment. I’m fighting smarter now, calmer. If I have to go for it, my heart will always be there, but I see myself putting on a clean fight [against Royval].”
Pantoja gives his challenger credit for evolving since their first match. Royval has gone 3-0 since that loss, defeating Rogerio Bontorin, Matt Schnell, and Matheus Nicolau, and pocketing a pair of bonus for first-round finishes of the latter two.
Pantoja has also won bonuses for his past three victories, and owns a total of five post-fight bonuses over his most recent seven octagon appearances.
“Him beating Matheus Nicolau really shows us we have to be alert against him,” Pantoja said, “to beat such a tough guy the way he did.
“Being on a three-fight winning streak really changed something in him. I’ve also learned a lot from my losses. That’s what a champion is made of. When a guy goes down and feels that pain and what he does from there, if he puts it behind him and continues to move forward, that says a lot.
“I expect an incredible fight, a war,” Pantoja added.
While six new UFC champions have been crowned in 2023, Pantoja is the only one putting his title on the line before the end of the year. As for 2024, he’s down for three more bouts.
“When they gave me the date, there was no doubt in my mind that I was going to take it,” Pantoja said. “I have no time to waste. I’m an old-school guy, I have many scars from past wars, so I have to enjoy my moment. I really feel in my prime and I’ll put on a beautiful fight. If God gives me the win, I plan on fighting again in March or April.”