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Australia’s Steve Erceg embracing underdog tag against Alexandre Pantoja

Alexandre Pantoja has waited a long time to headline a pay-per-view card on his native soil, and he wants it known that everyone is welcome in Brazil.

“I want to say to all the fans to respect the gringos that are here because Brazil’s a good place with very good people,” Pantoja said in a bit of mixed messaging. “We’re very nice to everyone who comes to (our) country.”

The welcome mat extends only so far, though, with the flyweight champion comparing himself to a cannibal in how he will treat Australia’s Steve Erceg on Saturday night in UFC 301 in Rio de Janeiro.

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A Brazilian fighter is in every bout on this card.

Pantoja (27-5) is the red-hot favourite for this fight, and even Erceg (12-1) said it’s not the dream matchup many envisioned for the main event, but Pantoja already has beaten many others in the division to dwindle the options.

So the division’s 10th-ranked challenger got the call.

“UFC decided to give me a shot,” Erceg said. “I’m here to be the best guy in the world, so whether I’m an underdog or whether I’m a favorite, it doesn’t really matter to me.”

This is the first time in four years a flyweight bout has been the main event for a PPV card, and the 34-year-old Pantoja said he doesn’t take that honor lightly.

“I’ve learned more and more about how to be a champion with UFC,” Pantoja said. “UFC gave me that opportunity. I’m still learning with that. I’m very humble. … I hope I can win Saturday and still be a good example for everyone.”

It was clear this week which fighter was the local and which was the tourist.

The 28-year-old Erceg got some attention on social media for wearing a blue polo as he stood next to Pantoja in a floral shirt for a publicity photo shoot with Sugarloaf Mountain in the background. Pantoja said his opponent looked like a tourist, to which Erceg responded by saying, well, he is.

“It’s not a fashion contest, so I’m wearing what I think’s comfortable,” Erceg said.

“I am a tourist, right? I’m over here doing my part to enjoy the scenery as well as come here and fight some guy.”

Erceg has treated this week as a vacation in many ways, taking in the scenery while mixing with the populace. He said even though the crowd will be against him when he steps into the cage, his reception in Brazil has been favorable.

Lest anyone think that Erceg is enjoying himself too much for what’s supposed to be a business trip, he showed up at Wednesday’s news conference wearing the rival soccer jersey of Pantoja’s favorite team. Some head games, perhaps?

Pantoja will have his chance to respond Saturday, but it’s arguable whether this is even the biggest event taking place in Rio that day. Madonna has a free concert planned on the famous Copacabana Beach that will be broadcast on Brazilian TV.

More than a million people are expected to attend the concert for the Material Girl, who often is notoriously late for her own shows.

“Rio is the place for big shows,” Pantoja said. “Madonna called me and said she’s going to finish the show before my fight. I said, ‘OK.’ We’ll make an after-party with her.”

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