The UFC and the sport of MMA as a whole continued to show the best and worst of what professional athletes have to offer in 2023. Here are some of the high (and low) lights.
If you said that Sean Strickland would conclude 2023 as Fighter of the Year and UFC middleweight champion, it would have been laughable. Strickland began the calendar year on a two-fight losing streak including a devastating knockout loss to Alex Pereira.
Instead of remaining on the sidelines to lick his wounds after dropping a split decision to Jared Cannonier in December, Strickland rebounded against Nassourdine Imavov just two weeks into the new year. While a finish over Abus Magomedov in July helped get him back on track to reenter title contention, it was an unexpected opportunity that set up his magnum opus.
After Dricus Du Plessis couldn’t make good on his number one contender status ahead of a predetermined homecoming showcase for Israel Adesanya.
Walking into the Octagon at UFC 293, Adesanya’s dominant victory was a foregone conclusion. The far more polished striker riding the momentum of his revenge KO against Pereira was a -480 favorite was expected to embarrass Strickland and add to his already lofty highlight reel.
Instead, Strickland would drop Adesanya late in the first round and spend the better part of 25 minutes walking down and neutralizing the former kickboxing champion.
Sure, Francis Ngannou did not fight a second of sanctioned mixed martial arts but what he did outside of the cage is more than deserving of recognition.
After securing his release from the UFC in January while still holding the promotion’s undisputed heavyweight title, questions about Ngannou’s future rose. Was turning down a contract that would’ve made him “the highest paid heavyweight of all time” with the world leader in MMA a big mistake? Would he find any meaningful success outside of the Octagon?
Ngannou soon answered those questions with a PFL contract that not only gave him a bigger slice of pie and an executive position with the company, but it also gave him the freedom to pursue his lifelong dream of professional boxing.
While just securing a fight in the squared circle with the undefeated Tyson Fury was a victory within itself, Ngannou defied the odds yet again with a memorable performance in a close defeat. Not only did he prove his worth as a boxer and earn a WBC ranking, he did it on his terms.
How do you top a 2022 KO of the year candidate in a come-from-behind championship winning performance against someone hailed as the welterweight GOAT? You beat him again.
That’s exactly why Leon Edwards deserves his spot on this list.
Despite shutting Kamaru Usman’s lights out at UFC 278, Edwards entered the O2 Arena as a +290 underdog just six months later. This time, Edwards didn’t need a hail mary head kick to get his hand raised.
In 2023’s final event, Edwards handled the troubling style match up with Colby Covington with relative ease, winning all but one round on the judges scorecards.
Honorable mentions: Alex Pereira, Alexandre Pantoja, Alex Grasso, Tom Aspinall, Impa Kasagnay
How do you become the most disappointing fighter of 2023 without fighting? Well Julianna Pena laid the blueprint.
There’s no denying the significance of her surprise submission win over Amanda Nunes to steal the UFC bantamweight title as 2021 drew to close. When Nunes reclaimed the belt the following July, the trilogy was the next logical step.
However, when Pena withdrew from their UFC 289 main event after sustaining a rib injury in training, it opened the door for Irene Aldana to step up on short notice. After Nunes’ dominated Aldana and immediately announced her retirement, Pena showed her true colors.
While the greatest female fighter in history was in the Octagon for the final time addressing fans and bidding farewell to the sport, Pena inserted herself in the moment in a classless display. Booing and claiming that Nunes was retiring to avoid the trilogy.
Unsatisfied with her place in Nunes’ legacy and her underwhelming showing in their rematch, Pena completely ignored the fact that she was the one responsible for the third bout falling out.
Despite sustaining his status as the most famous person in the sport of MMA, Conor McGregor spent nearly all of 2023 disappointing fans in every way.
His return to The Ultimate Fighter and a promised match up with fellow lightweight crowd pleaser Michael Chandler was understandably met with great excitement. Two of the most interesting personalities in the sport coaching UFC vets with the promise of an action packed bout between the two later on, what’s not to love?
However, McGregor not fulfilling his end of the bargain proved to be a doubt hit for fight fans. Not only did it leave one of the most anticipated fights of the year undone, but it also sidelined a top contender at lightweight while the champion defended against a featherweight twice.
It’s one thing if McGregor maintained a somewhat low profile. Instead, he frequently took to social media for bizarre posts and underwhelming trash talk to other fighters on the roster. But that pales in comparison to the multiple allegations of assault.
While the investigation into an alleged sexual assault at an NBA game concluded with no charges being filed, it continued a troubling pattern of poor decisions and controversies that have followed McGregor into superstardom.
At least his reluctance to reenter the USADA testing pool put the nail in the coffin of the extremely flawed partnership with the independent anti-doping bureau.
Stipe Miocic is the greatest heavyweight in UFC history. However, it doesn’t negate the disappointment of his refusal to fight outside of title opportunities.
While we can’t place blame on him for the fallout of the original UFC 295 main event nor his exclusion from the card altogether after Jon Jones’ injury, its scheduling only confirms his unwillingness to face anyone not holding a belt.
For almost five years, Miocic has only fought two men: Daniel Cormier and Francis Ngannou. That means Curtis Blaydes, Cyril Gane, Alexander Volkov, or any other high ranked heavyweight that was available to fight in 2023 was off limits. Chances to further add to his legacy and/or work his way back up the ladder the traditional way were missed. Considering his infrequency of activity since dropping the title to Ngannou in 2021, Miocic watching the division move along without him feels that much more disappointing.
Dishonorable mentions: Paddy Pimblett, Colby Covington, Paulo Costa, Petr Yan