Due to a grinding UFC schedule that features cards nearly every week of the year, it's tough for every event to feature fighters the world clamors for. As a result we've seen headlining fights that have been fantastic but truly lacked star power.
But there are a number of prominent fighters whose next bouts should be coming around the corner. Sure, we've already discussed Conor McGregor's future at length, but other familiar faces such as Jorge Masvidal, Rose Namajunas and Justin Gaethje should be making their way back to the Octagon soon.
What's the latest on these fighters, plus a few more who are must-see every time they fight? Brett Okamoto and Marc Raimondi offer a status update ahead of the busy fall schedule.
Why has Masvidal been without a fight for so long?
Some people have speculated that Masvidal has been waiting for his legal issues to clear up -- he's being charged with felony aggravated battery for allegedly punching Colby Covington in late March. That's not true. Masvidal hasn't fought since falling to Covington at UFC 272 on March 5 because he's still recovering from several nagging injuries, the nature of which sources did not want to get into. Masvidal hasn't needed surgery, but he has been hurt in his past few fights and has been taking this time off to heal. The expectation is he'll be able to return in early 2023.
Who should Masvidal take on next?
Gilbert Burns has said he expects to fight Masvidal next and has already verbally accepted Masvidal as an opponent, but timing is an issue. Burns has wanted to come back sooner and Masvidal's timetable is still up in the air, dependent on those aforementioned injuries. That fight could happen in January, but it's nowhere near decided.
One development that has potentially changed things: Leon Edwards knocking out Kamaru Usman to become UFC welterweight champion at UFC 278 in August. Masvidal and Edwards have a history -- Masvidal punched the now-champ during a scuffle backstage at a card in 2019 -- and there is interest from Masvidal's side in a title fight against Edwards, of course. Masvidal has lost three fights in a row, so some will be up in arms about giving him another title shot (he has lost to Usman twice). But realistically, Masvidal is one of the biggest box-office draws the UFC has and a fight against Edwards would likely be a huge event. Stranger things have happened.
What could Masvidal's 2023 be like?
It could be another massive year for Masvidal if it all falls into place. Edwards becoming champion gives him a bit of a rejuvenation in the welterweight division since Usman defeated Masvidal twice and a third fight was unlikely. If the Burns fight happens and Masvidal wins, it's a possibility the UFC could go to Edwards vs. Masvidal -- an objectively big pay-per-view main event fight -- if Edwards is still the champion. Edwards would probably have to get through a trilogy bout with Usman for that to happen. But maybe not. Masvidal's place as one of the biggest stars in the sport has not evaporated. -- Raimondi
Why has Namajunas been without a fight for so long?
It hasn't really been that long in the grand scheme. Namajunas lost her title to Carla Esparza at UFC 274 in May. In 2021, she fought more than once in a year for the first time since 2017. The former two-time UFC women's strawweight champion has been very clear that there is more to her life than just fighting. According to sources, Namajunas is in the process of moving into a home she just purchased. She is also helping her grandmother, who just emigrated to the U.S. from Lithuania, get settled in her new country.
Who should Namajunas take on next?
Let's see what happens between Zhang Weili and Esparza at UFC 281 on Nov. 12. Namajunas could very well take on the winner of that fight with a chance to become a three-time champion. Many people have placed the blame on Namajunas for that lackluster fight with Esparza. The truth is, it takes two to tango. Pretending Namajunas isn't a great, entertaining or exciting fighter based on that performance is unfair. If not for a title shot -- which Namajunas deserves given her two wins over Zhang and the tight loss to Esparza -- a trilogy bout with Jessica Andrade could be fun, too.
What could Namajunas' 2023 be like?
It wouldn't be shocking to see "Thug Rose" holding up the 115-pound title once again, for a third time, next year. Skill for skill, Namajunas is still probably the best in the division and would be favored in most of those matchups. She's only 30 years old. If she wants to -- again, she does have priorities outside the Octagon -- Namajunas could end up having a huge 2023. -- Raimondi
Why has Alvarez been without a fight for so long?
Alvarez didn't fight at all in 2020 as ONE Championship was dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. Challenges associated with running events in consideration of the virus were much more complicated in Asia than in the U.S. Alvarez fought twice in April 2021: The first was a weird bout in which he had a loss rightfully overturned to a no contest due to strikes to the back of the head, and the second was a decision loss to Rae Yoon Ok. ONE has historically not kept its high-paid North American and South American talents very active, and Alvarez fought just four times for the promotion since 2019, including those two bouts in one month. That inactivity likely has to do with why Alvarez, the former UFC and Bellator lightweight champion, and ONE have amicably parted ways.
Who should Alvarez take on next?
Alvarez probably has more options than most. PFL is spending big money on free agents right now -- just ask Shane Burgos -- and Alvarez is a big name with a decorated record of championships in just about every place he has been. Plus, he's an entertaining action fighter. He'd be an interesting fit in PFL's lightweight division or as part of its showcase fights for pay-per-view events planned for 2023. Then there's Bellator, with a lightweight grand prix tournament scheduled for next year, which could be right up Alvarez's alley as someone who spent years fighting in Japan in similar events.
Boxing and Bare Knuckle FC have been popular destinations for MMA fighters recently, too. And then, of course, there's the UFC, where he had success before leaving for ONE as a free agent. Outside of the tough loss to Conor McGregor at UFC 205 in November 2016, Alvarez had a nice run with the promotion and owns a win over Justin Gaethje. No one would complain if he finished his trilogy with Michael Chandler, either. The first two fights in Bellator were among the best in MMA history, no hyperbole.
What could Alvarez's 2023 be like?
Lucrative, potentially. Alvarez's team told ESPN last month that he is seeking the biggest and best fights available. Getting one or two of those next year could be a lot of fun. "The Underground King" was nicknamed that because of his many accolades that flew under the radar in smaller promotions. It'll be good to see the action fighter and all-around good guy coming back for some high-profile fights in the U.S. at age 38. -- Raimondi
Why has Covington been without a fight for so long?
Namely, because he's the alleged victim in a criminal battery case involving his former opponent Jorge Masvidal. Masvidal is accused of attacking Covington on the streets of Miami on March 21, about two weeks after Covington dominated him in a five-round grudge match at UFC 272. Covington has been extremely quiet since the alleged attack, which is not unusual for someone involved in an active case. The case has yet to go to trial, and there is also the high likelihood of a civil lawsuit to consider, when speculating on Covington's eventual return.
All of that is to say, it's very unclear when we will see Covington fight again. But oddly enough, there is really no urgency for him to return anyway. He's the No. 2-ranked welterweight at the moment, and that's unlikely to change any time soon, even if he remains inactive. There is no title fight to return to at the moment because the UFC is already working on a trilogy bout between Edwards and Usman. He doesn't lose out on anything by chilling right now. And in recent years, he has actually shown he's willing to wait for the right fight -- and that was when he didn't have any legal matters to consider.
Who should Covington take on next?
There are two possibilities at the moment.
Possibility No. 1: Edwards defends his title against Usman in a trilogy bout in the first quarter of 2023, and Covington slides in as the next title challenger. Covington isn't talking to the media, but one has to assume this would be the ideal scenario for him. He wants to fight for the belt again. He won't get that opportunity if Usman is the champ, because he already has lost to him twice. But if it's Edwards, he could be next.
Possibility No. 2: Khamzat Chimaev. Right now, it's up in the air whether Chimaev's next fight will be at welterweight or middleweight. If it's welterweight, there's really only one fight that makes sense for him, and that's Covington. The UFC could try to book Covington vs. Chimaev on the same card as Edwards vs. Usman III to set up the next title challenger.
Things are constantly changing in the UFC, but I wouldn't expect Covington to make his next move until there's a little more clarity on a date for the Edwards-Usman trilogy and Chimaev's situation.
What could Covington's 2023 look like?
It could be a massive year -- Covington is 34 and arguably in his prime. There's a world in which he could face Chimaev and fight for a UFC title in 2023. If he were to win both of those, he'd be in conversation for Fighter of the Year, and his bank account would reap the rewards. These are tough fights at the top of the 170-pound division, but Covington is right there, and he knows how to sell an event. -- Okamoto
Why has Gaethje been out so long?
It should be noted it hasn't been that long. If you go back to Gaethje's past two fights, there have been layoffs of 12 months and six months between fights. Right now, he hasn't fought in five months, so we're still well within a pretty normal range for someone of his stature. He also underwent nose surgery in June, which required time off. Gaethje has reached a point in his career where he's not going to fight just to fight. He's looking at title shots, No. 1 contender fights or money grudge matches. When those are the only options that make sense, sometimes it takes time for one to materialize.
Who should Gaethje fight next?
The obvious answer is Rafael Fiziev, and everyone knows it. Fiziev knows it, which is why he has been calling Gaethje out on social media nonstop since his most recent fight in July. The UFC knows it, and has looked into booking that matchup. Gaethje and his team know it, too, but it's not a fight they're interested in. And that's Gaethje's right. He has earned the right to decline a fight that doesn't motivate him or wouldn't properly reward him. But it does put him in uncertain territory, because the UFC doesn't like it when a fighter turns down a fight that makes sense, and Fiziev is doing everything he can to publicize Gaethje's decision.
We'll know more on Oct. 23, after Charles Oliveira and Islam Makhachev fight for the UFC's vacant lightweight championship. If Makhachev wins, then it's a new champion, and it breathes life into former title challengers, like Gaethje, who already lost to Oliveira. If Makhachev is champion, all of a sudden title fights against the likes of Gaethje, Dustin Poirier, Michael Chandler -- those are all fresh again. If Oliveira wins, not so much. Fiziev is going to remain an option for Gaethje's next fight, but we'll see how this month's title fight impacts the landscape.
What could Gaethje's 2023 look like?
It might be a relatively inactive one. Gaethje fought only once in 2021. As of now, it's looking like he'll fight only once in 2022. I'd love to say we'll see him get back to two appearances in 2023, but with the way the lightweight division currently looks, there just aren't a ton of obvious fights for Gaethje right now. The top five lightweights are Oliveira, Poirier, Gaethje, Makhachev, Chandler. Which means, of the top five, there's only one potential opponent for Gaethje whom he hasn't already fought. Considering that, we're back to Fiziev, which doesn't interest him.
Keep an eye on movement at the top of the division, and keep an eye on Conor McGregor's potential comeback. That's what Gaethje will be doing. Maybe we'll see him take a "fun" fight at welterweight if nothing else surfaces, but we're not quite there yet. Depending on what happens at UFC 280, Gaethje's 2023 looks like it's going to start off with him waiting for something good to come along. How long will he have to wait? Good question. -- Okamoto