It's already April and much has gone on in the world of mixed martial arts in 2023. The sport saw, likely, the truest version of a pound-for-pound championship fight in February, between UFC lightweight champion Islam Makhachev and featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski. Makhachev prevailed, but the fight was so good, we might see it a second time in the near future.
Mexican fighters have showcased championship performances by men's flyweight champ Brandon Moreno, interim featherweight champ Yair Rodriguez and newly crowned women's flyweight champ Alexa Grasso. Middleweight champion Israel Adesanya slayed the biggest demon of his combat sports career by finally defeating Alex Pereira in their fourth meeting across two sports. And of course, don't forget, Leon Edwards silenced his critics with a convincing second win over Kamaru Usman in London.
What else lies in store in 2023? Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim reflect on what they've seen so far and offer predictions on what may be to come.
Which fighter's success has surprised the most thus far?
Raimondi: Probably Grasso. And not because it's a surprise that she has been successful. It's who she beat -- and how she did it. Valentina Shevchenko had been borderline invulnerable during her run as UFC women's flyweight champion. She had dispatched every woman she faced and accumulated seven title defenses, the most by any woman in UFC history. Grasso has always been a good fighter, but she didn't put it all together until moving up from strawweight to flyweight.
Even so, Grasso has always been considered more of a boxer in MMA. She has great hands and excellent counters. No one could have predicted she would beat Shevchenko by submission, but Grasso did just that at UFC 285 in March. Grasso forced Shevchenko to tap with a rear-naked choke in the fourth round. In doing so, she became the first Mexican-born woman to win a UFC championship. Grasso is the early candidate for women's MMA fighter of the year on the back of that incredible victory.
Wagenheim: Erin Blanchfield. I'd seen her enough during her young career to know she was on her way up, but Blanchfield's short-notice February booking against Jessica Andrade seemed like too much too soon. However, the 23-year-old grappling specialist confidently stood toe-to-toe with the slugger and dismantled her before taking the fight to the canvas and getting a quick, efficient submission. I can't remember ever being so impressed by an emerging fighter.
Okamoto: Grasso has to headline this list, right? No one is unbeatable, but Shevchenko was looking pretty close to it going into UFC 285. Grasso not only submitted her but looked comfortable the entire fight. In other words, this wasn't some fluke victory. The fight was competitive from start to finish, which most wouldn't have predicted going in. The other name I'd consider here is Blanchfield. I'm not shocked by her continued success, but the maturity and confidence she has shown against top competition leave no question that Blanchfield is arriving at the top ahead of schedule.
Which fighter's struggles have surprised the most thus far?
Wagenheim: Usman. When he was knocked out by Edwards last August, it happened in the fifth round of a fight he was dominating. That can happen to the best fighters, even one of the most dominant champions in recent memory. But in April the former pound-for-pound king lost again to Edwards, who largely controlled their five-round fight and won by majority decision. Suddenly, Usman's path back to the top of the mountain appears rocky at best.
Raimondi: Ciryl Gane. It was just the one loss to Jon Jones last month at UFC 285 in Gane's only fight of the year thus far. And surely losing to Jones, who has the best résumé in UFC history, is nothing to be ashamed about. But consider the circumstances. Jones had not fought in more than three years. He was moving up a weight class. At 35 years old, Jones is, at best, in the latter portion of his prime. Still, Jones was able to take Gane down right away and then lock him in a guillotine submission for a finish in less than half of a round.
There's no way to look at that other than it being disastrous for Gane. The Frenchman went the distance with the fearsome Francis Ngannou in 2022 and nearly won a decision. But Jones further exposed a massive hole in Gane's game: grappling. You can probably add wrestling to the list of deficiencies as well. Gane is still relatively new to MMA, coming over from Muay Thai. And he has a good, thorough coach in Fernand Lopez. Gane is excellent on the feet and super athletic. He'll figure it out. But Jones surely sent him back to the drawing board.
Okamoto: Petr Yan. Merab Dvalishvili has turned the corner in recent fights, so I'm not shocked by his victory over Yan last month. But the way in which Dvalishvili dominated in that fight was a shock. A couple of short years ago, I considered Yan to be among the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world. He's still in his prime today, but he looked lost against Dvalishvili. He wasn't on Dvalishvili's level, quite frankly, and that's surprising. Dvalishvili has the style to make anyone look uncomfortable, but at this point, I'm wondering about Yan's future in the sport, which would have seemed unfathomable coming into 2023.
Which fighter should consider switching divisions?
Max Holloway and Arnold Allen put on a show in front of UFC fans in Kansas City.
Raimondi: This would have been my answer whether or not he won Saturday night: Max Holloway. He's still an elite fighter. He proved that against a very good, young and hungry Arnold Allen this past weekend. But the fact is, he's just treading water at featherweight. Volkanovski has beaten Holloway three times, and I'm not sure there's anything Holloway can do -- as great as he is -- to earn another rematch. It doesn't make sense for Holloway to stay at 145 pounds and be a gatekeeper there. He's better than that. He's an all-time great, in fact, and a run at lightweight would further solidify that.
Here's another thing: Holloway could be closer to a lightweight title shot than he is at featherweight. And that's what Holloway says he wants most, to continue to prove he's the best in the world. Look at 155 pounds right now. Outside of Beneil Dariush, there isn't a clear No. 1 contender, and it seems like the UFC even wants Dariush to win one more. Holloway has a big name and it probably would take only one or two wins for him to get tabbed for a title shot against Makhachev. Now, moving up isn't just a snap of the fingers. Holloway will need to put in the work and bulk up a bit. He went to lightweight in 2019 and lost to Dustin Poirier, but that fight was on short notice. With some time to adjust to a new weight, is there anyone who doesn't think Holloway could be a factor at 155? The time is now.
Okamoto: Maybe it's because he told me he's considering it, but Kelvin Gastelum should think about welterweight. Usually, I wouldn't be in favor of someone going back to a weight class that they have historically struggled to make weight for (which is the case with Gastelum), but I believe Gastelum is a different fighter than he was in 2016. He cut only seven pounds to make middleweight for UFC 287, and his weight is dropping naturally. With the right preparation, I believe Gastelum can make welterweight relatively safely and comfortably. He has to buy in and be disciplined, but if he does that, Gastelum could be a serious problem at welterweight. We've already seen he's capable of taking a guy like Adesanya to the brink of defeat at middleweight. Gastelum at welterweight would be interesting.
Wagenheim: Yan, maybe? The former bantamweight champion is in an 0-3 slump, with one of the losses coming against the current champ and the other two against top contenders for the belt. So Yan's opportunity to regain footing at the top of the 135-pound division appears bleak. The problem is, 135 suits him well. He'd be susceptible to getting bullied by featherweights, and a cut to flyweight could deplete him. So the fork in Yan's road appears to be a choice between his current dead-end path and a couple of treacherous detours.
What fight are you most excited to watch?
Okamoto: Aljamain Sterling vs. Henry Cejudo (UFC 288, May 6). I think people sleep on Cejudo's accolades because of his "cringe" gimmick, but this man is one of the greatest fighters of all time. He holds a win over Demetrious Johnson. He knocked out TJ Dillashaw in one round. He has won titles in multiple weight classes. It would be quite a feat if he comes out of retirement and beats Sterling, who has solidified himself as the true 135-pound champ in Cejudo's absence. And I've been saying this all year, if he does that, it sets up storylines against Sean O'Malley and possibly Volkanovski. Or, if Sterling wins, it just further cements the great run he has been on. This main event is not getting the attention it deserves. It carries heavy implications in arguably the UFC's deepest division.
Wagenheim: Brandon Moreno vs. Alexandre Pantoja (UFC 290, July 8). How often do we get to see a champion defend his title against someone he has fought twice before and lost to both times? Yeah, I know that was the backstory when Adesanya defended against Pereira in November last year, but the two previous losses, in that case, had come in a different sport. The two times Moreno has been bettered by Pantoja, on the other hand, they met right inside the Octagon. One of the fights was deemed an exhibition because it happened on "The Ultimate Fighter," but it was a real fight and Pantoja choked him out. How will Moreno respond now that he's wearing a championship belt?
Raimondi: Stephen "Wonderboy" Thompson vs. Michel Pereira (UFC 289, June 10). It might not be a main event or co-main event, but this matchup should be a whole lot of fun. Thompson is still extremely game at 40 years old and capable of putting on great performances. His fight with Kevin Holland last December, a victory, was a late candidate for 2022 Fight of the Year. "Wonderboy" is still superfast and that karate striking technique will never age.
Pereira, meanwhile, is chaotic in the best ways. He has done backflips during fights and vaulted himself off the fence. The Brazilian-born fighter is one of the most unpredictable, unorthodox fighters in the world when he's going well. He's also uberathletic and with big power in his punches, knees and kicks. It'll be incredibly fascinating to see Thompson's slick, pure martial arts style against Pereira's Tasmanian devil-like offense. The fans in Vancouver will be getting a treat.
What is your bold prediction for this summer?
Okamoto: The PFL finally signs Cris Cyborg Justino to face Kayla Harrison. The PFL has been trying to make that fight forever, to the point it looked like it simply wasn't going to happen. But I like the PFL's chances to finally get it done this summer. I also like its chances to sign Ngannou to a deal, as well.
Raimondi: Adesanya will move up to light heavyweight and challenge Jamahal Hill for the UFC title. That is assuming that former champion Jiří Procházka won't be ready, which seems to be the case. Adesanya is one of the most active fighters on the UFC roster and doesn't get enough credit for it. He is almost a lock to fight two to three times per year. The UFC middleweight champion has fought 11 times since the start of 2019, a pretty incredible clip for someone who fights only the absolute best fighters in the world every time out.
Why light heavyweight this summer? Well, coming off regaining the title with a knockout of Pereira earlier this month, Adesanya doesn't have a clear next contender at middleweight following Pereira's announcement that he is moving up. Khamzat Chimaev is waiting in the wings, and Adesanya vs. Chimaev would be a blockbuster main event. But Chimaev will likely have to win at least one fight against a top 185-pound contender before getting the title fight. Adesanya has already beaten Robert Whittaker (twice), Jared Cannonier and Marvin Vettori. He lost his last time fighting for the light heavyweight title, against Jan Blachowicz in 2021. But Hill is a striker and that is a much more favorable, aesthetically pleasing matchup. It would be fireworks.
Wagenheim: Conor McGregor books his return fight. What's so bold about that? Well, according to the UFC's drug testing protocol, fighters must be in the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency testing pool for six months before they can fight. McGregor reportedly is not yet being tested. But is that going to delay the UFC cash register from cha-ching-ing away for a spectacle featuring McGregor? Fans, media and a few UFC fighters will grumble over the timing of the red-carpet welcome back, but nothing will come of it.