UFC mid-year awards: Shocking upsets, Octagon greatness and ... stealing jackets?

Alexander Volkanovski and Israel Adesanya put on big performances in 2023, but which one was crowned fighter of the midyear by our ESPN panel? Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC

The UFC has put on 23 events featuring 11 title fights this year, plus one in which an interim belt was at stake. We've seen five new champions crowned.

There have been a couple of high-profile retirements: Amanda Nunes, the greatest fighter in the history of women's MMA, vacated her UFC bantamweight and featherweight titles after walking away from the sport following her win last month, and Robbie Lawler, one of the sport's most violent practitioners of action fights, ended a 22-year pro career with a bang last weekend at UFC 290.

Along with the departures, there have been arrivals, as young fighters climbed the ranks toward title contention (Ilia Topuria) or burst onto the scene (Bo Nickal).

It's been an eventful start to 2023. Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim highlight some of the most notable accomplishments and moments at the midpoint of the year.

(Editor's note: ESPN's 14-person voting panel is made up by Dominick Cruz, Gilbert Melendez, Brett Okamoto, Jeff Wagenheim, Ian Parker, Marc Raimondi, Carlos Contreras Legaspi, Phil Murphy, Myron Medcalf, Andrew Feldman, Kel Dansby, Air Broom, Andrew Davis and Eddie Maisonet III. All votes were cast following UFC 290.)

2023 Men's fighter of the half year: Alexander Volkanovski

Alexander Volkanovski finishes Yair Rodriguez in Round 3

Alexander Volkanovski forces the referee to stop the fight vs. Yair Rodriguez in Round 3 of the UFC 290 main event.

Wagenheim: You know a fighter is someone special when he's recognized as the best performer so far in 2023 despite starting the year with a loss. Of course, Volkanovski's defeat against Islam Makhachev in February was not just any loss.

Volkanovski, the UFC men's featherweight champion, was stepping up a weight class to challenge for the lightweight title in a clash of No. 1 and No. 2 in the ESPN men's pound-for-pound rankings. And true to form, Volkanovski and Makhachev put on a memorable performance, a fight recognized by many (including our ESPN panel) as the best of the year to date. Makhachev earned the judges' decision fair and square that night, but the bout ended with Volkanovski in top position on the canvas, dropping punches and elbows. It was one of those "if only he had a few more seconds" fights.

On Saturday, Volkanovski capped a thoroughly entertaining UFC 290 with a main event finish of Yair Rodriguez to defend his 145-pound title. Volkanovski utilized an intelligent game plan, taking down the dangerously creative challenger multiple times. But ultimately, Volkanovski finished the fight by getting the better of Rodriguez in his own domain -- stand-up. The champ stunned his challenger in Round 3 with a counter right hand, then pursued him to the cage, where he attacked both head and body before taking him to the canvas to finish the job. It was masterful.

2023 Women's fighter of the half year: Alexa Grasso

Alexa Grasso celebrates after massive upset of Valentina Shevchenko

Alexa Grasso celebrates in the Octagon after her stunning upset of Valentina Shevchenko at UFC 285.

Raimondi: This year, thus far, has been all about the changing of the guard in women's MMA. Nunes retired in June after dominating the scene for years and holding both the UFC women's bantamweight and featherweight titles. Three months before that, Grasso shockingly dethroned Valentina Shevchenko to win the UFC women's flyweight title with a rear-naked choke submission in the fourth round. Nunes and Shevchenko were the world's consensus top two women's MMA fighters. One walked away from the sport and Grasso finished the other.

Beating Shevchenko was the culmination of years of hard work for Grasso. She mainly trained in boxing and Muay Thai under her coach and uncle Francisco "Pancho" Grasso since she was 14. But several years ago, a pair of Brazilians, Diego Lopes and Alessandro Costa, moved to Grasso's hometown of Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico. They and Carlos Arana, a Mexican-born fighter who wrestled collegiately in the United States, have been instrumental in rounding out Alexa's game.

Right now, Alexa sits atop the UFC's women's pound-for-pound rankings. And it's well-deserved after knocking off Shevchenko in style. The two will meet in a rematch on Sept. 16 on a card celebrating Mexican Independence Day. Alexa Grasso is undefeated at 5-0 since moving up to flyweight in 2020. And at 29 years old, she might just be getting started.

2023 Most improved fighter of the half year: Maycee Barber (tie)

Maycee Barber's big high kick, ground-and-pound secure TKO win

Maycee Barber lands a high kick and a multitude of big punches to land a TKO victory over Amanda Ribas.

Okamoto: Barber first signed with the UFC in 2018 and quickly made it known she intended to usurp Jon Jones as the youngest champion in UFC history. That pursuit hit a major road bump in 2020 when she suffered a torn ACL during her first professional loss to Roxanne Modafferi. She returned in 2021, only to fall again via unanimous decision to the now flyweight champion Alexa Grasso.

Barber bounced back nicely with three wins between 2021 and 2022, but her dominance in 2023 has nevertheless been slightly surprising. She defeated a motivated veteran in Angela Lee to kick off the year before scoring a significant upset over Amanda Ribas in June. Her original goal of becoming the youngest UFC champion is well expired by now, but this five-fight win streak she's riding once again has the sport viewing her as a potential future title challenger.

2023 Most improved fighter of the half year: Dricus Du Plessis (tie)

Dricus Du Plessis finishes Robert Whittaker via TKO for crucial win

Dricus Du Plessis knocks out Robert Whittaker in a tough contest at UFC 290.

Raimondi:: Outside of South Africa, was anyone picking Du Plessis to beat Robert Whittaker at UFC 290? That result felt like a foregone conclusion, with Whittaker being set up for a third fight with Israel Adesanya for the UFC middleweight title. Whittaker had not lost to anyone except for Adesanya and was a guy who was rightfully considered a top pound-for-pound fighter in the world.

And then Du Plessis just went out there and finished him. He made it look somewhat easy, too, with a second-round TKO. Du Plessis rocked Whittaker on the feet and finished things from there. It was a star-making performance.

Du Plessis was 5-0 in the UFC, coming in with four finishes. But his performances sometimes looked messy. He got hit a lot in his previous fights and didn't have great cardio. Apparently, repairing his nose, which was severely damaged, helped his cardio. And his game plan against Whittaker was sublime.

Du Plessis is the clear No. 1 contender for the middleweight title now -- and no one would have seen that coming at the beginning of 2023.

2023 Newcomer of the half year: Bo Nickal

Okamoto: This one is no surprise. At all. From the moment this three-time NCAA Division I national collegiate wrestling champion made it known he was moving to MMA, the sky was the limit regarding his potential. Frankly, it would be a surprise if Nickal wasn't a breakout performer in 2023. The question, of course, is quickly becoming how fast the UFC would like to challenge him. Once the promotion starts turning him loose, it will be hard to reign him back into a "growing" phase.

Time will tell what, if anything, is eventually too much for Nickal, but so far, everything the UFC has thrown at him has proved to be too little. This year has already seen him record two first-round finishes.

2023 Fight of the half year: Makhachev vs. Volkanovski at UFC 284

Islam Makhachev outlasts Alexander Volkanovski in thriller to retain title

Islam Makhachev wins a thriller vs. Alexander Volkanovski to retain his UFC lightweight title at UFC 284.

Okamoto: Going into Volkanovski's quest for a second title at UFC 284, everyone knew it would be a technically masterful fight, as we're talking about the top two pound-for-pound fighters in the world. Not as many knew, however, just how competitive it would be. And that, ultimately, is what truly sets this fight apart from any other we've seen so far in 2023. Obviously, the skill level was brilliant, but it also featured all of the drama and momentum shifts one could ask for out of an entertaining bout. The fact that it took place in Volkanovski's home country of Australia, before a raucous crowd in Perth, was the icing on the cake.

What's wild to consider is that as good as Makhachev vs. Volkanovski I was, most pundits would probably tell you they believe the second one will be even better. And there's a chance we could see that second one by the end of the year.

We'll see if that comes to fruition, but come December, the conversation on Fight of the Year might boil down to Makhachev vs. Volkanovski I against Makhachev vs. Volkanovski II.

Best knockout of 2023 thus far: Israel Adesanya's KO of Alex Pereira at UFC 287

Israel Adesanya celebrates after highlight-reel KO of Alex Pereira

Joe Rogan, Daniel Cormier and Jon Anik are all in shock after Israel Adesanya's brutal knockout of Alex Pereira.

Wagenheim: Occasionally, a knockout is memorable simply because of the wild punch or kick that ends the night for its unfortunate recipient. More often than not, however, a KO's big-picture impact amplifies when put into context. That was the case with this one. Adesanya came into the bout at UFC 287 in Miami having lost to Pereira three times in two sports, with the two most recent defeats -- one apiece in kickboxing and MMA -- coming by knockout. And this fight, in which "The Last Stylebender" sought to regain his middleweight title, had not been going so well for him.

Late in Round 2, Pereira had him trapped against the cage and was unloading his heavy hands, attacking both head and body. Then, suddenly, came a counter right from Adesanya, which stopped the champ's assault. A powerful second overhand right landed, knocking out Pereira. Adesanya had turned around his fortunes instantly, and he once again was on top of the world among 185-pounders.

Best submission of 2023 thus far: Alexa Grasso subs Valentina Shevchenko at UFC 285

Okamoto: If "luck is when preparation meets opportunity," then there was nothing lucky about Grasso's championship victory over Shevchenko in March.

Grasso used a beautiful sequence in the fourth round of that fight to pull off the upset, taking Shevchenko's back as she threw one of her signature spinning back kicks. In the aftermath of the victory, Grasso's coach released a video to social media that showed Grasso drilling the exact sequence in her locker room before the fight. Grasso later said she'd identified it and drilled it as a potential fight-ender against Shevchenko.

Even with all the preparation, it's one thing to practice a move -- it's another to land it in the biggest fight of your career against arguably the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world. Grasso did just that and added to a list of huge wins for Mexican MMA in early 2023. Even though former flyweight champion Brandon Moreno and former interim featherweight champion Yair Rodriguez went on to lose their titles this month, the emergence of Mexican MMA has been a massive story in the first half of this year, and Grasso certainly played her role in that.

Best UFC event of 2023 thus far: UFC 290

Alexandre Pantoja stuns Brandon Moreno to win belt

Alexandre Pantoja wins via split decision to stun Brandon Moreno and the Vegas crowd to win the flyweight belt.

Raimondi: UFC 290 wasn't just the best UFC event of the year. It was the best in the past several years -- and potentially the best of all time.

The July 8 card in Las Vegas had everything you could want as a fight fan. Like fast finishes? UFC 290 had four stoppage victories in under one minute, a modern UFC record. Like highlight-reel knockouts? How about Jesus Aguilar flatlining Shannon Ross? Classic fights? Alexandre Pantoja beat Brandon Moreno to win the UFC flyweight title in a battle for the ages, one of the year's best bouts.

Are you into sheer greatness? Alexander Volkanovski is as good as it gets in MMA and he finished Yair Rodriguez in the main event after a clinical performance. Oh, you want emotional moments? It doesn't get any better than Robbie Lawler knocking out Niko Price in 38 seconds in Lawler's final fight, followed by the UFC airing a video package of Lawler's career while he was still in the Octagon. The display moved Lawler -- and many others -- nearly to tears.

All of that happened at UFC 290, and I still haven't mentioned Dan Hooker battling back to beat Jalin Turner in a barn burner with a broken hand and facial fracture or top prospect Bo Nickal, a wrestling standout, getting a knockout with his hands against Val Woodburn. It was an incredible night of fights that might stand alone as the greatest ever.

Best on-the-mic moment of 2023 thus far: Sterling, O'Malley and, of course, Merab

Sterling, O'Malley have heated faceoff at UFC 288

After Aljamain Sterling defended his UFC bantamweight title, he gets into a shouting match with his next opponent, Sean O'Malley.

Raimondi: MMA, at its best, is a little bit like professional wrestling in the same way that wrestling, at its best, is a bit like MMA. The latter was the case at UFC 288 after Aljamain Sterling successfully defended his UFC bantamweight title in the main event against Henry Cejudo.

Sterling did his postfight interview and the UFC brought his next challenger, the popular Sean O'Malley, into the Octagon for a stare down. As is typically the case, things got heated between Sterling and O'Malley, both of whom had already started the trash talk on social media before the May 6 card. O'Malley removed his red vinyl jacket and handed it off as tempers flared with Sterling.

Unbeknownst to O'Malley, the man he handed off his jacket to was Sterling's teammate Merab Dvalishvili, himself a top bantamweight contender also. Dvalishvili put the jacket on, mugged for the camera, and climbed on the cage to celebrate his clever swipe. O'Malley got upset when he realized Dvalishvili had his jacket and some pushing and shoving followed.

It was a funny moment. It showed off the personalities of three top fighters, no one got hurt and it helped build Sterling vs. O'Malley, which will take place at UFC 292 on Aug. 19 in Boston. Sounds like pro wrestling to me, in all the best ways.