mma / Columns

Winfree’s 2023 Year-End MMA Awards

January 19, 2024 | Posted by Robert Winfree
UFC 284 Image Credit: UFC

Hello everyone and welcome to my 2023 Year End MMA Awards. I’m Robert Winfree, and since once again this seems like a good idea I’m handing out mostly non-existent awards in the world of MMA. These are the best, and worst, of the year as I see it. Usual disclaimer here: I can only rank what I have seen and I haven’t seen everything.

Ian McCall Memorial Worst Luck Award

Let me start by tossing out a couple of honorable mentions here. Normally this is a pretty easy award to hand out but this year there are a couple of fighters who I think deserve to be mentioned before getting to the official winner.

Stephen Thompson found himself in promotional hot water when his opponent missed weight and Thompson declined the catchweight. It was hardly his fault Michel Pereira weighted in well above the welterweight limit, but the UFC doesn’t like anyone who disrupts the machinery and Thompson’s decision did just that. As punishment his next fight was against a fighter who’ll appear later on in these awards, the probable future welterweight champion Shavkat Rakhmonov who more or less ran the 40 year old Thompson over.

Valentina Shevchenko lost her title fair and square but then failed to regain it on the back of one of the most ridiculous scorecards I’ve ever seen. Judge Mike Bell turned their rematch into a draw by handing out maybe the most undeserved 10-8 round you can find. When I say the most undeserved I mean that no one, not another judge, not a media member, not any of the other judges they showed this fight to during an examination of the scoring came even close to agreeing with it. By all rights Shevchenko should have won the title back via split decision in a very close fight, instead one of the most baffling scorecards ever ruined that. Truly bad luck.

Michael Chandler got talked into coaching a pointless season of The Ultimate Fighter opposite Conor McGregor with a lot of talk being about the fight between the two taking place in June or July. Well Conor still couldn’t pass a drug test after getting juiced to the gills recovering from his horrible injury and getting camera ready for the upcoming and almost certainly awful Road House remake. McGregor needed to submit a couple of clean samples and be in the USADA testing pool for 6 months. If you’re Michael Chandler you sat out the entire year of 2023 waiting, and waiting. . . and waiting on news of what McGregor was going to do. Making things worse is that if Chandler had taken another fight during that wait the UFC and McGregor would have moved on from him in a heartbeat, so he had to just sit around while the UFC and USADA relationship disintegrated and ended at the start of 2024. Still no official word on if we’re actually getting McGregor vs. Chandler.

Manel Kape

Let’s take a look at how Manel Kape’s 2023 went, shall we? He enters the year with some momentum, a three fight winning streak with two of those being finishes and he’s starting to make headway in the flyweight division. He signs to fight ranked fighter Alex Perez, we get to fight day March 25, 2023 and Perez suffers a seizure backstage and naturally the fight is called off. Kape then gets arguably an upgrade as former champion Deiveson Figueiredo wants to try to stay at flyweight despite claiming he was moving up after losing in the fourth fight with Alex Moreno. They’re set for UFC 290 on July 9, but during the lead up Figueiredo announces he can’t safely make flyweight and the bout is scrapped, depriving Kape again of an opponent. Fast forward a little bit more and Kape is set to fight former title challenger Kai Kara-France in Australia, but Kara-France suffers a concussion in sparring and can’t take the fight. Ultimately Kape did finally step into the cage in Australia at UFC 293 but instead of a ranked opponent or former title challenger or champion it was the short notice Felipe dos Santos. Dos Santos gave Kape a heck of a fight but Kape did win, then hurled some insults at Kara-France who was in the crowd. Kape lost out on three fights against respected opponents that all would have pushed him towards a title fight, went life and death with a promotional newcomer, got in some hot water for the specific insults he used, and then before the year ended signed on for a rematch with Mattheus Nicolau. Nicolau won a split decision over Kape in 2021. For a man who started out the year poised to enter the title picture Kape ends it having lost out on three fights, hurling “fag” around the mic, and now taking a rematch. Only the choice of words was really his fault, this man just had a very very unlucky year and hopefully this award takes a bit of the sting out of it.

Worst Fight of 2023

Honorable Mentions

Charles Jourdain vs. Kron Gracie from UFC 288 – Kron Gracie tried to bring back the butt scooting meta in 2023. It did not go well for him.

William Knight vs. Marcin Prachnio from UFC on ESPN+ 77 – Boy was there a lot of nothing here, other years this one would have made the list but this year it’s just an honorable mention.

5. Derrick Lewis vs. Jailton Almeida from UFC on ESPN+ 89

Look I get that Derrick Lewis has a fun personality and has been known to deliver a violent knockout or two in his day, but this is getting ridiculous. Putting him in five round fights is asking for trouble, because if he doesn’t get a quick win we get a slog. I’m throwing plenty of shade at Jailton Almeida too here, how in the world do you spend something like 15 minutes of a 25 minute fight in full mount and do so freaking little? The fact that this continued for the full 25 minutes just made this a chore, especially when it became clear that Lewis couldn’t really get up from under Almeida but Almeida wasn’t able to mount any real ground and pound or open up a legitimate submission attempt. A truly frustrating and monotonous fight.

4. Ji Yeon Kim vs. Mandy Bohm from UFC on ABC 4

This fight is almost funny when you consider that Kim was better than Bohm but was so frustrated despite being ahead in pretty much every metric that she just fouled her way out of the fight and ultimately out of the UFC. When you’re this much better than your opponent you shouldn’t be behaving like Kim was, this is still professional fighting and being a professional does have merits.

3. Ilir Latifi vs. Rodrigo Nascimento from UFC on ESPN+ 81

Another wall and stall clinic from noted clincher Ilir Latifi you say? Yes, but there’s more! Latifi got on the mic afterwards and admitted that this was not only the last fight on his contract but that he’d contracted a nasty staph infection then declined to tell anyone so he could still get in the cage and fight. His contract was not renewed.

2. Rodrigo Nascimento vs. Don’Tale Mayes from UFC on ESPN+ 89

This one started off not that bad, but like oh so many heavyweight fights after about 90 seconds we started clinching. They did that for most of the first round, and when they weren’t clinching there was a lot of staring down the stretch. Rounds two and three featured an increasingly tired Mayes and an increasingly safe Nascimento engage in clinching for the vast majority of the time. Perhaps this ranks so highly because there were moments of action that showed what this fight could have looked like, and that makes it all the more frustrating to watch what it turned into.

1. Leon Edwards vs. Colby Covington from UFC 296

Might there be some recency bias here? Maybe. But for a title fight, a main event, and the last fight the UFC would put out all year this would have been pretty dreadful. Blend that with some pretty vile trash talk from Covington in the build to then only spend three and half rounds circling away from Edwards, eat kicks to the leg and body while doing nothing, get out wrestled during a brief exchange, and go back to doing nothing, it was not only bad it was one of the bigger let downs all year. Edwards fought smart, won four rounds, nearly got a ninja choke at one point, even took Covington down, but this was very much a traditional Edwards fight in that he was content to win no matter how it looked to the fans. Covington had the second worst outing by a challenger in a title fight all year, the top spot in that category goes to Irene Aldana for her truly stilted attempt to fight Amanda Nunes but that fight overall wasn’t nearly as boring as this one was. For the stakes, the potential heat generated between the fighters, and the damp squib of a fight that we got, I don’t mind giving this the top spot this year.

Breakout Fighter of the Year

Breakout or breakthrough categories are tricky because there’s a variety of criteria to be weighted. For me the big one is distance covered, who went the farthest over the time frame, with level attained being essentially a tie breaker. With that in mind, here’s the fighters I felt made the most headway.

Honorable Mentions

Roman Kopylov – I tried to find space for Kopylov here, I really did, but ultimately couldn’t quite find it. Kopylov went 3-0 in 2023 and finished all of those fights via (T)KO including a really nice head kick at UFC 291 that got overshadowed by Justin Gaethje doing the same to Dustin Poirier. Kopylov is definitely a guy who found his footing last year and I expect bigger things for him going forward.

Jack Della Maddalena – Another guy I really wanted to find space for but this wound up being a tight category this year. JDM went 3-0 last year, this is slightly hampered by the last two wins being split decisions even though I scored both of them for him. This is another guy I expect to make seirous waves in 2024.

5. Dricus Du Plessis

Dricus Du Plessis started making noise in 2022 when he beat Brad Tavares and then sent Darren Till out of the UFC. 2023 though saw him take two big steps up in class, first he squared up with veteran Derek Brunson and despite a very bad decision costing him the first round rallied to put a beating on Brunson in the second round that was so bad that Brunson’s corner stopped the fight just before the second round ended. It takes a lot to get an MMA corner to stop a fight so this was a pretty big feather in DDP’s cap. After that he was matched up with former champion Robert Whittaker and a lot of us counted him out of that fight only for Du Plessis to be well prepared for Whittaker and stop the former champion cleanly in the second round to earn a title shot. Du Plessis is set to challenge for the title early in 2024 and all in all broke through the middleweight pack last year.

4. Shavkat Rakhmonov

Rakhmonov has been gathering some momentum for a while and this is not the last time you’ll see him in this article as 2023 was the year he made a lot of people sit up and take notice. He closed 2022 submitting Neil Magny, then opened 2023 with a barn burner of a fight with Geoff Neal which he won via late submission. Then, with an ankle torn so badly he needed surgery but fought anyway, Rkahmonov became the first man to submit Stephen Thompson when he caught him with a rear naked choke in the second round to close out the year. Rakhmonov is not only undefeated, he’s finished everyone who’s stepped up against him. The injury might hurt Rakhmonov’s immediate title aspirations but I fully expect him to wear UFC gold sooner rather than later.

3. Tom Aspinall

Regarded as one of the brighter heavyweight prospects in some time Aspinall hit a road block in 2022 when he tore his knee just seconds into his fight with Curtis Blaydes. He rebounded about as well as he could have, he came back in 2023 and beat Marcin Tybura then stepped in on absurdly short notice to fight Sergei Pavlovich for the interim heavyweight title at UFC 295 and proceeded to knockout the dangerous Russian in 69 seconds. Now he’s getting jerked around by the UFC promotional machine which seems dead set on Jon Jones vs. Stipe Miocic for the full heavyweight title held by Jones, but Aspinall really looks like the man who’s carrying that title going forward.

2. Patchy Mix

Mix failed to capture the Bellator bantamweight title back in 2020 but that remains his only career loss. Mix stormed through the bantamweight tournament most of last year but this year not only won that event with a brutal knockout over Raufeon Stots, he stepped to Bellator bantamweight champion Sergio Pettis and subbed him out less than two minutes into the second round. For a guy not given a lot of hype when that particular tournament was announced Mix ran through some heavy opposition, won a good chunk of change, and claimed gold at the end of it all. For those of us who watch MMA outside of the UFC machine, Mix really did have a breakout year.

1. Sean Strickland

There was never a doubt about this one in my mind. This award is all about who goes the furthest in the given time frame, and no one went further this year than Sean Strickland. Strickland suffered a controversial split decision loss in the last fight of 2022, a fight I thought he won, the stepped in on short notice to main event the first card of 2023 and turned back rising talent Nassourdine Imavov. He followed that up with a tune up fight against Abus Magomedov and stopped him in the second round. This was all pretty typical of Strickland’s career to this point, a decent level of opposition main eventing Fight Night cards but never quite able to break to the top of the division. Well some nagging injuries to Dricus Du Plessis meant that DDP wasn’t able to make a frankly unreasonable turnaround from beating Robert Whittaker to potentially challenging Israel Adesanya for the middleweight belt in Australia, and between fighters that Adesanya had already beaten or people just not being available the next man in line wound up being Strickland. No one really gave Strickland much of a chance against Adesanya, Strickland was a solid enough fighter but he relied on fundamentals too much, he’d been violently knocked out by Alex Pereira, Adesanya was still a generational talent who’d just reclaimed the belt from his heated rival and was now back near his home of New Zealand. This was just a formality, right? Well no one told Strickland, who became the first man in the UFC to actually score a knockdown against Adesanya with a well timed one two in the first round. What followed was a lot of pressure from Strickland, a lot of well drilled hand fighting and disruption to everything Adesanya tried to do, and one of the most unlikely champions the UFC has ever seen out pointing and taking a clear decision. From meat and potatoes Fight Night fighter to world champion in 12 months, I can only take my hat off to what Strickland accomplished in 2024.

Submission of the Year

Honorable Mentions

Mayra Bueno Silva’s ninja choke vs. Holly Holm from UFC on ESPN 49
Said Nurmagomedov’s ninja choke vs. Muin Gafurov from UFC 294
Joanderson Brito’s ninja choke vs. Jonathan Pearce from UFC on ESPN+ 90 – I’m grouping these three together here simply because I love a good ninja choke and this year that technique came back into some prominence. It’s a great technique to threaten wrestlers with, especially if they’re not mindful against the fence when pressing in, or if the get reckless trying to change levels in generally close proximity and we got some nice examples here.

Da’Mon Blackshear’s twister vs. Jose Johnson from UFC on ESPN 51 – I have to show some kind of love to the twister here.

5. Shavkat Rakhmonov’s standing bulldog choke vs. Geoff Neal at UFC 285

Told you that Rakhmonov would show up again. I’ve seen this one called a few different things but I’m going with a bulldog variation because there are no hooks and actually if you look at the way Rakhmonov steps across the hip of Neal it gets leverage slightly more in line with that technique. But that’s arguable and I’m not dying on that hill. As for the submission itself, I love examples of knowing when to abandon traditional technique. Not because you shouldn’t know the technique, but because mastery comes in knowing when to break the rules and this one breaks a lot of the norms but Rakhmonov’s knowledge allows him to know this is a time to ignore convention and how to make that work.

4. Davey Grant’s inverted triangle choke vs. Raphael Assuncao at UFC on ESPN+ 79

I mean, it’s an inverted triangle choke of course it’s showing up here. There was something of an officiating call that cost Assuncao here as he was doing well in the fight but got fouled and instead of being reset on the ground they started them back on the feet which led to the finishing sequence. You could easily argue this should be higher and I wouldn’t disagree with you too much.

3. Karine Silva’s Achilles lock/knee bar/Z lock vs. Ketlen Souza from UFC on ESPN 46

I think this is most accurately called a Z-lock but I’ve seen a lot of other names so I’m just tossing several of them up there. This was a heck of a submission from Karine Silva, the Z lock can be a really nasty thing and she tore up Souza’s knee with this one. The hold starts like a traditional Achilles lock but instead of clamping on that tendon and leveraging backwards you control the knee line and crank the joint laterally, and your knee is not meant to bend that way.

2. Louis Glismann’s inverted omoplata vs. Melvin van Suijdam from Oktagon 43

If my sole criteria for this list were weirdness or rarity of the submission this probably would have taken the top spot. I’d never really seen this version of the omoplata before, and there’s a decent chance this is your first exposure to it so here it is in all of it’s glory.

1. Alexa Grasso’s rear naked choke vs. Valentina Shevchenko at UFC 285

But my criteria isn’t just rarity or how cool I think a submission is, stakes have to matter as well and they didn’t come bigger than the stakes in this one. A dominant heavily favored champion was ahead on the cards going into the last round but the well schooled challenger was definitely giving her a run for her money. Then, late in the fight, Shevchenko went to a spinning attack. It’s a thing she does with a degree of regularity and Alexa Grasso was ready to pounce. With lightning speed she took the back, got Shevchenko down, got hooks in, and secured the choke to score one of the bigger upsets this year.

Knockout of the Year

Before getting into everything proper, do yourself a favor and click through the thread right below this. It’s a ton of high quality violence. You’ll have to click on a few of the individual tweets to get through as a few have been deleted and that messes with threads, but Caposa is a must follow for combat sports fans of all stripes.

Honorable Mentions

Patchy Mix’s knee vs. Raufeon Stots from Bellator 295 – A truly well timed and brutal knee strike is a thing of beauty, and Mix gave us one here.

Drakkar Klose’s slam vs. Joe Solecki from UFC on ESPN 51
Cody Brundage’s slam vs. Zach Reese from UFC on ESPN 51 – Another grouping, these two weren’t just lovely slam knockouts but happened in back to back fights. Something of a first for the UFC and both were lovely finishes.

Max Holloway’s punch vs. Chan Sung Jung from UFC on ESPN+ 83 – This was the last fight in the career of Chan Sung Jung, and he knew he was over matched at the end. Rather than back down or look for a way out he forced a firefight with all time great Max Holloway, and ultimately The Korean Zombie hit the mat one final time after Holloway delivered a lovely counter punch. The crowd singing the now retired Jung out of the arena one final time is the stuff of movies.

5. Josh Emmett’s PUNCH vs. Bryce Mitchell from UFC 296

I’m sure a lot of people will have this higher, but I can’t go much higher personally. Partially because I kind of figured this was the outcome when Mitchell took this fight on short notice, also because of the lack of stakes here as there wasn’t really any heat or narrative. What we did get was one of the most destructive single punches delivered in years, Emmett hit Mitchell so hard that Mitchell instantly went fetal and convulsed.

4. Krzysztof Glowacki’s punch while mounted vs. Patryk Tolkaczewski from KSW 83

Look, much like an inverted triangle or an inverted omoplata I have to give some kind of props to something this outrageous. When you’re mounted you shouldn’t be knocking out the guy on top of you, but here we are. You might never see this again, certainly at a decently high level.

3. Justin Gaethje’s head kick vs. Dustin Poirier from UFC 291

This one has swapped spots around a few times but I can’t go any higher than this for it. But it has everything you want in a great knockout, not only great technique but a great story to go along with it. Justin Gaethje getting a rematch with Dustin Poirier is something I’d wanted for a while, their first fight was a great war but it was also the final catalyst for Gaethje to change his style up from a wild all action hurricane of violence to more centered and refined deliverer of all kinds of blunt force trauma. Their first fight was back in 2018 then five years later the two old war horses, two genuine action heroes of the sport, stepped back into the cage together. We got a more measured pace this time around, and a competitive first round. Then, a minute into the second round, Gaethje uncorked a massive head kick that flatlined Poirier.

2. Islam Makhachev’s head kick vs. Alexander Volkanovski from UFC 294

Under slightly different circumstances this would have taken the top spot from me, but I can’t ignore that Volkanovski took this fight on very short notice and that colors how this fight played out slightly. That isn’t to detract from Islam Makhachev, who will be featured again further down, just to say that it can’t be ignored either. Makhachev had a lot of success against Volkanovksi with his left kick in their first fight and he built on that masterfully here, catching one of the best to ever do this with a lovely head kick in the second round to retain his lightweight title.

1. Israel Adesanya’s punches vs. Alex Pereira at UFC 287

There was not a more cathartic moment all year than this. Israel Adesanya lost twice to Alex Pereira in kickboxing, one a decision he probably should have won but he was knocked out in their rematch. Adesanya moved on to MMA and went onto great things in this sport while Pereira stuck with kickboxing and had a ton of success. But a line from Adesanya aimed in the direction of Pereira brought their lives back into collision, now in MMA. Pereira got fast tracked to the title picture and in the first MMA showdown between the two rivals Adesanya looked en route to a decision win before getting caught in the fifth round and Pereira poured on enough pressure to get a standing TKO win. Haunted by the stone faced specter of this man between two sports, losing his title and getting stopped by him again, Adesanya got an immediate rematch and came into it almost not caring about the belt. More than gold, more than money, Adesanya needed to beat Alex Pereira. With his back to the fence and Pereira trying to swarm Adesanya found a counter right hand. He’d hurt Pereira with it before, during their first title fight, but this time it was picture perfect and with more than enough time left in the round to follow up. This isn’t just a wonderful KO technically, isn’t just a great lesson about how to counter in the heat of battle, it’s a man exorcising his own personal demon.

Fighter of the Year

Honorable Mentions

Amanda Nunes – Nunes only had one fight this year, but it seems to be her last and I think that deserves some kind of acknowledgment. Nunes regained her title last year and was set to defend in a trilogy with Juliana Pena but Pena got injured and in stepped Irene Aldana. Aldana had nothing to offer the dominant champion and Nunes scored a wide decision win then announced she was done. Two weight world champion, defended both belts, beat the very best of her generation and the ones that came after. Congratulations champ, enjoy your retirement.

Alexa Grasso – Had Grasso actually won the split decision against Shevchenko in their rematch she’d be on the list proper, and you can score that fight for her. Unfortunately for her that’s marred by the draw, how we arrived at the draw, and that whole fiasco. Still, unseating Valentina Shevchenko legitimately and going 1-0-1 with her in the same year is a heck of a feat.

5. Alexandre Pantoja

2-0 this year, both title fights and both of them could easily feature in the Fight of the Year that will show up below. This might be tipping my hand there a little bit, but his title fight with Brandon Moreno is a legitimate all time great and not just for the flyweight division. Pantoja claimed gold, touched everyone’s heart when he asked his estranged father if he was finally proud of him after beating Moreno, then had another darn good fight with Brandon Royval to close the year out. Pretty darn good year for the old Cannibal.

4. Leon Edwards

This spot and number 3 are kind of interchangeable, in fact I had them the other way before the insomnia curing fight Edwards had against Colby Covington. Despite that Edwards still had a great year, he shocked the world last year with a last round head kick knockout over the great Kamaru Usman and this year he bested Usman in their rubber match then beat Colby Covington to sweep out the last vestiges of the prior generation of welterweight talent. If you thought that should rank him higher I fully understand, but man that Covington fight sucked.

3. Jon Jones

Only fighting once and scoring this highly is kind of a rarity, but I’ve got kind of a soft spot for Jon Jones. Jones returned from his hiatus in 2023 and moved up to heavyweight. We all wanted Jones vs. Francis Ngannou but the saga of the UFC and Ngannou’s relationship souring is a whole other thing, and Ngannou left the promotion, then scored a bigger payday than all of his UFC fights combined when he boxed Tyson Fury. Side note, before publication it was announced that Ngannou will box Anthony Joshua next. That man fumbled nothing, he’s going to make more in those two fights than any 3 UFC fighters make combined in a year. But back to Jones, without Ngannou he squared up with Ciryl Gane for the vacant title. Jones proceeded to run over Gane in less than a minute, choking the big Frenchman out with a guillotine choke along the fence and claim his second weight class title. Adding to a legacy that was already an all time great and frankly Rushmore worthy gets Jones on this list.

2. Alex Pereira

It’s hard to crack this list with a loss on the year, but I’d be foolish to ignore what Alex Pereira did in 2023. Pereira started the year out by getting knocked out by Israel Adesanya to lose his newly won middleweight title, but he wasn’t deterred by that setback. Always a massive man for the weight class Pereira moved up to light heavyweight and scored a tough decision win over former champion Jan Blachowicz. The long sad story of the light heavyweight title in recent years ultimately led to it being vacant again and Pereira would stand opposite former champion Jiri Prochazka with that title up for grabs. Adesanya had failed to claim the light heavyweight title a couple of years ago when he got a shot at Blachowicz, and Pereira not only beat Blachowicz he then claimed that title by stopping Prochazka in the second round. Two weight world champion in both MMA and kickboxing, just did was his rival failed to do, and now looks to stabilize a division that’s been in constant upheaval for years. Darn good year Poatan, I respect it.

1. Islam Makhachev

When you’ve got legitimate candidates for both knockout and fight of the year under your belt in one year I think that puts you somewhere on this list. In the case of Islam Makhachev he beat an all time pound for pound great twice, finishing him cleanly in the second meeting. Filling the shoes of Khabib Nurmagomedov was always going to be a tall task, but Makhachev has proven to be his own kind of special in the cage and is looking to do just that. With a lot of ups and downs all year I think Makhachev turning in one of the most tactical and technical fights in UFC history, then a great knockout and getting two title defenses along the way is enough to push him to the top of 2023.

Fight of the Year

Honorable Mentions

Shavkat Rakhmonov vs. Geoff Neal from UFC 285 – We had a lot of three round wars in 2023, this was one of them. It nearly made the top five, and honestly there’s a few you could swap it for and I wouldn’t argue with you too much.

Ilia Topuria vs. Josh Emmett from UFC on ABC 5 – A little too one sided in favor of Topuria to make the actual top of the year, but this was a darn good fight and cemented Topuria as the next in line for a title shot.

Chepe Mariscal vs. Trevor Peek from UFC on ABC 5 – The best parking lot brawl you’ll ever see in the UFC.

Alexandre Pantoja vs. Brandon Royval from UFC 296 – Not a whole lot to say here, Pantoja set a bonkers pace and ultimately proved too good on top for Royval but it was a fun journey.

5. Justin Gaethje vs. Rafael Fiziev from UFC 286

All those three round wars I mentioned, yeah this is one of them. Rafael Fiziev’s hand speed and athleticism bothered Gaethje in the first round but Gaethje persevered and started chopping down at Fiziev. Gaethje has started fighting backwards, launching bombs early then getting more surgical as the fight goes on but it works for him and he carved Fiziev up with his jab in the third round and ultimately earned a hard fought majority decision.

4. Karol Rosa vs. Irene Aldana from UFC 296

Boy did this one come out of nowhere to take late honors in these kinds of lists. Rosa and Aldana weren’t expected to do much at UFC 296, but they came out and delivered a three round back and forth war. Leg kicks, body work, cuts, swollen eyes, they just beat the crap out of each other and then met up again at the hospital for a Rocky style photo.

3. Dan Hooker vs. Jalin Turner from UFC 290

Dan Hooker started slow and Jalin Turner was looking to score a really big win, but Hooker ate everything Turner could throw at him and just kept coming forward. The pressure and damage ultimately got to Turner and Hooker scored a come from behind win via decision, gutting through a broken arm in the process. If you missed this one look it up, again there were a ton of great three round fights all year.

2. Islam Makhachev vs. Alex Volkanovski from UFC 284

This one had my top spot for a long time, but ultimately I had to drop it down one spot. It just wasn’t as competitive on rewatch, but it’s still a technical masterpiece with a great crowd and possibly the two best guys in the world right now going tit for tat. Volkanovski manages to score a knockdown late and try to surge but was too far behind on the scorecards. Makhachev impressed with his striking, landing well timed counters and not succumbing to Volkanovski’s web of feints and traps while Volkanovski held his own in the wrestling department. If you want to watch one fight from 2023 to learn intricate techniques and strategy, this is the one.

1. Alexandre Pantoja vs. Brandon Moreno from UFC 290

But if you want the highest pace, the craziest momentum swings, and just blood and guts from start to finish then you watch this one. This was a war, the kind of fight where you have to dig into the deepest darkest parts of your soul to find why you’re here, to will yourself to do one more thing than the other guy. There’s a reason Pantoja’s father was on his mind when it was done, he had to dredge the trenches of his being and bring every single thing he had down there to bear against Brandon Moreno. Moreno was game every step of the way, these two turned in an all time great fight and you’re doing yourself a disservice not to see it if you’re an MMA fan. My hat is off to both of these gentlemen, you don’t get fights like this every year and we should all be grateful we got one in 2023.

Do you disagree? Please leave a comment, just please be civil about it.