Depending on your tastes, 2022 was either a disappointing or exciting year in UFC. Detractors were unsatiated by the lack of big marquee fights while supporters took delight in an abundance of impactful performances.It is true that Conor McGregor and Jon Jones were absent, Nate Diaz and Francis Ngannou fought once each and Jorge Masvidal’s star continued to diminish. Yet Kamaru Usman and Israel Adesanya had legacies cut short, Islam Makhachev and Jiri Prochazka emerged as exciting new champions and Khamzat Chimaev continued to thrash opponents.Interesting and unexpected outcomes in 2022 have set the stage for a diverse year of must-make fights in 2023. Enduring dream fights, oddball money matchups and exciting title sagas are all in play for 2023. It could be a year that caters to every kind of MMA fan. Take a look at five fights worth making in 2023, plus a number of honorable mentions.Can’t get enough boxing and MMA? Get the latest in the world of combat sports from two of the best in the business. Subscribe to Morning Kombat with Luke Thomas and Brian Campbell for the best analysis and in-depth news, including a look at the top fights to make for UFC in 2023 below.
Francis Ngannou vs. Jon JonesDespite years of interest in booking heavyweight’s most concussive force against light heavyweight’s all-time great, the road to Ngannou vs. Jones remains littered with roadblocks. Ngannou has been sidelined all year with contract disputes and a serious knee injury. Jones enters his third year of inactivity since vacating the light heavyweight title with plans to move up a division. The persisting desire to see Ngannou and Jones fight for the UFC heavyweight championship speaks volumes of its significance. Ngannou wields unparalleled power and his highlight reel plays like a slasher movie body count. Former champions Stipe Miocic, Cain Velasquez, Junior dos Santos, Alistair Overeem and Andrei Arlovski have all crumbled under Ngannou’s power. Poor perennial contender Curtis Blaydes has suffered that fate twice.Jones is the youngest champion in UFC history, taking out legends like Shogun Rua, Rampage Jackson, Lyoto Machida, Rashad Evans and Vitor Belfort. Jones is arguably the greatest fighter of all time and a move to heavyweight presents interesting questions. How will the land of giants contend with Jones’ speed and technique? Will a change in scenery revitalize Jones after losing a step against Dominick Reyes and Thiago Santos? Which fighter will be burdened most by external pressures? If there is one fight to make in 2023, it is Ngannou vs. Jones.
Conor McGregor vs. Michael Chandler/Tony Ferguson vs. Paddy PimblettMcGregor’s staying power is a testament to his self-marketing and the magic of his three-year run to earn titles in two divisions. Despite going 1-3 over the last four years, McGregor remains the sport’s top draw. What is woefully clear is that McGregor needs a step down in competition. Enter Chandler, a juggernaut that challenges the very best in the world but often falls short against them. McGregor has the accuracy and power to exploit Chandler’s defensive gaps. Chandler has the power and pressure to catch McGregor early. It is by no means an easy fight for McGregor, but one that can re-establish him among the lightweight elite. If you’re looking for a quick payday, there is a less conventional option. McGregor is no longer a ranked lightweight. Pimblett isn’t ranked either. Both are brash, charismatic personalities with followers among the casual audiences — to different degrees. Pimblett’s debatable win over Jared Gordon at UFC 282 may have UFC second-guessing. The safe bet is to book McGregor vs. Pimblett and hedge out on “The Baddy” before he loses to a lesser-known fighter. It is likely a tune-up fight for McGregor, but it could propel Pimblett to stardom should he pull off the upset. How do we get there? Aging veteran Tony Ferguson is the most established fighter that Pimblett could potentially compete with. If McGregor beats Chandler, he will likely be fast-tracked to the lightweight title or a No. 1 contender’s bout. If McGregor loses, you can match him up with Pimblett or even possibly Ferguson.
Khamzat Chimaev vs. Colby CovingtonChimaev launched into the UFC with nuclear impact. His strikes landed vs. absorbed statistic was an absurd 112-1 in his first five UFC fights. Then he delivered a classic opposite Gilbert Burns in a Fight of the Year contender. In that fight, Chimaev proved he could exchange blows with the division’s hardest hitters. UFC subsequently offered Chimaev a lay-up against departing veteran Nate Diaz in the main event of UFC 279. Chimaev missed weight by a significant margin and forced UFC to scrap the Diaz fight. His impromptu win over Kevin Holland was dominant, but questions remain about his future at 170 pounds.
Covington is the final test to solidify Chimaev as an undeniable title challenger. Prior to Edwards’ ascent to welterweight champion, Covington was the clear No. 2 in the division. Covington pushed nemesis Usman to the limit in two losing efforts for the 170-pound title. Chimaev vs. Covington is a fight both guys need. Chimaev must prove that he can reliably make welterweight and defeat a dogged wrestler. Covington can remind the world just how good he is and pave his way to another title shot.
Alex Pereira vs. Israel Adesanya 2It sounds odd to proclaim a series that has gone 3-0 as one of the most anticipated fights of 2023, yet here we are. Adesanya had established himself as the second-greatest middleweight in UFC history behind Anderson Silva. He cleared out the division’s top five, including two wins over both Robert Whittaker and Marvin Vettori each. Two-division Glory kickboxing champion Alex Pereira, with few viable challengers in the queue, worked his way to top contender in just three fights. The manifestation of Adesanya’s nightmares, Pereira had two wins over Adesanya in kickboxing. History repeated itself almost eerily at UFC 281 on Nov. 12. Pereira again fought back from a deficit, rattling Adesanya in Round 5 to capture the UFC middleweight title. The only person to ever knockout Adesanya had done it twice.You must ignore Adesanya and Pereira’s kickboxing history when matchmaking in the UFC. It was a different game operating under different rules. The reality is that Adesanya is the most successful middleweight champion we have seen in a long time. Adesanya was up 39-37 on all three judges’ scorecards before getting out-gunned by a larger opponent in the final round. If anyone deserves a chance to prove they can crack a seemingly unsolvable code, it’s Adesanya.
Leon Edwards vs. Kamaru Usman 3People were beginning to take the welterweight G.O.A.T. debate between Usman and Georges St-Pierre seriously in 2022. Usman (15) had already eclipsed St-Pierre’s welterweight winning streak (12). At UFC 278, Usman was 56 seconds away from notching a sixth consecutive title defense — three shy of GSP’s record. Then the improbable happened. Edwards, down three rounds to one and losing the fifth, uncorked a vicious head kick that instantly shut down Usman. It was an all-time shocker that turned a one-sided rivalry into a must-watch trilogy. The UFC returns to Edwards’ home nation of England for a pay-per-view on March 18. Hosting Edwards vs. Usman 3 in the main event is a no-brainer. UFC president Dana White has teased the fight, but it remained unannounced less than three months out, possibly due to Usman’s lingering hand injury. Usman will likely never break GSP’s title defense record, but he deserves a chance at vengeance.
Honorable mentions: Charles Oliveira vs. Beneil Dariush, Amanda Nunes vs. Valentina Shevchenko 3, Zhang Weili vs. Rose Namajunas 3, Jiri Prochazka vs. Glover Teixeira 2