No one — genuinely, no one — could’ve foreseen this.
In many ways, Sean Strickland was 2023. The real-life manifestation of the omnipresent Twitter troll. The inevitable backlash to western cancel culture given flesh. The self-proclaimed former Neo-Nazi who drops homophobic slurs with impunity and rallies against women’s place in the workforce. In an era that celebrates nastiness at seemingly every turn, the UFC middleweight champion rose to be a perfectly imperfect avatar of the past 12 months in MMA (and honestly, the world), a character both profane yet authentic, impossibly offensive yet overwhelmingly beloved, often within the very same breath.
In that way, Strickland’s stunning rise makes sense. What doesn’t make sense, however, is that all of this actually happened in the first place. Consider where Strickland began the year: Coming off back-to-back losses, a nightmarish knockout at the hands of Alex Pereira and a forgettable decision against Jared Cannonier, the California native was a total nonentity, a woodwork figure, a career gatekeeper forever trapped on the periphery of the middleweight pecking order. Even his first two outings of 2023 did little to shift the perception that Strickland was Mr. APEX — wins over Nassourdine Imavov and Abus Magomedov, both of which saw Strickland cast as the stepping stone for a future star.
But availability and gameness are two of the most undervalued skills in this game, and for all his faults, no one has ever accused Strickland of lacking in either category.
So simply because of a dearth of better options, Strickland flew to Australia for UFC 293’s short-notice title bout against Israel Adesanya. He was supposed to be the 8-to-1 underdog, the ugly American stereotype stepping into enemy territory, the warm-up fight for the Adesanya vs. Dricus du Plessis matchup the division and its fan base truly wanted to see. But somewhere along the way, something remarkable happened. That Oceanic crowd? It swayed over to Strickland’s side. And that Adesanya vs. du Plessis matchup? He stole every ounce of its thunder. In a year rife with bizarre and shocking results, no result was more bizarre or shocking than the unholy whooping Strickland laid down upon Adesanya.
A pillar to post shellacking. Twenty-five minutes of utter dominance. This was no fluke. This was no off night. It was a champion taking his place upon the throne with one of the most thorough, nuanced, one-sided, and ultimately mind-bending performances in UFC history.
Whether you love him or hate him, whether you’re disgusted by his antics or revere his willingness to speak his unfiltered mind without fear of reprisal, Strickland is the fighter who defined 2023 above any other. From 0-2 and barely a blip on the radar, to 3-0 and one of the most talked-about athletes in the whole damn sport, the champ is also proof positive that it’s never too late in MMA, because the next big star is only one good year away.
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2. ISLAM MAKHACHEV
No rivalry dominated MMA’s discourse over the past year like the one shared by Makhachev and Alexander Volkanovski. In terms of pure in-cage action, their first meeting in February produced the most spectacular superfight in UFC history. Of the seven champ vs. champ matchups to grace the octagon, none lived up to the hype quite like Makhachev vs. Volkanovski 1, which set the bar for 2023’s Fight of the Year debate. Then, in October, the UFC lightweight champion slammed the door shut on any lingering controversy from his decision win, obliterating Volkanovski with a first-round head kick to become the first man in more than a decade to beat the featherweight king so decisively and emphatically.
(Also, that photo. Good God, that photo. Legendary.)
As we stand today, Makhachev is the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in MMA — and there isn’t a close second place. With title challenges against Charles Oliveira and Justin Gaethje already looming, the seeds have been planted for Makhachev to close 2024 as the most accomplished UFC lightweight champion who’s ever lived, toppling even Nurmagomedov from his record-tying perch atop the all-time list of 155-pound title defenses.
3T. FRANCIS NGANNOU
If only the award was called Prizefighter of the Year, Francis Ngannou would win in a landslide.
Few athletes in 2023 faced a bigger uphill climb than MMA’s lineal heavyweight king, but few athletes ever staked their careers on bigger gambles. Ngannou kicked off the year by making history, departing the UFC at the peak of his powers in order to seek opportunities elsewhere. He dared to fight the industry’s most powerful force — and he won. And what did it get him? Months of online mockery, backlash, and derision. Months of hot-take artists and UFC bootlickers claiming the world’s baddest man “fumbled the bag.” Their revelry was inescapable. That’ll teach Ngannou to be grateful. That’ll teach him to learn his place.
Boy, how dumb do those supposed geniuses look now?
Ngannou’s two-pronged triumph kicked off in May when he signed a historic, unprecedented deal with PFL that included equity in MMA’s “co-leader,” a $2 million minimum salary for his opponents, plus executive roles as the Chairman of PFL Africa and on the promotion’s advisory board to represent the athlete’s interests. But then came the kicker — two months later, Ngannou stunned the combat sports world again, booking a big-money showdown against Tyson Fury few thought was anything more than a pipe dream.
Yet somehow, Ngannou wasn’t done.
Dismissed as an afterthought against Fury, a charity case, a mere warm-up fight for boxing’s lineal heavyweight champ before the real fight against Oleksandr Usyk, Ngannou shocked his naysayers all over again, dropping Fury in the third round and ultimately giving the heavyweight champ his toughest test in years. In the end, Ngannou left his professional debut just one scorecard away from securing the one of the biggest upsets in combat sports history (and he likely should’ve done just that). Now he’s an official top-10 ranked heavyweight in his second sport and one of the biggest names in all of combat.
Ngannou’s life story was already a movie before 2023, but the events of the past 12 months pushed it beyond a simple biopic and well into the realm of full-blown fantasy.
(And speaking of legendary photos … sheesh. Something really was in the water in 2023.)
3T. LEON EDWARDS
Was Leon Edwards a fluke?
That was the question coming into 2023 after Edwards authored one of the wildest storybook title wins in UFC history with his fifth-round magic against Kamaru Usman in 2022. Long considered the forgotten man of the welterweight division, the also-ran, the punchline whose Sysphyian path was a source of constant mockery, Edwards may have capitalized in his first UFC title challenge, but plenty of doubt still festered over whether he truly belonged among MMA’s elite or whether he was just the benefactor of a lucky shot.
What followed in 2023 were back-to-back nights of validation over the two welterweights who for years denied him from the conversation, Usman and Colby Covington — the former of which cemented Edwards’ claim to the throne, and the latter of which sent Covington into a pitiful tailspin from which the Trump-guzzling contender may never fully recover.
In an ugly year too often defined by hate and division, Edwards embodied the unwavering class that martial arts — at their core — are supposed to be about.
5. PATCHY MIX
If there can be only one crown jewel of PFL’s industry-shaking acquisition of Bellator, it is undoubtedly Patchy Mix.
The (final?) Bellator bantamweight champion cemented his claim as one of the top 135-pounders on the planet in 2023 with a stunning campaign that saw him become just the second man ever to knock out Raufeon Stots (the other is a guy you may have heard of), capture a cool $1 million as the victor of the promotion’s bantamweight world grand prix, then unify the belts with a highlight-reel showing over Sergio Pettis at Bellator’s final event under the Paramount banner. So forceful was Mix’s takeover that he not only became one of the few non-UFC fighters to draw first-place votes from MMA Fighting’s rankings panel as the top dog in his division, but he essentially ignited a civil war within our team.
As we stand today, Mix is locked in a dead heat with Sean O’Malley for bantamweight supremacy, with each receiving four first-place votes from our eight-person voting committee.
Mix may not be a household name, but he also may be the most talented fighter currently outside of the UFC — and it’s only a matter of time before more people start realizing what the hardcores already understand: That Patchy Mix is really freakin’ good at fist-fighting.