MMA Fighting’s 2023 Rookie of the Year: Diego Lopes

Short-notice fights have always been a pathway to gain entrance into the UFC, but not all of these matchups are measured the same.

For Diego Lopes, he accepted an opportunity to make his octagon debut on just five days’ notice and he had to go up against undefeated Russian Movsar Evloev, who has often been touted as a future title contender and already sports a top-10 featherweight ranking. Meanwhile, Lopes limped into the UFC with a 1-2 record in his past three fights, which included a decision loss to Joanderson Brito in a Contender Series appearance.

When he was announced as Evloev’s opponent, Lopes was still relatively unknown, still without a Wikipedia page, and there were far more comments about his windswept hair — which will make you believe tonight is the night that he’ll fall for you (over again) — rather than anybody talking much about his chances to actually win. He was akin to Camper No. 3 going up against Jason Voorhees in any of the Friday the 13th movies.

But then a strange thing happened: Lopes made it a dog fight.

He brought the battle to Evloev and the featherweights ultimately engaged in a three-round war that saw Lopes launch into submission after submission in an attempt to pull off the upset. While Evloev ultimately got the nod on the scorecards, Lopes walked away with a newfound respect amongst fans, as well as UFC CEO Dana White’s admiration which ended with him earning his full fight purse and Fight of the Night honors as a bonus.

That’s a feel-good story, but Lopes wasn’t satisfied with just being remembered as the short-notice fighter who ALMOST won in the UFC.

In his next two performances, Lopes proved he belonged, demolishing Gavin Tucker and Pat Sabatini in back-to-back fights with neither making it past the two-minute mark of the opening round. Lopes threw caution to the wind, seeking out highlight-reel submissions that would made Demian Maia proud, showing that taking Evloev to a hard-fought decision was no fluke.

Even with a loss on his record in 2023, Lopes still managed to make an indelible first impression, sending notice to every ranked featherweight that he’s coming for their spot in the new year. He may look like an extra from a Fall Out Boy video circa 2005, but make no mistake, this emo kid will definitely kick your ass if you try to steal his lunch money.

2023 rookie of the Year CLEAN

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UFC 285: Nickal v Pickett

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If there was a separate award for the most hyped prospect of the year, Bo Nickal would win in a landslide.

The 27-year-old wrestler-turned-fighter already had the weight of the world on his shoulders when he declared his intentions to compete in MMA after becoming a three-time NCAA champion at Penn State and having his Olympic dreams dashed by teammate David Taylor.

Rather than wait for another shot at the 2024 Games, Nickal made the transition into MMA while training alongside a room full of killers at American Top Team in Florida. The athletic pedigree was there, but he still had to evolve and learn enough about the sport to show that he was more than just a wrestler with nearly unstoppable takedowns.

There was so much anticipation built around Nickal that his two amateur fights earned a ton of attention, but nothing quite like what happened after he scored a 33-second knockout in his professional debut and immediately earned a shot at the UFC’s Contender Series. Nickal ultimately spent two fights there — with less than two minutes of total fight time — before finally making his UFC debut in March.

Nickal even earned a spot on the UFC 285 main card on pay-per-view in his debut, which never really happens, at least not for a fighter with a 3-0 record in his career. He needed a little more time to get his first UFC win — Jamie Pickett nearly survived for a whole three minutes — but the result was still the same, with Nickal getting another dominant finish. His second fight ended up against a short-notice opponent, and Nickal made it look that way, scoring a 38-second knockout to welcome Val Woodburn to the UFC.

Nickal opted not to build on those wins with a quick turnaround for a potential third fight in 2023 or he may have taken the top spot for Rookie of the Year. Either way, Nickal might just be the person on the list best suited to become a UFC champion one day — including at least one ludicrous believer who says he’s already primed to win the title — and given his fast rise to success, he probably won’t have to wait very long to get there.




UFC’s loss was PFL’s gain with dynamic striker Cedric Doumbe, who ended up with the MMA “co-leader” following a failed attempt at making his octagon debut, which was cancelled in part due to rules with the French MMA Federation and also thanks to pre-fight medicals that revealed a bleed in his brain.

Thankfully, Doumbe was eventually given a clean bill of health and PFL snatched him up with a quickness. As the promotion continues to expand into new markets with a particular focus on Europe, Doumbe was the perfect product to roll out when the PFL landed in France.

It’s safe to say Doumbe did not disappoint.

As a kickboxer with an astonishing 45 knockouts on his résumé, Doumbe delivering anything less than a jaw-dropping finish would have almost been viewed as a failure. Thankfully, the 31-year-old Cameroon native, who now calls France his home, made good on the attention being paid to him with a blistering nine-second knockout.

There’s a reason why his nickname is “The Best,” because that’s what Doumbe has been for much of his career, but now he’ll attempt to follow in the footsteps of fighters like Alex Pereira and Israel Adesanya as kickboxers who made a huge impact after transitioning into MMA.

It’s difficult to gauge Doumbe’s ceiling in MMA with only five fights on his record thus far, but there’s little doubt that the world will be watching to see how he does.


UFC 294: Aliskerov v Alves

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It’s not clear if Ikram Aliskerov is Russian slang for “terrifying human being,” but that should be the translation for this middleweight wrecking ball.

Prior to joining the UFC roster, Aliskerov put together a 13-1 record with only four decisions along the way. His only loss came via knockout to fellow terrifying human Khamzat Chimaev back in 2019.

Since then, Aliskerov rattled off seven straight wins, including six by way of knockout or submission. He earned his UFC contract after dispatching Mario Souza with a first-round kimura on the promotion’s Contender Series, and then needed just one second more to flat-line noted Dillon Danis hype man Phil Hawes in his octagon debut.

He followed up that performance with a devastating flying knee knockout over Warlley Alves that earned him a Performance of the Night bonus.

If Nickal isn’t the surest thing on this list, Aliskerov is a razor-close second. It’s not impossible to imagine there’s a world where these two monsters square off one day with a UFC title on the line.

Fight of the Year in 2025 anybody? Let’s at least mark that down as a possibility right now.


2023 PFL Championships

Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

Much like Diego Lopes, the year didn’t start off with a win for Jesus Pinedo, but he’s the only fighter on this list closing out 2023 with a $1 million paycheck in his bank account.

After falling by split decision to Gabriel Braga to start the PFL season, the 27-year-old featherweight was basically in do-or-die mode heading into his next fight against 2022 champion Brendan Loughnane. On paper it looked like the PFL was feeding Pinedo to the wolves while giving Loughnane a chance to secure his spot back in the playoffs, where Loughnane would undoubtedly seek out a second straight championship run.

That didn’t work out so well for Loughnane, however, after Pinedo blasted him with a huge knee to the head followed by some damaging hammerfists that ended their fight in just 94 seconds. The win punched Pinedo’s ticket to the playoffs, where he showcased his finishing power with a second-round knockout over perennial PFL contender Bubba Jenkins.

Then, in the finals, Pinedo had his chance at revenge when he took out Braga in their rematch, but the judges had the night off this time around. Pinedo put on a stellar performance before a blistering combination of strikes put Braga out on his feet, with the referee ultimately saving him from further harm.

Pinedo was awarded with the 2023 PFL featherweight title and a seven-figure paycheck, which capped off a remarkable year for one of MMA’s newest millionaires.

Here is how voting for MMA Fighting’s 2023 Rookie of the Year played out.

2023 awards roty

MMA Fighting


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