By now, you’ve hopefully stuffed your bellies with all of the holiday dinner leftovers, are gearing up to party hearty on New Year’s Eve, and have taken plenty of time to reflect on the chaos that was the 2023 year in combat sports.
We here at MMA Fighting have done our part to recap one of the most unbelievable 12-month stretches of drama in and out of the cage that we’ve ever seen, but not everything fit so neatly into the usual “of the Year” categories (which you can check out in the links below).
After all, we know this business isn’t just all about sensational knockouts and mind-blowing submissions; in fact, sometimes it’s the moments around the fight that leave the most lasting mark in our memories. To this point, the MMA Fighting crew gather together for one last time this year to commemorate the good times, the bad times, and everything in between, as we say a fond farewell to 2023.
Table of Contents
Feel-Good Moment of the Year
Alexander K. Lee: They say “everything ends badly, otherwise it wouldn’t end.” And in MMA, that’s usually true.
There are so many legends who deserve a graceful exit from this brutal game, and Robbie Lawler’s name would certainly be at the top of that list if you asked any self-respecting fight fan. The “Ruthless” one has been part of some of the best knockouts, fights, and even soundbites in MMA history, not to mention a late-career turnaround where he became UFC welterweight champion. Like many of his peers, his twilight years were occasionally painful to watch, so his final fight against Niko Price at UFC 290 was met with cautious optimism.
As it turned out, Price was the perfect partner for Lawler’s last dance, a slugger willing to gleefully wander into the wood-chipper and get sparked in 38 seconds. All that was left was to honor Lawler and his singular 22-year career, which the UFC did with a fantastic tribute video as he conducted a familiar post-win interview with Joe Rogan.
When his tribute video finished, the legendary brawler had one surprise left for all of us: He cried. In that moment, I guarantee he wasn’t the only one.
Feel-Bad Moment of the Year
Damon Martin: The “best of the rest” awards are usually meant to be fun, but this category has previously been reserved for moments that left us feeling sad at the end of the year. Many times, that involves a fighter staying past their expiration date. We end up with our final memory of an all-time legend like Mauricio “Shogun” Rua put out to pasture by Ihor Potieria, who most fans couldn’t ID even if he was standing next to the guys in The Usual Suspects.
Nothing, however, was worse than spending UFC 296 fight week with Colby Covington. After nearly two years away, he returned for a title shot he didn’t earn. At the media day, he dressed up like he was going to the MAGA Met Gala with a blazer featuring his personal hero and savior, Donald Trump. One day later, he cosplayed as George Washington, spewing trash talk about the Revolutionary War in a feeble attempt to attack Leon Edwards, who hails from Jamaica. Yes, Edwards also grew up in the U.K., but zingers about England losing a war to the U.S. in the 1700s probably didn’t land the way he hoped (and let’s not even get into his random attacks about pedophilia aimed at Stephen Thompson).
Covington then took it up a notch, invoking Edwards’ deceased father, who was murdered when the future UFC champion was still just a kid. For all the hateful rhetoric he spews, he somehow found a way go even lower.
After all that, “Chaos” capped off his week with an abysmal showing, falling to 2-3 in his past five fights with all three losses from failed title attempts. Canned lines praising first responders and bending
over the knee to Trump sitting cageside didn’t gain him any favor. He got so flustered, he eventually cursed the booing crowd as a final goodbye before storming out of the cage to find his binky.
Since morphing into his right-wing caricature, a move made to avoid being cut from the UFC, Covington has tapped into a loyal part of the fan base — and truth be told, he’s managed a few good lines. But taking a dig at somebody’s deceased father and then s****** the bed in a title fight that had White calling him “slow and old” afterward capped off an abysmal week for Covington that won’t soon be forgotten.
Promo of the Year
Shaun Al-Shatti: There was plenty of ugliness in 2023. Hell, we closed out the year with back-to-back press conferences where the main talking points were dead dads (see above) and child abuse. If we were wondering where the line in MMA is, 2023 may have found it.
But in times like this, it’s important to remember the joy and beauty the fight game can offer us as well, and no pre-fight theatrics in 2023 were more joyful nor more beautiful than the magnum opus Mike Perry delivered in April ahead of his bare-knuckle boxing match against Luke Rockhold. It was a true two-pronged attack from the platinum one. First, the table-setter — Perry aggressively picking his nose and wiping a booger on Rockhold’s comically fluffy jacket during their first staredown. Then, the payoff — the face of BKFC being so damn pleased with himself during a joint interview with Rockhold on this very website when asked why he pulled out such an elementary school move.
“Because it was hilarious! And it got everybody watching and realizing what happened,” Perry gleefully said.
“You know what the f****** pathetic thing is? You actually thought about that,” Rockhold shot back. “You actually thought about that in the back, like, ‘I’m going to do this.’ You planned that thing. It was obvious you planned it.”
“Hell yeah, I planned that s*** for like a week!” Perry exclaimed.
“That’s how f****** pathetic you are,” said Rockhold.
“I was like, ‘Oh, I’m going to put a booger on this motherf*****!’” Perry continued. “And every time I do an Instagram video now, every time I’m in my car or something and I’m like f****** recording myself, I’m like, ‘Damn man, there’s just always this little booger in there.’ I’m just waiting to give you more boogers. You were giving Paulo Costa bloody boogers. You’re the boogerman now!”
Pure poetry. A+. Five stars. Ten out of 10. No notes.
If you can bust out a promo so good that both I and my toddler can enjoy it in equal measure, you know you’re doing this whole fight game thing right.
Villain of the Year
Steven Marrocco: Opening the year by slapping his wife, pushing the grotesque Power Slap promotion over the UFC, banning Francis Ngannou from the UFC for not re-signing a contract, doing nothing about racist language and pedophilia accusations at press conferences … where do you start with Dana White?
The sport’s most famous promoter had himself another banner year business-wise, no thanks to the well-oiled machine that virtually runs itself and, thanks to guaranteed TV revenue, doesn’t live and die by the quality of each fight card. For those reasons and maybe no others, White won himself another “Leading Man” award courtesy of The World MMA Awards. That sentence alone should tell you the level of cognitive dissonance in this little bubble of ours.
In what other bubble could you do the things White has done and not get a pink slip? How much lower and trashier could the sport get without the adults in the room stepping in? The longer it’s clear that the answer is never — as long as the money keeps rolling in, the more I start to think about White and the UFC as a cult of personality. Only with something like that would he and those in his orbit to go to such lengths to ignore the reality of all these bad looks, to muzzle those who speak out against them, and, even more powerfully, get those who would speak out muzzle themselves for fear of reprisal.
We’re long past the moment when the UFC became mainstream. White is a big part of that accomplishment. But with all the ugliness on display in 2023, his actions — or lack thereof — threaten to take the UFC backward, to narrow its appeal, to alienate possible fans, and to relegate it to the level of niche sport that’s never taken as seriously as its big-league relatives.
Unintentionally Funniest Person of the Year
Jed Meshew: 2023 will go down as the funniest year in MMA history. Sean Strickland putting a clinic on against the best striker of this generation with a simple one-two? Funny. Alex Pereira becoming a two-division champion after getting slept at the start of the year? Funny. Francis Ngannou signing his dream deal and then knocking down Tyson Fury after countless bozos said he fumbled the bag for leaving the UFC? Astoundingly funny.
As funny as all those people were, none of them held a candle to PFL founder Donn Davis.
This year undeniably was a good one for PFL, which acquired Francis Ngannou and Bellator. And yet, the things I’ll remember from the promotion this year are the numerous Donn Davis tweets that made me cackle with laughter.
The biggest, of course, is Davis saying the Bellator acquisition made PFL a “co-leader” in MMA with the UFC, and that Dana White was worried about them. Around the office, we have already gotten a lot of laughs out of that one. But we also had plenty of laughs at this insane infographic Davis tweeted out highlighting things like “Technology” (only PFL has the SmartCage), and the fact that ONE Championship is “80 percent Asian.” It was truly one of the most ludicrous promotional things I’ve seen in this sport, which is saying something.
Then there’s the tweet where Davis proudly says PFL has all the top women’s featherweights in the world (not a real division, and also not even true!), the one where he quotes Gandhi (who’s obviously a big fight fan), and oh, how about the time that Cédric Doumbé made his promotional debut but people in the U.S. literally couldn’t watch it? So much for all that technology he was bragging about.
2023 was the funniest year in MMA history, and whether he meant to be or not, Davis was easily the funniest man in the sport.
Upset of the Year
Martin: There hardly can be any doubt the answer is Sean Strickland’s stunning upset to dethrone Israel Adesanya just one fight after Adesanya vanquished his personal boogeyman. Of course Strickland earns the award, but let’s talk for a moment about how ridiculous that performance really was.
First of all, Strickland got this title shot by default. With Dricus Du Plessis injured and the UFC scheduled to return to Australia, Adesanya needed a dance partner, and he had already demolished just about every contender at middleweight. Meanwhile, Strickland was on a two-fight winning streak against guys who weren’t even ranked in the top 10, not far removed from a devastating knockout loss to Alex Pereira.
But Strickland was available and willing to take the fight — and sometimes that’s all you need when the UFC machine needs to keep rolling. He was a 4-to-1 underdog, and by the time he stepped in the octagon, some sportsbooks had him at 7-to-1.
Former two-division UFC champion Henry Cejudo said it was a “no brainer” to pick Adesanya. UFC featherweight king Alexander Volkanovski predicted Adesanya to “pick him apart.” Sean O’Malley hoped Adesanya “knocked him the f*** out.” Retired heavyweight Brendan Schaub opined Adesanya should be a -2000 favorite.
But once the fight started, Strickland started marching forward, and with a relentless-yet-effective one-two combination, he put Adesanya on the back foot. Then he dropped him and nearly scored the knockout. Adesanya survived, but he never got going after that.
It’s still difficult to fathom how Strickland dissected Adesanya so thoroughly by sticking to a basic boxing combination and a shoulder-roll defense that “The Last Stylebender” couldn’t penetrate.
Coach of the Year
Al-Shatti: Without question, the two most shocking results of 2023 were Sean Strickland’s one-sided beatdown of Israel Adesanya (see above) and Francis Ngannou waltzing into Saudi Arabia and toppling boxing’s lineal heavyweight champion in what realistically should’ve been the greatest professional debut in the history of the sweet science (if not for judges Alan Krebs and Juan Carlos Pelayo saving Tyson Fury from a lifetime of ignominy). So what’s the common denominator between those two performances?
Eric Nicksick, Dewey Cooper, and the rest of the brilliant minds at Xtreme Couture.
The remarkable revival of Las Vegas’ most accomplished team has been one of the sneaky subplots of the past few years, but in 2023 that subplot stopped being so damn sneaky. Once an early hotbed for MMA champions in the sport’s primordial days, Xtreme Couture fell on hard times after the tragic death of the gym’s general Robert Follis in 2017. But under the guiding hand of Nicksick and his team, Xtreme Couture has reclaimed the foothold it once had in the sport — and 2023 was the year it became inarguable that Xtreme Couture once again belongs among the elite of the elite of MMA gyms.
Round of the Year
Marrocco: Karol Rosa and Irene Aldana nearly stole the show in this category with a slobber-knocker of a third round at UFC 296, but I confess a soft spot for Clay Collard vs. Shane Burgos at the PFL 9 playoffs.
Any one of the rounds in that lesser-seen war could be a contender for ROTY, but the second frame clinches it for me. It had all the elements of a classic, from Burgos nearly sawing off Collard’s leg with kicks, to Collard dropping Burgos late in the frame, to the insane punch count that batted momentum back and forth like a badminton birdie. The stakes weren’t as high as other contenders, such as Round 4 of Grasso vs. Shevchenko 1, but with many of them already winners or honorable mentions on other lists, I think it only fair to give the “co-leader” a shout.
The heart on display that night at Madison Square Garden deserves a bigger spotlight.
Comeback of the Year
Suarez being a contender in 2024 is not some major revelation. Since winning The Ultimate Fighter 23, she’s been earmarked for greatness. However, her climb to the top hit a major snag in 2019, when she suffered multiple injuries that kept her on the shelf for four years. In the fight business, that’s an eternity, and the kind of setback few fighters come back from. And she had already overcome a cancer diagnosis.
Expectations were high when Suarez returned to fight Montana De La Rosa this past February, and she made the fight look easy. She was back, and if there were any doubts she was still a contender, she wrapped up another second-round guillotine choke against former strawweight champion Jessica Andrade.
Once again, we’re back wondering not if Suarez gets her title shot, but when.
Most Scared Fighter of the Year
Meshew: I generally believe professional fighters are not afraid of fighting anyone. If you’ve spent any time around any fighters, you’ll agree. Even the most obviously mediocre fighters believe they can beat up anyone — it’s simply part of the psyche of being a fighter. That means on the rare occasion a fighter is obviously and transparently afraid of fighting a potential opponent, it stands out. And no fighter, perhaps in the history of combat, has stood out more in this regard than Jon Jones.
Jones made his heavyweight debut in March, streamrolling Ciryl Gane to claim the vacant heavyweight title. An injury forced him out of his first title defense against Stipe Miocic at UFC 295, and Tom Aspinall went on to win the interim belt. Despite a decades-long precedent of champions unifying their titles against interim champs, Jones and the UFC plan to skip right past Aspinall, with all signs pointing to a fight between Jones and Miocic. Why?
Because Jones is scared.
Father Times comes for everyone, and Jones is getting up there in years. The prospect of fighting the next big thing in a weight class that isn’t his natural one is terrifying. It’s doubly so when a loss threatens to ruin his legacy (Jose Aldo, for example, is clearly and obviously the greatest featherweight of all-time, but because of 13 seconds in a fight with Conor McGregor, he is roundly dismissed). How else do you explain Jones being so dismissive of Aspinall in favor of a 41-year-old firefighter who hasn’t fought in three years?
He’s a scared, scared man. And I don’t know about y’all, but someone so scared could never be my GOAT. If Jones doesn’t fight Aspinall, I think we can all agree it calls his entire career into question.