5 Bold UFC Predictions for 2023
The UFC's first event of 2023 goes down this Saturday inside the Apex facility in Las Vegas, and while it's a pretty poor card, it will serve as the starter pistol for another year of UFC action—a year that should be full of surprises.
There is seldom a boring year for UFC fans. However, this one could be particularly interesting, as several fighters seem to be on the precipice of superstardom, a handful of long-absent stars look poised for comebacks, and the company itself is fighting two high-profile scandals that could have far-reaching implications.
We will see new contenders emerge, and dominant champions dethroned. We will see promising new careers begin, and others end. By the end of December, we'll have witnessed things that would seem completely ludicrous to suggest now.
With that in mind, here are five bold predictions for the next 12 months of UFC action. If we're wrong, feel free to come back here and laugh at us in December. If we're right, well, we told ya so.
Valentina Shevchenko Loses Her Belt
UFC flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko is one of the most dominant title-holders in the promotion today. In fact, with a reign dating back to late 2018, and seven title defenses to her credit, she is the most dominant champion in the UFC right now, full stop. Not even featherweight champ Alexander Volkanovski, the greatest male fighter in the promotion today, has put up those kinds of numbers.
Shevchenko is the queen of the sport right now, there's no questioning that.
We're predicting that changes in 2022.
That's partly because Shevchenko looked unusually human in her last fight, scraping by Taila Santos with a split-decision win. But more than that, it's because she has more credible challengers approaching her throne than she has in years.
France's Manon Fiorot has more than earned a title shot after five straight wins in the Octagon, including a unanimous-decision defeat of former title challenger Katlyn Chookagian last October. She's also one of the few strikers in the division who can hang with Shevchenko on the feet.
Mexico's Alexa Grasso is also worthy of a shot after four straight wins over solid foes, and has the boxing to at the very least make a fight with Shevchenko interesting—maybe even win it.
Then there's Erin Blanchfield. The American grappler has won her first four fights in the Octagon, and while she is currently ranked No. 10 at flyweight—still some distance from a title shot—she's set to meet Santos in February, and could easily earn that opportunity in victory.
No matter who goes first, Shevchenko has some serious contenders to get through this year. Our bet is she doesn't get through all of them.
Sean O'Malley Claims the Bantamweight Throne
Sean O'Malley is easily the most popular fight in the bantamweight division, and after a competitive decision win over the former champion Petr Yan late last year, he's also one of the division's top contenders. Still, there are not a lot of people out there who like his chances against the division's reigning champion Aljamain Sterling.
The champ looks like a nightmare matchup for O'Malley on paper, with the wrestling and submissions to totally nullify the popular contender's trademark striking game.
O'Malley would also face a tough stylistic matchup against Henry Cejudo, the division's former champion. Cejudo is poised to skip ahead of O'Malley in the line for a title shot, despite having not fought since he retired in 2020, and as a former Olympic wrestler, also looks like a nightmare matchup for the popular contender on paper.
Whether O'Malley winds up fighting Sterling or Cejudo for the title, we're guessing he defies the odds once again—just like he did against Yan—and closes out the year with the belt around his waist.
Khamzat Chimaev Takes His First L
Khamzat Chimaev has been touted as a future champion since he rattled off his first three UFC wins in a two-month span back in 2020. And after he beat welterweight contenders Li Jingliang, Gilbert Burns and Kevin Holland in his next three fights, confidence in his winning the division's belt is higher than ever.
Let's pump the brakes.
We're not saying Chimaev won't win the belt at welterweight. In fact, it's very possible he'll win belts at both welterweight and middleweight. However, we're expecting him to hit at least one speed bump along the way.
Chimaev's win over Burns, a unanimous-decision in April that went down as one of the year's best fights, was easily the biggest achievement of his competitive career to date. Yet it also proved that, despite his perfect 12-0 pro record, he is beatable. We saw him get stung on the feet. We saw signs of fatigue from him in the later rounds of their gruelling fight. We saw things that all of his future opponents will be looking to expose.
Colby Covington, who has long been floated as an option for Chimaev's next fight, is particularly well equipped for that task, with the durability, wrestling and cardio to drag the Chechen juggernaut into a war of attrition.
One way or the other, we're guessing somebody beats Chimaev this year. But don't be surprised if the setback makes him even better in the long run.
Jon Jones Makes Waves at Heavyweight
Many fans consider Jon Jones the greatest fighter of all time. Yet there are plenty of reasons to doubt him as rumors of his long-awaited return to the Octagon once again swirl.
Jones is the former light heavyweight champion, and far and away the most dominant champion's history, with lopsided wins over many of its most iconic fighters. Yet after a close decision win over Dominick Reyes in 2020, he vacated his belt with plans to move up to heavyweight.
Almost three years later, it still hasn't happened, as the former champ has been locked in a contract dispute with the UFC. Yet there is plenty of reason to believe it will finally happen in 2023, even if it's not clear who Jones will fight in his first heavyweight bout.
The best choice is clearly heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou, but the Cameroonian-Frenchman is also embroiled in a contract dispute with the UFC, and his future with the promotion could not be murkier.
Former champion Stipe Miocic is also an option, but he hasn't fought since he lost the belt to Ngannou in 2021, and hasn't given any indication of when or even if he'll fight again.
Curtis Blaydes, a long-time contender who has never fought for the heavyweight title, has also been floated as Jones' welcome committee. That's a good fight, but definitely a consolation prize when compared to fights with Ngannou or Miocic.
One way or the other, we think Jones will finally fight at heavyweight in 2023. He might not win the belt this year—that will likely depend on the Ngannou situation—but one way or the other, he'll make an entrance with a huge win.
Conor McGregor Retires For Good
Conor McGregor has not fought since he suffered a second consecutive loss to Dustin Poirier in 2021—a loss that left him with a badly broken leg.
His leg finally seems to be healed up, which means there is plenty of chatter about his long-awaited return to the cage. While we know he will first need to re-enter the USADA testing pool, it's very possible it will happen this year.
Our guess is it does—and that it will be the last time we see the Irish superstar in the Octagon.
McGregor is one of the most important fighters in MMA history, and as a former champ at featherweight and lightweight, one of the sport's greatest fighters too. Yet he is just 1-3 in his last four fights, with his lone victory coming against a shopworn Donald Cerrone. At this point, it is very unlikely he will ever win another UFC title, whether it's at lightweight, where he's at his best, or up at welterweight, where he has competed several times in his recent career.
For all his mistakes, McGregor is not stupid.
No matter the outcome of his potential comeback fight later this year, we're betting he will sense that his time among the sport's top fighters is over, and that his energy would be better spent elsewhere. That could mean focusing on his many businesses. It could mean taking some exhibition fights like the ones Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao have been doing overseas.
One way or the other, it'll mean the end of his time in the UFC.