Chaos was the name of the game in 2022. For the second year in a row, a record-tying number of UFC titles changed hands — of the 12 UFC beltholders who began 2022 with gold strapped around their waists, just five managed to clamber into 2023 unscathed, once again matching the record for the largest championship turnover in UFC history.
With that kind of extreme volatility over back-to-back years, how could anyone be expected to predict the title picture with any degree of certainty? Well, ask and you shall receive: The annual contender draft is back! Frenemies Shaun Al-Shatti and Jed Meshew are here to once again make fools of themselves by trying to answer our age-old question: Which three non-champions have the best chance of ending 2023 wrapped in UFC gold?
And of course, they’re doing so by returning to the format of kings: The fantasy draft.
Godspeed, gentlemen. Please don’t make us look bad.
Al-Shatti: Ah yes, welcome back to our own little Thunderdome, my dear friend Mr. Meshew. This is year No. 5 for this lovely competition, but the second in a row for you, so I assume you’re comfortable and know your way around.
I must admit, you had me scared last year — the late and unexpected push of Magomed Ankalaev nearly left me dead to rights! Candidly, I would’ve been furious had Anklaev pulled it off in the final pay-per-view of 2022 and handed me an Usman-esque loss at the buzzer. But luckily those wonderful ol’ MMA judges did me a real solid, leaving the light heavyweight division beltless and leaving us stuck with a 1-1 tie in the final 2022 tally.
Khamzat Chimaev, Amanda Nunes (135), Jon Jones
Team Meshew: Islam Makhachev,
Petr Yan, Magomed Ankalaev
Not a bad effort for a rookie, I must admit. But be warned: 2023 will be my magnum opus.
First, before we get underway, let’s recap a few ground rules to refresh the audience and set the stage for anyone who’s catching us for the first time.
1. Our goal here today is to construct the three-fighter team who will end the 2023 campaign with the largest share of UFC gold. Interim belts count as well. If your soothsayer abilities can somehow lead you to a perfect 3-for-3 sweep, you’re a guaranteed winner. Trust me, though — that ain’t happening. In years past, two correct picks (or really just one) is enough to get the dub. This whole thing is much, much more difficult than it looks.
2. It’ll be a three-round snake draft. For the uninitiated, that means the team who gets Pick 1 also gets Picks 4 and 5, while the opposing team gets Picks 2, 3, and 6.
3. The pool of available picks is limited only to fighters not currently the champion of the UFC division you’re selecting them for. For example: Alexander Volkanovki at 145 pounds? Not available. But Volkanovki at 155 pounds? Totally fair game.
4. In order to nudge us toward more adventurous thinking, teams are only allowed to select one name each from a pool of fighters already either scheduled or rumored to be the next title challenger. That means only one pick each from this group: Jon Jones, Glover Teixeira, Jamahal Hill, Israel Adesanya, Kamaru Usman, Alexander Volkanovki (155 pounds), Josh Emmett, Yair Rodriguez, Henry Cejudo, and Brandon Moreno. As always, this is an exercise in prognostication, not fight prediction.
Meshew: Everything sounds good except that part where you reminded me of the cruelty of the MMA Gods. I was so close. SO CLOSE! Outta nowhere, the RKO — Jed wins. And then Magomed forgot how to fight for the first 15 minutes. Now I’m angry all over again.
It’s fine. Fine. I’ll just dominate this year, despite feeling much, much worse about any of my options and you getting the first pick when there is one clear-cut contender to take off the board.
Alright, I went first last year. It’s your turn. Get on with it, Al-Shatti!
Team Al-Shatti is on the clock! And with the first pick of 2023 contender draft ... Who could it be? ... Oh yes! ... It’s Khamzat Chimaev!
Al-Shatti: Damn straight it is.
Look Jed, 2023 is already shaping up to be a weird year for the purposes of this exercise. Usually there’s a smattering of three to five good names I feel confident about on my board — names that hit that perfect intersection of talent and opportunity this sort of draft demands. But not so for 2023. Seemingly half of the UFC’s divisions are total question marks as to who’s getting title shots in 2023, while the other half are question marks as to whether the current champs can even be beaten by any of their peers within striking distance. Add in legitimate questions about the availability of talents like Jon Jones and Jiri Prochazka to return in 2023, and this year’s draft pool plummets off a cliff after pick No. 1.
But Khamzat Chimaev? At least for our purposes, he’s in a tier of his own.
I may have been a year too early with my pick of the Chechen wolf in 2022, but 2023 is undoubtedly the year Chimaev finally lands his opportunity to prove his dominance over the best of the best. He’s (at most) one fight away from a title shot at either 170 pounds or 185 pounds, and he would be (at minimum) a 3-to-1 favorite over either of the current champions in those divisions. Hell, considering his obviously limited shelf life to make the welterweight limit, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that Chimaev ends the year holding gold in two different weight classes. He’s that good — and nowhere else left on this year’s board is there the combination of talent and opportunity he’ll bring into 2023.
This couldn’t have started out better. Your move, Meshew.
Team Meshew is on the clock and looking a little crestfallen that Al-Shatti didn’t fumble the first pick ... Nonetheless, Team Meshew selects ... UFC interim flyweight champ Brandon Moreno!
Meshew: First, let me say that I sincerely hope Khamzat somehow doesn’t fight for a belt this year and this becomes your new gimmick, spamming Khamzat until he finally wins you one.
Second, I hate this pick. I hate all my picks. None of these people are going to win the title. There was too much turnover in 2022; 2023 is going to be a bunch of the same.
With that being said, I came into this year’s draft with a new strategy: I’m just going to pick fighters I KNOW will at least get a shot at the belt, and if I can get ones that are also great fighters, that’s a bonus. Fortunately, Moreno comes through in both regards.
We know Moreno is getting a fourth fight with Deiveson Figueiredo in January and I feel pretty good about his chances. Moreno finished Figgy once and arguably should have won the third fight. Plus, Figgy is getting older. I think we get another all-star performance out of The Lego Master.
The concern here is that he’s fighting for the title in January. If he loses, I’m essentially down a horse immediately, and if he wins, I still have to survive Alexandre Pantoja later in the year. There’s a lot of risk here, but this year there really is a dearth of good options, so give me Moreno. If nothing else, the vibes are good.
Perhaps a surprise pick from Team Meshew to kick things off, but they are back on the clock and maybe go with a more chalk selection now ... What’s that? ... The pick is in ... It’s Jiri Prochazka!
Meshew: Remember that whole thing I said about only picking fighters I KNOW will get a title shot. Ummmm. Yeah. About that.
S***. I’m really bungling this one, eh?
Look, light heavyweight is an impossibly stupid division and picking who is going to come out on top at the end of the year is tantamount to trying to catch a fart with your bare hands. BUT HEAR ME OUT.
Prochazka is the uncrowned champion of the division. He beat Glover Teixeira in one of the best fights of all-time and he has been guaranteed a title shot when he does return? Did he suffer a catastrophic shoulder injury that may irrevocably alter his career and we don’t have a set timeline on his return? Sure. But Jiri believes he will be back in the fall and I believe in Jiri. He’s a heroic, lunatic samurai whatever. This man is going to Bushido Code his way back into the cage come hell or high water this year, and when he does, it will be for the belt. AND, since it won’t happen until the fall, odds are that it’s his only fight of 2023, so once he wins, that’s one in the W column for ol’ Meshew.
OK, I’m starting to talk myself into my own choices.
And the board turns back to Team Al-Shatti ... Where will he go? ... No, he didn’t ... Yes! He did! ... It’s Magomed Ankalaev!
Al-Shatti: Oh yes, Jed. Your 2022 misfortune is about to turn into my 2023 gain.
I’ll be honest, it’s only through sheer dumb luck that Ankalaev didn’t win you last year’s draft. It was a savvy pick, because even after UFC 282, I think we both still believe Ankalaev to be the most skilled light heavyweight in the world. I just never expected him to stumble into a 2022 title shot considering how clogged the ladder was the top of the division to start last year, but weird stuff happens in MMA and that oversight nearly bit me.
Rest assured, I won’t make the same mistake again.
Ankalaev may not be the UFC’s favorite fighter right now, but talent ultimately prevails in a division as uninteresting at the top as 205 pounds. He will be forced to win another fight against an Aleksandar Rakic or Paul Craig type of figure first, but he’ll do so, and at that point, with a still-human Prochazka sidelined for the majority of 2023 and the division lacking compelling options, it’s going to be nigh impossible for the UFC to hold the 30-year-old Dagestani back from reentering the title mix. Regardless of who wins the belt next between Glover Teixeira or Jamahal Hill, Ankalaev will be favored to defeat either man.
His fights may not set the world afire, but he’s still the cream of the crop in a thin weight class — and 2023 will be the year he rights the wrongs of UFC 282.
Let’s go. Team “Names Ending In -aev” for the win.
The board stays with Team Al-Shatti ... There appears to be some internal debate with this one ... Wait, could it be? ... Yes! That’s Israel Adesanya!
Al-Shatti: I felt good about my first two picks, Jed. But this one? Let’s call it a hunch more than anything.
Yes, I’m aware “The Last Stylebender” is 0-3 in his series against Alex Pereira. That is not ideal. In any endeavor in life, sometimes there are just people out there who are always going to have your number regardless of how skilled or famous or dominant you may be. You can be the fiercest Charizard in the entire world, but there’s always going to be a boogeyman Blastoise out there around the corner just waiting to drown you at first glance.
Maybe that’s who Pereira is for Adesanya. His Blastoise. After UFC 281, I won’t fault anyone who believes that to be the case. Still, there is something to be said for how close this series actually is — Adesanya should’ve won their first fight if not for a bad judges’ decision, then he was well ahead on the scorecards in both the second and third fights before suffering two dramatic, come-from-behind knockout losses in the closing minutes. That’s a fairly insane way for all of this to play out. There’s a not-too-far-off alternate world where Adesanya holds a comfortable 3-0 lead over Pereira and none of this is a discussion.
That’s why the former champ is my final pick. He’s already proven he’s the best non-Pereira talent at 185 pounds, he’s going to get his inevitable rematch, and you have to imagine he’s going to prepare more diligently for Round 4 than he’s ever prepared for anything in his entire life. Can lightning strike for Pereira a fourth time? Maybe so. But I’m playing the odds and siding with the proven talents of an ultra-focused “The Last Stylebender.”
Eventually he has to seal the deal, right?
Team Meshew trudges up to the podium slowly, looking distraught. Things aren’t alright in Mudville ... Still, the representative goes up to the mic and makes the final selection ... Mrs. Irrelevant, Valentina Shevchenko!
Meshew: Let me start by saying, what’s that old adage about insanity? Something about doing things repeatedly and expecting a different outcome? I’m sure this is the year Adesanya finally beats the man who has beaten him multiple times already.
Anyway, this is the year Valentina Shevchenko finally beats Amanda Nunes to claim the bantamweight title, despite having lost to her twice already.
Damnit. I hate my entire draft.
Look, I started this off by saying there was only one good choice this year, and you snaked him with the No. 1 overall pick. I’ve been reeling ever since. Now, with the final pick, there really isn’t any good choice available. The obvious choice was Rose Namajunas, as she has two wins over the current strawweight champion, but who knows if Rose is even going to fight this year? She is kind of mercurial in that way, and after putting on the worst fight in the history of modern MMA in her previous outing, Rose feels like a long shot to even get a title shot this year. That left me with Shevchenko, for one simple reason: She’s going to get the chance.
Taila Santos and Erin Blanchfield are fighting in a bout that is almost certainly a No. 1 contender’s fight. Similarly, if Ketlen Vieira beats Raquel Pennington next weekend, she’ll be next in line for Nunes. Both of those title fights can be set up as the main and co-main event for a summer pay-per-view. Then, when both champions retain, as they are extremely likely to do, there is nothing left for either division but the trilogy fans have been expecting for years.
Will Shevchenko win? No clue. My gut says no, if we’re being honest. But both previous encounters were razor close, and I’m very confident she at least gets the chance. That’s more than I can say for anyone else.
And thus concludes the 2023 contender draft! Let’s take a look at our final rosters.
Team Al-Shatti: Khamzat Chimaev, Magomed Ankalaev, Israel Adesanya
Team Meshew: Brandon Moreno, Jiri Prochazka, Valentina Shevchenko (135 pounds)
Who won? Vote in the poll and let your voice be heard in the comments below.
Whose team is more likely to end 2023 with a bigger share of UFC gold?
This poll is closed
Team Al-Shatti: Khamzat Chimaev + Magomed Ankalaev + Israel Adesanya
Team Meshew: Brandon Moreno + Jiri Prochazka + Valentina Shevchenko (135lbs)