Somehow, 2023 is already halfway over.
Between 22 UFC events, eight Bellator events, six PFL events proper, and oodles more from ONE Championship, RIZIN, and other major promotions, the first six months of the MMA calendar have given us plenty of nights worth celebrating. But which stand above the rest? Join MMA Fighting’s Shaun Al-Shatti, Alexander K. Lee, and Jed Meshew as they look back at the first half of 2023 and hand out some hardware for the best (and worst) from the mid-year.
Stay tuned to Tuesday for a rundown of the best knockouts of 2023.
Fight of the Half-Year: Islam Makhachev vs. Alexander Volkanovski
Al-Shatti: Want to know a sneaky truth about UFC champion vs. champion fights? Strictly in terms of in-cage action, most of them suck. They’re all either anticlimactic (Blachowicz-Adesanya, Cejudo-Dillashaw) or incredibly one-sided (McGregor-Alvarez, GSP-Penn 2).
Or, at least, that was the case until UFC 284 blew the doors off the sport and Islam Mahkachev and Alexander Volkanovski kicked off our Fight of the Year party early. Of the seven champ vs. champ bouts in UFC history, none remotely approached the edge-of-your-seat theatrics February’s pound-for-pound showdown provided, a nail-biter that may as well have been a five-part Netflix series considering the rollicking twists and turns that unfolded with each passing round. Even in defeat, Volkanovski defied expectations by pushing Mahkachev to his limits in a way that hadn’t been seen since 2015, beating out Makhachev in total strikes (164 to 95) and showcasing better defensive chops against the champ’s feared brand of Dagestani wrestling than any UFC lightweight ever had.
Fireworks? Controversy? High stakes? UFC 284 had it all. Somehow, Makhachev vs. Volkanovski not only matched the hype, it exceeded it. How often can you say that?
Honorable Mention: Justin Gaethje vs. Rafael Fiziev
Al-Shatti: It feels appropriate that even a mediocre Justin Gaethje fight (by his standards) is still a no-brainer once it comes time to run down the best of the year. That’s the power of “The Highlight,” though. In terms of excitement and thrills-per-minute, his B+ outing is still an A+ when contrasted with every other person who exists within this sport.
Already a three-time winner of this website’s Fight of the Year award, Gaethje defended his throne as the most entertaining combatant alive all over again in March when he smashed the chaos button once more against hard-charging contender Rafael Fiziev. It was Gaethje’s first dance against the next generation of the lightweight division, and he looked magnificent in reasserting his place within the 155-pound pecking order, perfectly toeing the line between all-out insanity and the more measured approach of his recent years.
“He wanted to taste blood,” Gaethje said post-fight. “He wanted to taste my blood, but unfortunately he was drowning in his blood. I’m happy about that.”
With the madness of Gaethje vs. Poirier 2 already set for the second half of the year, it’s inevitable that 2023 will once again have some sort of Gaethje representation on its final Fight of the Year list. It’s just a question of whether the 34-year-old tops himself at UFC 291.
What is the best fight of the mid-year?
This poll is closed
Islam Makhachev vs. Alexander Volkanovski
Justin Gaethje vs. Rafael Fiziev
Shavkat Rakhmonov vs. Geoff Neal
Kelvin Gastelum vs. Chris Curtis
Max Holloway vs. Arnold Allen
Other (explain in comments)
Submission of the Half-Year: Alexa Grasso def. Valentina Shevchenko via face crank
Meshew: I’m going to go ahead and take this one because this submission was particularly meaningful for me ... in the worst way possible.
Yes, that is yours truly watching in real time as every single cent of my gambling bankroll vanished in the violent squeeze of Alexa Grasso. It’s a unique experience, being able to watch back over and over again your own reckoning with the bounds of human folly and hubris, one that I now have — and that’s all thanks to Grasso.
Coming into 2022, Valentina Shevchenko was arguably the most dominant fighter in MMA. She had never lost at flyweight and had not decisively lost since 2010 in a fight you can’t even find video of. Grasso, by contrast, was a talented young fighter who was not really a threat. Coming into this fight, 10 of her 15 career wins were decisions, and she only had one submission! But none of that mattered when the cage door closed.
Grasso was likely losing the fight on the cards at the time, but she was competing every step of the way, and when Shevchenko opened the door by throwing an ill-advised spinning kick, Grasso quite literally pounced. It was something she had specifically trained for, taking the back off a spin and then finishing the fight, and it ended up working out exactly as she planned, with Grasso squeezing until Shevchenko’s head nearly popped like a pimple. That’s all it took to dethrone an invincible force, and teach one foolish writer a valuable lesson — planning, preparation, and one hell of a squeeze. There’s a new queen in town.
Honorable Mention: Shavkat Rakhmonov def. Geoff Neal via standing bulldog choke
Meshew: For as important as Grasso’s rear-naked choke was, Shavkhat Rakhmonov’s standing bulldog choke against Geoff Neal is undeniably the coolest submission this year, and one of the cooler ones in recent memory.
Sitting at 16-0 in his professional career with 16 finishes, Rakhmonov seemed to have finally met someone capable of lasting 15 minutes with him, with Neal battered but standing with less than 60 seconds left in the fight. Wrong. With the willful disdain of a man who refuses to let judges do anything, Rakhmonov snatched up Neal’s neck in a fashion that bouncers have used for centuries to dispatch unruly drunkards. Only Rakhmonov did it to one of the 10 best fighters in the world.
Anytime you score the kind of viscerally jarring submission that would make even a complete MMA neophyte look at it and say, “wow, that is violent,” you know you’ve done something pretty special.
What is the best submission of the mid-year?
This poll is closed
Alexa Grasso def. Valentina Shevchenko
Shavkat Rakhmonov def. Geoff Neal
Yair Rodriguez def. Josh Emmett
Jon Jones def. Ciryl Gane
Davey Grant def. Rafael Assuncao
Other (explain in comments)
Fighter of the Half-Year: Israel Adesanya
Lee: I’ll argue that the only thing better than never losing is overcoming the one challenge that everyone thinks you can’t beat.
That’s what Israel Adesanya pulled off this past April at UFC 287 when he finally vanquished Alex Pereira, the man who had beaten him twice in kickboxing (including one hellacious knockout that went from being an obscure footnote in Adesanya’s career to one of the replayed combat sports highlights in recent memory) and once in MMA. It was the last of those three losses that stung the worst, as Pereira successfully chased Adesanya down and ended his middleweight title run at UFC 281. By come-from-behind knockout. Again.
Though the stoppage in their UFC title encounter came with some controversy, Adesanya didn’t dwell on it. He got back on the horse, rode back into town five months later, and survived another scare against his nemesis before crushing Pereira with a pair of right hands. “The Last Stylebender” followed up with one of his most iconic celebrations, and just like that, some order was restored at the top of the pound-for-pound rankings.
It’s going to be tough for Adesanya to hold onto this spot at the end of the year given that his next title defense could be against a mandatory challenger as opposed to one fans are clamoring for, but nobody scored a more notable win in the first half of 2023 than Adesanya.
Honorable Mention: Gilbert Burns
“Durinho” got off to a blazing start, submitting Neil Magny inside of a round in January and then retiring Jorge Masvidal in April. Were it not for Dana White’s inexplicable, iron-clad commitment to Colby Covington getting the next shot at welterweight champion Leon Edwards (a fight that STILL hasn’t actually been booked, by the way), that spot surely would have gone to Burns.
Instead, Burns made the mistake of doing his job and actually fighting, which resulted in a short-notice decision loss to Belal Muhammad in a bout that neither man stood to gain much from. Muhammad hasn’t even been guaranteed a title shot, which means he’s in the same boat as Burns despite picking up the win.
So at 2-1 already in three appearances in 2023, Burns still gets this runner-up spot, which accurately reflects how screwed up the top of the welterweight division is right now.
Who of the fighter of the mid-year?
This poll is closed
Other (explain in comments)
Quote of the Half-Year: Boogerman
Meshew: I could give you 1,000 words on why Mike Perry is the breakout star of 2023 thus far and why the interplay between him and Luke Rockhold ahead of BKFC 41 was some of the best stuff to happen to combat sports in years, but our editors might kill me. Instead, I will point you to this brilliant recap of all the insane things said by the two of them while trying to hype a fight, and then give you one of the best quotes in MMA in years, said by the scholar Mike Perry about wiping a booger on Rockhold’s jacket.
“I was like, ‘Oh, I’m going to put a booger on this motherf*****. ... I’m just waiting to give you more boogers. You were giving Paulo Costa bloody boogers. You’re the booger man now!”
Somebody alert to Pulitzer committee, we have a contender!
Seriously, in a sport that is outlandish and childish to a degree that beggars belief at times, Perry found a way to lean even further into the infantile in a way that is absurd, hilarious, and revealing. Because we can dress it up all we want to with “merit” and “greatness,” but at the end of the day, this whole thing isn’t anything more than when you used to get in fights at recess because some kid put a booger on you.
Comeback of the Half-Year: Jon Jones
Al-Shatti: In retrospect, it feels kinda silly to have ever wondered if UFC 285 would go Jon Jones’ way, doesn’t it? Was an MMA neophyte who got thoroughly out-wrestled by a one-legged Francis Ngannou really going to be the one to end the reign of one of the greatest combat athletes of all-time? Obviously not. But those questions were valid in the moment.
If you remember, heading into March’s pay-per-view, Jones was perceived as being more vulnerable than ever before. He was 35 years old and hadn’t competed in 37 months. He’d teased a heavyweight move for 11 years but hadn’t fought anyone nearly as gargantuan as Ciryl Gane. And more importantly than anything else, he simply hadn’t looked like Jon Jones since 2018. After a listless win over Anthony Smith and two near-misses against Thiago Santos and Dominick Reyes, there were real concerns about whether his time had passed.
Then he strode to the cage and choked out the largest opponent of his career in mere minutes — and wouldn’t you know it, it was as if ol’ Johnny Bones never left.
Considering how poorly some of MMA’s other big-name comebacks have gone recently — Henry Cejudo and Conor McGregor, we’re looking at you — the fact that Jones’ return played out as perfectly as it did only further propels him up that all-time list. If his next fight truly winds up being his last, 2023 will go down one hell of a postscript to one of MMA’s greatest résumés — a postscript that, not too long ago, we weren’t sure was ever coming.
Biggest Story of the Half-Year: Francis Ngannou leaves UFC, signs with PFL
Lee: It wasn’t the earth-shattering free agent move that one would hope for, but Francis Ngannou joining the PFL is still one of the most significant signings in MMA history.
The UFC can try to paint over the title all they want, but Ngannou is the lineal heavyweight champion and still “The Baddest Man on the Planet,” even with Jon Jones conveniently returning to claim a UFC belt in Ngannou’s absence. With respect to the PFL’s seasonal champions, this is the first time they can credibly claim that they have the No. 1 fighter in a division. You can count on one hand the amount of times a star of Ngannou’s caliber left the the UFC at their peak.
More importantly, Ngannou campaigned for his freedom from the promotion and won, sitting out the final year of his contract and refusing to budge from his demands that included the option to pursue boxing bookings and an executive role with the promotion. PFL delivered, which is huge for any fighter weighing their options outside of the UFC.
That’s not to say that the UFC is losing too much sleep over losing Ngannou (that promotion is a money train that continues to chug along without delay) and there are still plenty of questions surrounding the actual impact of the deal (who will Ngannou actually fight? what realistic boxing opportunities are out there for him? what exactly is PFL Africa?), but this feels like an important step forward for the business of MMA, one that was long overdue.
Any free agent fighters that manage to secure game-changing clauses and conditions in their future contracts will owe at least a small debt of gratitude to Ngannou.
Disgrace of the Half-Year: Dana White
Meshew: Everything else has been pretty happy so I wanted to bring the vibes all the way down by reminding everyone that to kick start the year, Dana White got caught slapping his wife. To his small credit, White owned up to it and made no defense of his actions, but six months later there has still been no substantive recourse. No donation was made to a charity, no PSA given, no suspension by Endeavor, not even a statement from ESPN decrying the action. In literally any other sport, at the minimum a statement would be made, a cursory suspension served, something to make it clear the action cannot be tolerated. Instead, the whole thing gets hand-waved and it’s an afterthought 6 months later.
It just goes to show you that for as far as MMA has come over the years, there’s still a long way to go.