There were some epic fights in the UFC in 2022. We'll be talking about some of them, like Jiří Procházka vs. Glover Teixeira and Stephen Thompson vs. Kevin Holland, for years to come.
As good as last year was for UFC action, however, this year has the potential to be even better.
The promotion has already announced some huge fights, including Alexander Volkanovski and Islam Makhachev's champion vs. champion clash at UFC 284 in Australia in February, while a number of long-absent superstars look poised to return before year's end.
As is always the case, many of this year's most important fights will end up coming as total surprises, but here are five matches we're hoping the promotion will be able to make before we close the 2023 calendar.
Francis Ngannou vs. Jon Jones
We've been talking about a fight between Francis Ngannou and Jon Jones for a long, long time. It's easy to understand why.
Ngannou, the reigning UFC heavyweight champion, is easily the most fearsome knockout puncher in MMA history and is well on track to cementing himself as one of the best heavyweights the sport has ever seen.
Jones, arguably the greatest fighter ever, is the former light heavyweight champion, and after the most dominant run in the division's history, vacated his belt in August 2020 with plans to go big-game hunting at heavyweight.
A clash between the two juggernauts has the makings of a blockbuster—the kind that would generate buzz far outside of the hardcore MMA fandom, as people who otherwise only pay loose attention to the sport tune in to watch a seemingly unbeatable champion climb up in weight to challenge the most destructive fighter to ever enter the Octagon.
Unfortunately, the UFC has thus far failed to make it happen. Ngannou, while dealing with a knee injury, has been locked in a highly publicized contract dispute with the promotion. Jones has also been butting heads with UFC brass over his contract.
There have been whispers of other matchups for both men. But as cool as it would be to see Jones fight somebody like former heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic, anything but a fight with Ngannou will feel like a consolation prize.
Valentina Shevchenko vs. Zhang Weili
There are a lot of big fights to be made in the UFC's women's divisions this year. Many of them involve flyweight champion Valentina Shevchenko and strawweight champion Zhang Weili.
Kyrgyzstan's Shevchenko could hike up to bantamweight for a trilogy fight with a living legend in Amanda Nunes or defend her flyweight belt against a growing queue of new contenders, including Manon Fiorot and Alexa Grasso. She could also run things back with Taila Santos, who she scraped by via split decision last year.
China's Zhang, a two-time champ who reclaimed the belt with a submission of Carla Esparza in November, has plenty of options too. She could defend her belt in a trilogy fight with former champion Rose Namajunas, who she has lost to twice before. She could take on a fresh contender like Amanda Lemos. Or, she could climb up a weight class to challenge Shevchenko for a second belt.
Whether it happens next or later, we're hoping for that latter fight in 2023.
Shevchenko and Zhang are two of the UFC's best female fighters, and a clash between them looks like it'll be more competitive than ever. The former has looked uncharacteristically human in her last few fights, while the latter has seemingly leveled up under the tutelage of the Hickman brothers at Bangtao Muay Thai & MMA in Phuket, Thailand, and Henry Cejudo at Fight Ready in Arizona.
It would be an epic bout, and the winner would have a legitimate claim to the title of the best fighter in women's MMA. Even better, both women seem to be open to the idea.
Leon Edwards vs. Kamaru Usman III
Leon Edwards gave us arguably the most shocking MMA moment of 2022 when he won the welterweight title with a fifth-round head-kick knockout of Kamaru Usman at UFC 278 in August.
Heading into the fight, Usman was entrenched as the sport's pound-for-pound king, and he already had a unanimous-decision victory over Edwards. The Nigerian-American champion was a big favorite to retain his title against his British challenger, and by the time we reached the fifth round of their fight, it looked like he would.
Then Edwards changed everything with the head kick heard 'round the world.
Without taking anything away from Edwards' win, which was the product of brilliant trap-setting and timing, it was the kind of fight that begged for an immediate rematch from the moment it ended.
Usman, who hadn't been beaten in 19 fights, has simply been too dominant not receive a shot at redemption, particularly given that he and Edwards are now 1-1.
There has been some talk of booking the rematch for the UFC's March return to the United Kingdom. A rumored Usman injury has called that plan into question, but hopefully, we get to see a do-over between these two world-class welterweights before the year is up.
Khamzat Chimaev vs. Shavkat Rakhmonov
Khamzat Chimaev and Shavkat Rakhmonov are two of the most compelling contenders in the history of the UFC welterweight division.
Both are undefeated. The Chechen-Swede Chimaev is 12-0, with wins over the likes of Li Jingliang, Gilbert Burns and Kevin Holland, while Kazakhstan's Rakhmonov is 16-0, with wins over fighters like Neil Magny, Carlston Harris and Michel Prazeres.
Both men are finishers through and through. Chimaev has finished all but one of his fights—a massive step up in competition against former title challenger Gilbert Burns—with five knockouts and six submissions. Rakhmonov has finished all of his pro fights, with eight knockouts and eight subs.
Last but not least, both are also now ranked in the welterweight Top 15, with Chimaev perched up at No. 3, and Rakhmonov sitting a win or two behind him at No. 10.
We know these two aren't going to fight each other next. Chimaev is right on the cusp of a title shot, while Rakhmonov was set to fight No. 7 contender Geoff Neal on Jan. 14 until an injury nixed that plan. And hey, maybe this matchup is better slow-cooked. Maybe it will be better a few years down the road, with a title on the line. But why deprive ourselves of something so good? And besides, any number of things could keep these two welterweights apart forever. Better to strike while the iron's hot.
Conor McGregor vs. Michael Chandler
Conor McGregor hasn't fought since he suffered a second consecutive loss to Dustin Poirier in mid-2021—a fight that left him with a broken leg. However, there is increasing chatter about the former two-division UFC champion returning to the Octagon this year. The Irishman will first need to reenter the USADA testing pool to make it happen, but there are plenty of huge fights waiting for him if he does.
The biggest of the bunch remains a trilogy fight with archrival Nate Diaz, but when Diaz parted ways with the UFC late last year, that one became a bit of a long shot. McGregor could also fight somebody like Jorge Masvidal, but it's not clear when or even if Masvidal will return to the Octagon. He pleaded not guilty to two felony charges after allegedly attacking fellow UFC fighter Colby Covington, and his trial is expected to start in February.
Another fight with Dustin Poirier is a third possibility for the Irishman, but at this point, all but the most deluded McGregor fans have a pretty good sense of how that matchup will go. We just saw it happen twice.
Of all the options available for McGregor, who remains the biggest star in MMA history despite his recent L's, the best is probably a fight with former Bellator champion Michael Chandler.
Chandler is riding a submission loss to Poirier—a fight he nearly won by first-round knockout. He won his next most recent fight with a stunning KO of Tony Ferguson at UFC 274, but that victory was preceded by a unanimous-decision loss to Justin Gaethje and a TKO loss to Charles Oliveira.
While the former Bellator champ is clearly still one of the best lightweights around, he has been struggling to get results in the Octagon, just like McGregor, which makes them great opponents for each other.
Even better, they match up beautifully on paper. They are two of the best knockout punchers in the lightweight division, and while Chandler would have a solid edge in the grappling department, questions about his durability make this potential fight difficult to predict.
Last but not least, Chandler is probably one of the few lightweights out there with the skills to hang with McGregor in a war of words. We're not saying the American is Shakespeare, but he's one of the more eloquent fighters in the division, which should give him a fighting chance when the verbal volleys start flying.
There are a lot of reasons to like this fight, and both men have expressed interest in making it happen in the past. Hopefully, the UFC gets on board.
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