By E. Spencer Kyte | Posted 25 days ago

Earlier this week, I dropped my list of the Top 10 Prospects in the UFC heading into this year, scouring the divisions to highlight the young talent that stands out the most to me as the start of the 2023 campaign draws closer.


Today, I want to do a little fantasy matchmaking and identify the 10 fights I want to this year.


A couple of them are actually happening, scheduled to happen, but I included them because I’m that excited to see the two combatants share the Octagon. One or two might feel a little out there because they feel unlikely at the moment or you won’t hear anyone else suggest these matchups in the first week of January.


And a couple more are universal — the fights everyone wants to see and that the UFC should do its absolute best to try to make happen over the next 12 months.


How many will we end up seeing? I’ll say four, and that includes the two that are already on the books, but six or seven would be amazing, and anything more would make this an incredible year for the UFC.




If only one of these fights ends up happening, please let it be this one.


This is the fight that everyone wants to see — heavyweight champ Francis Ngannou defending his title against a returning Jon Jones with UFC gold hanging in the balance.


Everyone around the sport has been calling for this fight to be made for a number of years now, since Jones vacated the light heavyweight title and declared his intention to test himself in the heavyweight ranks. The two combatants teased it a couple times in Twitter exchanges, whetting the appetites of fans and media alike, and every month that has passed without the fight coming together, the yearning for this fight to come together has only grown stronger.


Ngannou is still working his way back from a knee injury and a contract impasse with the UFC, and Jones hasn’t fought in nearly three years, and yet it still stands as the biggest fight the UFC could make in 2023 and the consensus No. 1 “Fight I Want to See” for those that consume this sport with regularity.


We need to see this fight.




This is the first of two on this list that are — as of the time of this writing — penciled in to be taking place in the first quarter of this year and that is tremendously exciting.


Regardless of whether you think the newly crowned lightweight champ Makhachev should be defending against someone from within the division or that Volkanovski still has suitors at featherweight, where he’s ruled for the last three years and change, you can’t tell me this fight isn’t extremely intriguing.


Makhachev has won 11 consecutive bouts and is 23-1 overall. He dominated Charles Oliveira in October to claim the title, submitting the Brazilian in the second round to collect his fourth consecutive stoppage win.


Volkanovski is unbeaten in the UFC — a perfect 12-0 — and has won 22 consecutive bouts overall. He’s continued to get better, despite all of his success, and wants to challenge himself by moving up a division and stepping in with Makhachev.


It feels like a fight where Makhachev’s size and physicality could rule the day, but Volkanovski has been making people pay for doubting him throughout his UFC run, so I won’t make that mistake. Instead, I’ll sit back, pray to the combat sports elders, asking that they protect each competitor until UFC 284 on February 12 in Perth, Australia, and silently count down the days until the event kicks off.




Nunes is already up 2-0 in the head-to-head series, but the second fight was insanely close and the UFC set the precedent of still doing a third fight under those circumstances last year when Volkanovski faced off with Max Holloway and earned the three-game sweep in the Best of 5 series.


Note: it wasn’t really a best of five series.


Nunes is without an established, fresh challenger at bantamweight at the moment after reclaiming the title in her rematch with Julianna Pena at the end of July. She was dominant, but not in the way she was earlier in her championship days, and it makes you wonder if Shevchenko might finally be able to get the victory that has eluded her thus far if they were to run it back again.


There are a number of potential opponents for Shevchenko to face at flyweight, but no fight that is as appealing as seeing the reigning queen of the 125-pound weight class return to bantamweight to face Nunes for a third time. A little excursion up a division would allow for things to really get lined up in the flyweight division and set a course for the future, either with Shevchenko returning after being turned back or someone else inheriting the throne if she were to be successful.


“Champion vs. Champion” matchups are always intriguing, and this one even more so because of their tense history and the highly competitive nature of their first two meetings.




This is the other fight that has already been penciled in for February, but also one that fits with the above idea about getting things straightened out and strengthened in the flyweight contender queue.


Blanchfield is a rising star in the UFC — my top prospect heading into this year, as noted earlier this week — and this a big step up in competition. She cruised through Molly McCann at MSG in November, and has won each of her four UFC appearances to date, but the 23-year-old has yet to share the Octagon with a Top 10 fighter, and is now jumping into the deep end of the talent pool.


Santos faced Shevchenko for the flyweight title at UFC 275 last summer in Singapore, losing a split decision, but becoming the first fighter in the division to be scored victorious against the dominant champ. The fight seemed to turn on an accidental clash of heads, and a rematch seemed possible, but clearly isn’t happening, which will surely motivate her heading into this one.


This is the top-tier version of the kind of fights I want to see elite emerging talents get one their way up the ladder, and it might be coming too early for Blanchfield if I’m being honest. But it also might propel her to a title shot, which is why you make it and why I’m so eager to see this one hit the cage in six weeks.




Because we don’t know the full extent of the shoulder injury that prompted Prochazka to vacate the light heavyweight title, there is a real possibility that he’s out for all of 2023 and this one is far more likely to happen next year.


But whenever it can happen, it needs to happen.


Prochazka is an all-action fighter who won the light heavyweight title in his third appearance in the Octagon, beating Glover Teixeira in a non-stop, back-and-forth battle that landed on every Best Fights of 2022 list created. He brings unrelenting pressure, loads of power, and a willingness to chase opportunities, even at his own peril.


Ankalaev is the opposite — a measured, technical, methodical Russian who battled Jan Blachowicz to a draw in a fight for the vacant title at UFC 282. He turned to his wrestling too late, was frustrated by the final scores, and vowed to be more aggressive going forward, and that only ups the ante on this one.


These are, in my estimation, the two best light heavyweights in the world, when healthy, and I hope we get to see them standing across from one another either at the end of this year or at some point next year to decide who is No. 1.




This one hinges on Chimaev sticking around at welterweight and figuring out whatever caused him to miss weight by an egregious amount prior to his aborted clash with Nathan Diaz back in September.


Should all of that come to pass, this is the fight to make.


Chimaev has answered all the questions asked of him, but cold also stand to clear one more hurdle before garnering a championship opportunity, given all that happened in September. Covington, for all his about his personality and persona that is off-putting, is a tremendous wrestler and pressure fighter that could, in theory, test Chimaev’sendurance, focus, and secondary skills.


The trash talk would be super-cringey, but the fight itself would be fascinating.




Here’s one from out of left field that no one else is going to be lobbying for right now, but I want to see the new middleweight champion Pereira defend his title against the streaking Georgian Doldize.


Pereira is a gargantuan human being that somehow competes at 185 pounds. He possesses fight-changing power, as exhibited in his title-winning effort against Israel Adesanya in November, but is a pure striker at this stage of his MMA career.


Dolidze earned three stoppage wins in seven months, culminating with a short-notice, second-round victory over Jack Hermansson where he showed everyone that didn’t already know that he’s an outstanding grappler. The burly 34-year-old used to compete at light heavyweight and has the stature and heft to stand up to Pereira, as well as the repertoire of skills to potentially push the Brazilian, and I’m fascinated by the possibility.


Some people will want to just see Pereira get to march down foes that can’t attempt to get the fight to the ground, but I would much rather see him tested by someone that is strong where he is weakest. Those are the physical chess matches that I want to see more than anything else, and if Dolidze can collect another victory in the first half of 2023, we could see this one materialize.




We don’t yet know what Oliveira is going to do next after losing the lightweight title to Makhachev in October, but I know who I’d like to see him fight.


Oliveira was on an incredible winning streak through winning and defending the title prior to facing Makhachev, and shouldn’t need more much than a couple wins to get back to a championship opportunity. He’s dangerous everywhere and one of the most opportunistic finishers we’ve seen in the UFC, which makes him a legitimate threat against everyone.


Tsarukyan is one of the emerging stars of the division — a 26-year-old with a 19-3 record who pushed Makhachevhard in his promotional debut, and whose only other setback in the UFC came in a debated decision last year against fellow contender Mateusz Gamrot. He defeated Damir Ismagulov to get back into the win column in the penultimate UFC bout of 2022, and merits a step up in competition next time out.


There aren’t a lot of established names eager to share the Octagon with a young lion like Tsarukyan, but Oliveira has always been a “fight whomever they put in front of me” type and I don’t see that changing now. It’s a win-win fight for the UFC, as either the former champ rebounds by beating a highly regarded emerging talent or said emerging talent defeats the former champ.


Makhachev beating Volkanovski and Tsarukyan defeating Oliveira to set up a Makhachev-Tsarukyan rematch with the title on the line would be an amazing main event for the UFC’s annual October trip to Abu Dhabi.




Is it weird if I say that I don’t really love this matchup, even though it’s a fight I desperately want to see in the next 12 months?


Let me explain.


Holloway is the second-best featherweight in the world — the clear No. 2 behind Volkanovski — but I don’t really like the idea of every hopeful having to go through the Hawaiian former titleholder in order to earn a shot at championship gold. He’s too good, and he’s going to turn back some of the young talents I would really like to see work into the championship mix.


But that’s also why I want to see this one.


Holloway is the ultimate litmus test, and while I think Topuria is good enough to challenge for championship gold and has the all-around game to potentially beat “Blessed,” he could also lose and get pushed back a step or two.


Topuria looked so good, so dominant in his win over Bryce Mitchell in December that I don’t want to see him slowly brought up the divisional ladder one step at a time any more — stick him in there with Holloway and let’s see where he stands.


There is an interim title fight scheduled for UFC 284, which means we’re either getting a title unification bout when Volkanovski returns to the division, or the winner of that one replaces the Australian on the throne because Volk is the lightweight champ and staying at ’55.


Get this one on the books in late March or early April, and the winner can serve as the challenger if a new champion emerges in February.




Each of these men have fights scheduled for the first quarter of the year, so this is clearly an “if both win, then” kind of deal.


Burns faces Neil Magny in a few weeks at UFC 283, while Rakhmonov’s postponed bout with Geoff Neal has been re-booked for UFC 285 in March. Both are favored to earn victories, and if they do, I would really like to see them share the Octagon with one another.


Burns is a standout grappler with good power in his hands. He stung Kamaru Usman when he challenged for the welterweight title during the pandemic and pushed Chimaev last year when they fought. He’s a legitimate Top 5 welterweight and would be the proper type of step up for Rakhmonov should he continue his unbeaten run.


The 28-year-old Rakhmonov is 16-0 as a professional with 16 finishes, including going 4-for-4 so far in the UFC after submitting Magny last time out. He’s good everywhere and has yet to really be tested — not because he’s not facing quality competition, but because he’s that good — and if he gets through Neal as expected in March, a fight against someone like Burns would be merited.


Things at the top of the welterweight division are a little murky at the moment, so why not use the second half of the year to position one of these two as a top contender by pairing them off together in a fight everyone would love to see?


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