By E. Spencer Kyte | Posted 1 year ago

We may only be one month into the UFCs 2023 schedule, but there have already been major changes at the top of three weight classes.


Following the first event of the year, it was announced that Francis Ngannou was being stripped of the heavyweight title and departing the promotion, with the UFC opting to waive the matching rights it held on the high-profile free agent. Simultaneously, the organization confirmed that former light heavyweight champ Jon Jones would be returning to take on Ciryl Gane in a battle for the vacant title at UFC 285 in Las Vegas.


Last weekend in Brazil, new champions were crowned in both the flyweight and light heavyweight divisions.


Brandon Moreno earned a third-round stoppage win over Deiveson Figueiredo to resolve their rivalry and stand atop the 125-pound weight class for the second time. One fight later, Jamahal Hill became the first graduate from Dana Whites Contender Series to claim UFC gold, thoroughly outworking Glover Teixeira over 25 minutes to claim the vacant light heavyweight strap.


With those changes having taken place and new paths being forged, now is the time to dive into each of those weight divisions, examine who could be next in line and map out how things may line up over the next year.




The rivalry between Moreno and Figueiredo has officially run its course, as the Mexican standout claimed victory in their fourth meeting last weekend at UFC 283 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.


While still a tense affair for the 15 minutes it lasted, Moreno was clearly the sharper of the two from the outset, having continued to level up as hed done in each of their previous three contests and his interim title win over Kai Kara-France last summer. Figueiredo had his moments but wasnt able to put things together enough to really deter The Assassin Baby” from dictating the terms of engagement and controlling the contest until its anticlimactic end when the Brazilian was deemed unable to continue following the third round due to his right eye being swollen shut.


After the fight, the 35-year-old Figueiredo announced he was moving up to bantamweight, officially closing the door on the flyweight chapter of his career.


Morenos first challenger is expected to be Brazilian Alexandre Pantoja, as the two have a great deal of history together.


Pantoja already owns a pair of victories over Moreno — submitting him when the two were contestants on Season 24 of The Ultimate Fighter and then scoring a unanimous decision victory when the two faced off again in the spring of 2019. When Moreno won the title from Figueiredo in their second fight, the plan wasnt to race into a third bout between the two — Moreno was 1-0-1 against the Brazilian and there were other contenders at the ready, including Pantoja, who politely lobbied the champion for an opportunity after submitting Brandon Royval on August 21, 2021.


Moreno seemed more than happy to accept the challenge, but before the bout could take place — or even be made official — Pantoja suffered a knee injury that left him sidelined until last summer, when he returned and ran through Alex Perez at UFC 277. Healthy and once again at the head of the list of contenders, he and Moreno shared a moment backstage in Brazil last weekend, and a third fight between the two supremely talented flyweights should be next.


Beyond that presumed championship pairing, there are plenty of reasons to be excited about the future of the flyweight division.


Kara-France and Royval remain tremendous fighters on the cusp of championship contention, Perez is a former title challenger with a chance to re-establish himself when he takes on Manel Kape on March 25. Conversely, a victory for the explosive Kape would give him four straight wins and vault him to new heights in the divisional hierarchy.


Brazilian Matheus Nicolau stands at No. 5 in the rankings and profiles as a problem for anyone he shares the Octagon with, brandishing a complete and diverse skill set, an icy coolness inside the cage, and a tremendous team behind him. Amir Albazi also has the potential to make some noise in the division this year, as The Prince” ran his UFC record to 4-0 with a third-round stoppage win in December, and seems like an obvious choice to face one of the five other hopefuls already mentioned here.


On top of that, two of fighters that graced my list of top prospects in the UFC — Muhammad Mokaev and Tatsuro Taira — compete at flyweight. Both are 22 years old and have only begun to scratch the surface of their talent, and with victories in their upcoming bouts, either or both could find themselves vaulted into the mix alongside some of the divisions veteran stalwarts in the back half of the year.




The immediate aftermath of the UFC 283 light heavyweight title fight was actually somewhat comparable to what transpired in the flyweight championship fight that preceded it, as Hill established himself as the new champion and his vanquished foe bid farewell.


While Figueiredo announced his move to the 135-pound ranks, Teixeira announced his retirement, acknowledging that he was too tough for his own good and a desire to shift his focus to coaching, singling out his work with current middleweight champ Alex Pereira, who could certainly one day venture up a weight class and challenge for gold in the light heavyweight ranks as well.


And honestly — thats probably the direction the UFC should go right now.


Hill defeating Teixeira fills the championship vacancy, but the title picture remains murky at best in the 205-pound ranks at the moment.


Jiri Prochazka, who won the title from Teixeira last summer and vacated the belt when he was forced to undergo shoulder surgery late last year, has a Free Title Fight” voucher for whenever he returns to full health, but there is no clear timeline for his return. The injury he sustained was clearly serious enough that he knew he would be sidelined for some time, which prompted him to relinquish the title, and so its possible that his return doesnt come until the late stages of this year or even early 2024.


Jan Blachowicz and Magomed Ankalaev were the first tandem to battle for the vacant title, facing off at UFC 282 in December. They fought to a split draw that left a sour taste in everyones mouth and prompted UFC President Dana White to hastily announce last weekends title bout, so neither man is likely to be hustled into another championship opportunity without having to collect a victory first.


And once you get beyond that quartet of competitors, things are real uneven.


Aleksandar Rakić has shown promise, but is coming off a major knee injury and needs to get back into the win column. Anthony Smith and Volkan Oezdemir are former title challengers that can serve as stern tests for aspiring talents, but no longer present as championship contenders themselves.


Ryan Spann has flashed upside, but needs to get through Nikita Krylov at the end of February before hes circled into any discussions about potential title challengers, and then beyond that, the cupboard is kind of bare.


Which brings me back to Pereira.


Making a fight between Hill and Pereira next is a win-win for the UFC, and thats definitely something that makes this more of a realistic possibility than some might want to believe at this moment.


If Pereira goes up and wins, he not only avenges Teixeiras defeat, but now the UFC has a menacing two-division champion that could certainly move back-and-forth between the two weight classes, defending each title once a year as new challengers sort themselves out.


If Hill is triumphant, the new ruler of the light heavyweight ranks has just solidified his place on the throne by turning back another UFC champion, one many see as the boogeyman given his fearsome power and imposing stature.


Not only is it a win-win in terms of the fight, but it also provides the matchmakers with time to sort things out behind the titleholders in their respective divisions, putting together a few fights that hopefully bring clarity and excitement to messy and stale title chases in each weight class.




While a fight between Ngannou and Jones topped my list of fights I wanted to see this year, the UFC 285 matchup between Jones and Gane is a pretty fantastic consolation prize.


Everyone has been waiting for Jones’ arrival for some time, and after three years outside of the Octagon, it appears as if Bones” will indeed be back in action in March. Unquestionably the best overall talent to compete under the UFC banner, the now 35-year-old Jones is a bundle of question marks as he moves up a division, simply because we havent seen him in a number of years and some of the significant advantages that helped him thrive at light heavyweight wont necessarily be as great against the big boys.


Could he turn up, take out Gane and look like a million bucks? Absolutely — again, hes the most gifted fighter Ive seen compete int he Octagon — but three years off is a long time, hes never carried significant power, and some of these heavyweight fellas hit like a ton of bricks, including the French standout hell face in March.

Gane is a supremely talented fighter that was clearly caught off guard by Ngannous wrestling when they faced off last year at UFC 270. He subsequently rebounded with a third-round stoppage win over Tai Tuivasa, and is arguably the most dynamic athlete to compete in the UFC heavyweight division since Cain Velasquezs early days on the roster, before the injuries started adding up.


This is as compelling and fascinating a fight as the UFC can make given the current circumstances and it will establish the victor as the new ruler of the heavyweight ranks.


It also affords the matchmaker a chance to start pairing off the remaining names in the rankings in order to start putting together a clearer hierarchy of contenders for later this year and beyond.


Former champ Stipe Miocic chimed in on Twitter following the announcement of the Jones-Gane pairing, declaring that he wants the winner in the summer, but who knows if that actually comes to pass. Hes nearing two years on the sidelines since his UFC 260 loss to Ngannou and seemingly wasnt in any hurry to face Jones over the last year, so its unclear whether hell be more motivated or eager to return later this year.


Sergei Pavlovich rocketed up the rankings over the last year, parlaying three first-round stoppage wins into a spot in the Top 5, while Curtis Blaydes has just kept moving forward at a steady pace, developing his hands more and more with each appearances to become a potential nightmare matchup for anyone in the division.


British standout Tom Aspinall looked poised to vault into title talks heading into his bout with Blaydes last summer in London, only to suffer a knee injury seconds into the fight and be forced under the knife. Hell need a reset whenever he returns, but provided Aspinall gets back to where he was pre-surgery, hell be back in the mix before the year is out as well.


In addition to the cast of holdovers and mainstays that make up the rest of the Top 15, Jailton Almeida stands as the most intriguing new name in the division, as the undersized Brazilian has earned four straight stoppage wins to begin his UFC career and has the kind of explosive athleticism and grappling acumen that make him a problem for slower, more upright heavyweights.


And if youre wondering about any potential wild cards, how about Daniel Cormier?


Yes, DC” retired following his second loss to Miocic, but his chief rival Jones is due to return and if you dont think Bones” will take a couple shots at Cormier if he claims the vacant heavyweight title on March 4 at T-Mobile Arena, you havent paid attention to the mans career.


As much as hes happy in this next stage of his professional career — doing commentary, being a UFC personality, coaching high school wrestling — the competitive fires in Cormier are sure to be stoked if Jones comes back, wins the belt, and starts talking all kinds of junk to him through the Octagon fence at UFC 285.


Will it be enough to prompt DC” to decide to make a comeback? Only time will tell.

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