UFC in 2023: Four burning questions about the biggest Octagon stars heading into the new year

UFC in 2023: Four burning questions about the biggest Octagon stars heading into the new year

After a slightly slower 2022, UFC is poised to start calendar 2023 this weekend. With the promotion back in action after a nearly month-long hiatus, it’s time to take a look at the Divisions landscape and see where some surprises might pop up. Longtime champions have taken staggering losses in 2022, and now it’s time to see if we can’t figure out which champions could be next, or which fighters are primed for a breakout campaign.

While we don’t know exactly how things will play out over the coming year, the pundits at CBS Sports sat down to give our answers to some of the burning questions ahead of the 2023 UFC calendar. Read on for our thoughts on how the year is set to pan out for some of the sport’s biggest stars.

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Let’s dive right into the questions and predictions from Morning Kombat host Brian Campbell and writers Brent Brookhouse and Shakiel Mahjouri.

Which champion will fall first?

Unanimously: Deiveson Figueiredo

It’s been a little over two years since flyweight champion Deiveson Figueiredo began a three-fight title streak with Brandon Moreno, a rivalry that enters a fourth installment on Jan. 21. Yet it’s been closer to three years since critics have openly pondered whether Figueiredo, who missed the weight for a vacant title shot in early 2020, will ever be able to make a steady £125. So far, Figueiredo has kept his end of the bargain. That doesn’t mean, however, that hitting championship weight is easy, or that it doesn’t drain “The God of War” of his energy and recoverability every time he does it. Figueiredo is now 35 and will be sacked a year if he meets Moreno. Given the history of parity between them, Moreno even appears worst-case scenario to regain his title. – Campbell

Who will be the next breakout star?

Campbell: Khamzat Chimaev

Is it cheating to nominate Chimaev for the honor for a second year in a row given how wild (and somewhat incomplete) his 2022 campaign turned out to be? It’s hard to imagine 2023 ending without Chimaev battling for a title in at least one of the divisions he currently populates. Last year, Chimaev beat Gilbert Burns in a match of the year contender to find out just how ready the 28-year-old from Chechnya, Russia, really is for the spotlight. Although Chimaev passed that test, he failed miserably in September when he missed by almost eight pounds to cost himself the ultimate showcase pay-per-view opportunity in a main event against an outgoing Nate Diaz. However, Chimaev got rid of late replacement Kevin Holland in a very destructive and uncompromising manner that night. Whether he has to fight Colby Covington first to prove he can make £170, look for Chimaev to eventually fight for the welterweight title and look for him to compete as the betting favorite. A win will likely secure Chiamev’s standing as the next big thing in the UFC.

Brookhouse: Bo Nickal

Is it cheating to say Bo Nickal? Yes, he’s caused quite a stir among fans who care about what happens in Dana White’s Contender series, but that’s a different kind of “star power” than dealing with the larger MMA fan base. Nickal will be positioned in prominent places in the UFC and his star will be rising very quickly. He faces Jamie Pickett at UFC 285 and will be one of the most recognizable and sought-after names on the UFC roster by the end of the year.

Mahjouri: Jack Della Maddalena

Della Maddalena has worked far too hard to deny herself a significant opportunity this year. A rising fan favorite, Della Maddalena won three for three by first-round KO in his freshman year with promotion. UFC also didn’t give him a particularly gentle path at welterweight. The Perth native beat world combat sambo champion Ramazan Emeev and veteran forward striker Danny Roberts in his second and third UFC bouts, respectively. His popularity, accomplishments, personality and penchant for surfaces should see him rewarded with bigger names in 2023.

What about the heavyweight division?

Campbell: He would probably have to take the hardest route to retain his crown in 2023, but that’s nothing new for Francis Ngannou. Assuming The Predator does indeed bounce back after a long hiatus due to knee surgery, title defenses against Jon Jones and Cyril Gane (in a rematch) remain his best options for big fights. A perfectly healthy Ngannou showed just how scary he can be after years of contributing to his game as he clinched the title by force in their 2021 rematch with Stipe Miocic. At 36, it’s not out of the question for Ngannou to bounce back from injury. With next-level mental toughness and the most dangerous hit game UFC has ever seen, Ngannou has all the right tools to cap off an ambitious year that, if consistently victorious, would likely earn him Fighter of the Year honors.

Brookhouse: Hopefully Jon Jones’ division gets a big shot in the arm Finally his debut in the division. However, it’s been years since Jones fought and there always seems to be a problem when it comes time to think about finally getting back in the Octagon. Right now the Division feels like a wasteland of sorts. Yes, there are some talented fighters, but there aren’t many recognizable names that are also elite contenders. Francis Ngannou has been sidelined by injuries and contract disputes, Ciryl Gane has the interim title, Stipe Miocic hasn’t fought in almost two years and then…nothing. 2023 needs to be a transformative year for the Division, meaning both Jones and Ngannou return to the Octagon and some new forces emerge and gather momentum with the fans.

Let’s get some good energy out there and predict that Ngannou, Jones and Miocic will all return to action and have a big title fight or two in store for the year to make heavyweight feel like a prestige division again.

Mahjouri: What a chaos heavyweight is. The heavyweight title hasn’t been defended in a year, champion Francis Ngannou is struggling with a combination of injuries and friction with UFC brass, Jon Jones’ awaited debut remains an empty promise, Stipe Miocic has spooked everyone and Tom Aspinall suffered a bad one knee injury. UFC will have to rely on interim heavyweight champion Ciryl Gane and Sergei Pavlovich, although the latter is relatively unknown to casual audiences for now. I appreciate Brent’s enthusiasm but I doubt we’ll see Ngannou vs Jones or Jones vs Miocic in 2023. Hopefully one of them will return as the UFC invests in newer faces in the heavyweight division.

Which fighter disappoints/does not live up to expectations?

Campbell: Leon Edwards

The hardest part of Edwards’ emotional post-fight interview after upsetting Kamaru Usman in the fifth round for the welterweight title was remembering how many times during a 10-fight unbeaten streak, “Rocky” which resulted in being dismissed or overlooked. But here we are once again predicting Edward’s ultimate death. While it would be disingenuous to demean Edwards’ career-defining moment as a stroke of luck, he was on course to lose easily when he landed the headbutt that was heard around the world. Neither an Usman rematch nor a possible fight against Khamzat Chimaev would be easy tasks for Edwards.

Brookhouse: Conor McGregor

Since November 2016, Conor McGregor has won a single fight while suffering three stoppages. Despite this, he is almost always considered one fight away from a championship due to his star power. I think it would be surprising to see McGregor fight even once in 2023 and I would be positively shocked to see him fight twice in a calendar year. And there are no likely opponents he could face that I wouldn’t predict another loss for him. The sport is evolving quickly and time outside the cage and a seeming lack of focus from McGregor puts him at a disadvantage against hungry competitors. There is reason to believe he is in for another disappointing year when it comes to results in the cage.

Mahjouri: Jon Jones

Jones will fail at heavyweight if he ever makes it there. The thought of Jones — a long, dynamic forward with wrestling and submission skills — at heavyweight was enticing when he was unveiled in the early 2010s. The heavyweight landscape underwent a major facelift a decade later. The sluggish, brutal heavyweights that once ruled the land of giants have been replaced by more skilled apex predators. Leaner heavyweights like Gane and Aspinall have the mobility and diverse skillset to dilute any advantages Jones is expected to have in a weight class. And let’s not ignore the sweeping improvements heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou has made in his last two bouts. Jones’ bouts against Dominick Reyes and Thiago Santos at light heavyweight haven’t aged much, and Jones is approaching a third straight year without a contest. The window is fast closing for a heavyweight celebration party for Jones.

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