Fighter of the year: Alexander Volkanovski
UFC featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski
This year, the featherweight champion superseded Kamaru Usman as the UFC’s pound-for-pound No 1 fighter in the eyes of most.
The Australian fought twice, retaining his title on both occasions and producing clinics in each fight. In April, Volkanovski stopped “The Korean Zombie”, Chan Sung Jung, on the feet in the fourth round, after bullying the veteran with strikes throughout.
Then, in July, he outpointed former champion Max Holloway convincingly to put their rivalry to bed. Volkanovski had beaten Holloway via decision to win the title in 2019, before controversially edging their 2021 rematch. But this year, “Alex The Great” erased any doubt of his superiority over a fighter formerly seen by some as the division’s ‘GOAT’.
Volkanovski put on a masterclass to make Holloway look like an amateur, further emphasising just how well rounded he is in the process. Next up for the featherweight king? A shot at lightweight champion Islam Makhachev on home turf in February. What a moment that will be, and well deserved.
Breakout star of the year: Paddy Pimblett
Paddy Pimblett was once again the star of UFC London as he won via submission again
This feels a tad like cheating, given Pimblett was my choice last year, but that’s a testament to two points: Firstly, how much of an impact he made with his sole UFC fight in 2021; secondly, how much more his profile has grown this year.
While certainly not comparable in terms of in-ring ability, Pimblett at least resembles Conor McGregor in terms of star potential. Now, that is not a suggestion that the Liverpudlian will become the crossover name that the Irishman did, but he is undoubtedly the closest thing the UK has had to McGregor since he burst onto the scene.
Pimblett secured back-to-back submission wins at the two editions of UFC London in 2022, surviving scares in both bouts to maintain his track record of flirting with failure to enhance the electricity around his fights. After the latter win, the Scouser delivered a powerful speech on mental health. Then, in his final bout of the year, “Paddy The Baddy” was gifted a decision win over Jared Gordon in Las Vegas.
At the start of that fight week, Pimblett was widely condemned for hitting out at journalist Ariel Helwani in a vulgar podcast appearance alongside UFC president Dana White. At the end of fight week, Pimblett declared that his clash with Gordon had “not been close” and was actually a comfortable win for him. Those two moments were own goals and hinted that the Scouser could self-sabotage himself in years to come, perhaps even before he meets a top-10 opponent.
Fight of the year: Glover Teixeira vs Jiri Prochazka
Jiri Prochazka (top) submitted Glover Teixeira to win the UFC light heavyweight title in an instant classic
Dustin Poirier’s clash with Michael Chandler gets an honourable mention, having lived up to the barnburner expectations placed upon it almost anyone willing to comment. However, Prochazka’s light heavyweight title win against Teixeira had a few more things going for it.
Firstly, it took place in front of a Singapore crowd that had long waited for a UFC event. Secondly, it had the same back-and-forth nature as Poirier’s victory over Chandler but over a full 25 minutes and with even more near-misses for both fighters. And, of course, there was gold on the line in the main-event contest.
It all came down to a final-minute finish, with surging contender Prochazka submitting veteran Teixeira after coming back from the brink himself. The result made Prochazka the first Czech champion in UFC history, and we were denied a rematch at the end of the year after a cruel injury saw the new title holder withdraw on short notice and vacate the belt.
Finish of the year: Michael Chandler knocks out Tony Ferguson
Michael Chandler recorded one of the greatest knockouts in UFC history, against Tony Ferguson
Honourable mentions go to Molly McCann’s spinning back elbow against Luana Carolina, and Leon Edwards’ head kick against Usman – though more on the latter soon…
Both of those provoked the same ‘out of your chair, jaw on the floor’ reactions as Chandler’s knockout of Ferguson, but this year’s winner just edges it. Front kick KOs are so rare (not that spinning back elbows aren’t, in fairness), and we’d never seen this done to Ferguson (not that we’d seen Usman knocked out like that either, but…). You can see that the internal debate is still raging!
In a way, though, a favourite knockout is almost like a favourite goal – it’s about aesthetics and personal preference: Long-range into the top corner, or a bicycle kick? Clean into the net, or off the crossbar and in? This one partly comes down to the way Chandler’s finish came out of nowhere, the manner in which Ferguson slumped to the mat, and how it potentially saved “Iron Mike”’s career as concerns top-level UFC fights.
Moment of the year: Leon Edwards wins the welterweight title
Leon Edwards was emotional after his last-gasp title win against Kamaru Usman
As mentioned above, this one nearly won finish of the year, but Edwards’ knockout of Usman was perhaps more captivating because of the context around it than due to the actual impressiveness of the head kick itself.
There’s the fact that Edwards had to wait so long for a title shot; the bad luck he had along the way; the factor of him having lost to Usman before; and the historic nature of the Briton becoming just the second ever fighter from his nation to win UFC gold. Then you have to consider how dominant Usman had looked in recent years, and even in this fight itself until the KO, and how Edwards just paid zero heed to that whatsoever as he appeared to take the Nigerian-American’s soul with one minute left on the clock.
To top if all off, Edwards – so often seen as too reserved and softly spoken to be a star – produced one of the greatest post-fight speeches in UFC history, morphing from defiant to vulnerable to cocksure in a matter of minutes as the crowd went ballistic. “They all doubted me, said I couldn’t do it. Look at me now, LOOK AT ME! Pound for pound? Headshot, dead. That’s it. I’m from the trenches, I go until the bell’s done. I’ve been doubted my whole life, look at me now. There is no pound for pound. The belt belongs to nobody. I was born in Jamaica with nothing, I lived in a wooden shed with a zinc roof. Mum, I love you, I told you I’d do it for you – I told you I’d change our f***ing lives.”
Watching back the finish and speech still raises goosebumps and draws a tear or two.
Event of the year: UFC London, March
Pimblett and Molly McCann celebrate at UFC London in March, both having won via stoppage
The other contenders here were UFC 280 and UFC 281, respectively headlined by Makhachev’s lightweight title triumph and Alex Pereira’s late knockout of Israel Adesanya – and with a number of high-profile fights supporting both of those main events.
I am wary of a being a bit biased here, not only due to the impact that 2022’s first edition of UFC London had on British MMA, but also because I was present. That said, even fans and fighters watching on television said the atmosphere coming through the screen from the O2 Arena seemed raucous, partly because it was one of the first Fight Nights to have a crowd present since the worst of the Covid pandemic passed.
The card did not only feel like one of the most significant moments ever in British MMA, but also in the sport in general, given how important the fanbase in Britain is and will continue to be. It was as if magic was in the air, with the majority of the home fighters winning and most doing so via stoppage, including Pimblett, Tom Aspinall and McCann – the latter with an afore-mentioned knockout of the year contender.
The July follow-up to UFC London was not quite as much of a success in terms of in-ring action or crowd reaction, but that only further highlighted how enthralling of a night its predecessor was.
Bold prediction for 2023: Conor McGregor will not compete
Conor McGregor has added a significant amount of weight since breaking his leg in 2021
This is in direct contrast to last year’s bold – and incorrect – prediction that McGregor would somehow find himself in a title fight before the end of 2022.
At the time, it seemed that the former dual-weight champion would be back in the Octagon this summer, around a year after breaking his leg, and that he might even talk his way into a shot at the lightweight belt – then held by Charles Oliveira.
Now, though, we know that the Irishman is still not in the United States Anti-Doping Agency (Usada) testing pool, and that – barring an exception being made – he cannot compete until he has been back in the pool for six months. So, even if he were to return to the pool in January, he would not be able to compete until July. It feels, however, as if he will not be back in Usada’s register until a few months from now, which would put his return date at September, say.
But there just seems to be such a rigmarole around the prospect of a McGregor fight at the moment, enough so that I’ll say: He won’t fight at all in 2023.
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