UFC in 2023: Francis Ngannou vs. Jon Jones, Conor McGregor vs. Michael Chandler between fights

Depending on your tastes, 2022 was either a disappointing or an exciting year in the UFC. Critics were weary of the lack of big marquee matches, while supporters were delighted with a plethora of impressive performances.

It’s true that Conor McGregor and Jon Jones were absent, Nate Diaz and Francis Ngannou each fought once, and Jorge Masvidal’s star continued to wane. However, Kamaru Usman and Israel Adesanya were cut from their legacies, Islam Makhachev and Jiri Prochazka emerged as exciting new champions and Khamzat Chimaev continued to pound opponents.

Interesting and unexpected results in 2022 set the stage for a different year with fights to be had in 2023. Sustained dream matches, odd money matchups and exciting title stories are all in play for 2023. It could be a year to to every type of MMA fan. Take a look at five races worth doing in 2023, plus a host of accolades.

Can’t get enough boxing and MMA? Get the latest in the world of combat sports from two of the best in the business. Join Morning Kombat with Luke Thomas and Brian Campbell for the best analysis and in-depth news, including a look at the top fights to come for the UFC in 2023 below.

Francis Ngannou vs. Jon Jones

Despite years of interest in booking the heavyweight division’s most disruptive force against the all-time heavyweight champion, the road to Ngannou vs. Jones remains littered with roadblocks. Ngannou has been sidelined all year with contracts and a serious knee injury. Jones enters his third year off since vacating the light heavyweight title with plans to move up a division.

The persistent desire to see Ngannou and Jones fight for the UFC heavyweight championship speaks volumes for its importance. Ngannou has unmatched power and his highlight reel plays like a slasher movie. Former champions Stipe Miocic, Cain Velasquez, Junior dos Santos, Alistair Overeem and Andrei Arlovski have crumbled under Ngannou’s authority. Poor perennial prospect Curtis Blaydes has suffered this fate twice.

Jones is the youngest champion in UFC history, beating legends like Shogun Rua, Rampage Jackson, Lyoto Machida, Rashad Evans and Vitor Belfort. Jones is arguably the greatest fighter of all time, and the move to heavyweight raises interesting questions. How will Giants land deal with Jones’ speed and technique? Will a change of scenery reinvigorate Jones after losing a step to Dominic Reyes and Thiago Santos? Which fighter will be most burdened by external pressures? If there’s one fight to be had in 2023, it’s Ngannou vs. Jones.

Conor McGregor vs. Michael Chandler/Tony Ferguson vs. Paddy Pimblett

McGregor staying is a testament to his self-marketing and the magic of his three-year run to win titles in two divisions. Despite going 1-3 over the past four years, McGregor remains the sport’s top draw. What is painfully clear is that McGregor needs a competitive retreat. Enter Chandler, a juggernaut who challenges the best in the world but often falls short. McGregor has the accuracy and power to exploit Chandler’s defensive gaps. Chandler has the power and pressure to catch McGregor early. It is by no means an easy fight for McGregor, but one that could put him back among the lightweight elite. If you’re looking for a quick payday, there’s a less conventional option.

McGregor is no longer a lightweight. Pimblett is also unranked. Both are bold, charismatic figures with a following among the casual public — to varying degrees. Pimblett’s questionable victory over Jared Gordon at UFC 282 may have the UFC second guessing. The The safe bet is to book McGregor against Pimblett and offset by “The Baddy” before losing to a lesser-known fighter. It’s likely to be a tune-up fight for McGregor, but it could propel Pimblett to stardom if he overcomes the upset. How do we get there? Aging veteran Tony Ferguson is the most established fighter that Pymblett could potentially compete against. If McGregor beats Chandler, he will likely quickly move to a lightweight title or No. 1 contender’s fight. If McGregor loses, you can match him with Pimblett or even Ferguson.

Khamzat Chimaev vs. Colby Covington

Chimaev launched into the UFC with a nuclear impact. His strikes landed against absorbed stat was an absurd 112-1 through his first five UFC fights. He then delivered a classic counter to Gilbert Burns in a fight of the year contender. In this fight, Chimaev proved that he could trade blows with the hardest hitters in the division. The UFC then offered Chimaev a layup against retiring veteran Nate Diaz in the main event of UFC 279. Chimaev lost weight by a significant difference and forced the UFC to cancel Diaz’s fight. His makeshift win over Kevin Holland was dominant, but questions remain over his future at 170 pounds.

Covington is the final test to establish Chimaev as an undisputed title challenger. Before Edwards’ rise to welterweight title, Covington was the clear No. 2 in the division. Covington pushed Nemesa Usman to the limit in two losing attempts for the 170-pound title. Chimaev vs. Covington is a fight they both need. Chimaev needs to prove that he can reliably make welterweight and beat a tough fighter. Covington can remind the world how good he is and pave his way for another title shot.

Alex Pereira vs. Israel Adesanya 2

It sounds strange to declare a series that has gone 3-0 as one of the most anticipated games of 2023, but here we are. Adesanya had established himself as the second greatest middleweight in UFC history behind Anderson Silva. He cleared the top five in the class, including two wins over Robert Whittaker and Marvin Vettori each. Two-division Glory kickboxing champion Alex Pereira, with few viable challengers on his tail, managed to get to the top contender in just three fights. The manifestation of Adesanya’s nightmares, Pereira had two wins over Adesanya in kickboxing. History almost eerily repeated itself at UFC 281 on November 12. Pereira fought back from the deficit, knocking out Adesanya in the 5th Round to capture the UFC middleweight title. The only person to ever knock out Adesanya had done it twice.

You have to ignore Adesanya and Pereira’s kickboxing history when fighting in the UFC. It was a different game that operated under different rules. The reality is that Adesanya is the most successful middleweight champion we’ve seen in a long time. Adesanya scored 39-37 on all three judges’ scores before being beaten by a bigger opponent in the final round. If anyone deserves a chance to prove he can crack a seemingly unsolvable code, it’s Adesanya.

Leon Edwards vs. Kamaru Usman 3

People were starting to get serious about the GOAT welterweight debate between Usman and Georges St-Pierre in 2022. Usman (15) had already eclipsed St-Pierre’s (12) welterweight win streak. At UFC 278, Usman was 56 seconds away from a sixth consecutive title defense — three shy of GSP’s record. Then the unthinkable happened. Edwards, down three rounds to one and missing the fifth, unleashed a vicious head kick that shut Usman down immediately. It was an all-time shocker that turned a one-sided rivalry into a must-watch trilogy.

The UFC returns to Edwards’ home nation of England for a March 18 pay-per-view. Hosting Edwards vs. Usman 3 in the main event isn’t a no-brainer. UFC president Dana White has teased the bout, but it was unannounced less than three months out, possibly due to Usman’s lingering hand injury. Usman will likely never break GSP’s record number of title defenses, but he deserves a shot at revenge.

Honorable Mentions: Charles Oliveira vs. Beneil Dariush, Amanda Nunes vs. Valentina Shevchenko 3, Zhang Weili vs. Rose Namajunas 3, Jiri Prochazka vs. Glover Teixeira 2

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