Just days into the new year, MMA has already staked its claim once again for the title of most unpredictable sport. After all, Jake Paul is now an MMA fighter with the PFL.
Big questions loom ahead in 2023. What will Nate Diaz’s next move be after stepping away from the UFC in September last year? Can we still expect to see Jon Jones make his heavyweight debut in the early part of this year? Could we see another major title upset?
The UFC kicks off its slate Saturday, while Bellator and PFL start up in February. With so many possibilities in the sport and big fights looming this year, we asked Megan Anderson, Brett Okamoto and Jeff Wagenheim to take a crack at a few bold predictions that might just become reality in 2023.
Forecasting the matchup itself isn’t so bold. I mean, in the video Jake Paul recorded last week to announce his arrival in the PFL, he called out Diaz for a pair of fights — the first in boxing, the other in MMA.
To bolden things by a significant measure, I’ll predict it ends up as just one fight, split between the two sports. It’d be an unorthodox spectacle, for sure, but this format could add to the competitiveness. In an MMA fight, Diaz is expected to enter as a heavy betting favorite. Do you really want to see that? Don’t you already know how it’d play out?
However, such humdrum predictability isn’t quite the case in a boxing match, which favors Paul right now by 3-1 odds. So give Paul one round of boxing to try to exploit his size and strength to get a knockout, and if he can’t finish Diaz, he’d have to deal with the sizable gap in grappling in Round 2. The PFL is innovative enough to figure out the rule set for a third round. Hey, this matchup is bizarre to begin with, so why not go fully outlandish with it? — Wagenheim
Jon Jones doesn’t fight ever again
Jones is a major personality in this sport. Without stepping foot into the Octagon since his last light heavyweight title defense over Dominic Reyes in 2020, he has been able to keep himself relevant. From potential fights that fell through to internet feuds with top active fighters, like Israel Adesanya and Francis Ngannou. The only thing his name hasn’t been mentioned for might actually be fighting. If he was genuinely committed to fighting again, I believe he would have done it by now. Sure, he needed some time to properly add the necessary weight, but it doesn’t take three years to acclimate to fighting in a new division. We’ve seen plenty of high-level fighters change divisions while finding a way to remain active. Dustin Poirier did it. And Jared Cannonier, who recently challenged for the middleweight title, went from heavyweight in 2015 all the way down to middleweight by 2018 while remaining active.
If he makes me eat my words and he actually does come back, his style and his skill could set him apart from the rest of the heavyweight division. Jones has one of the best fight IQs in the history of the sport, and I don’t think there are many in the division that could beat him. If he comes back, he could legitimately be the UFC heavyweight champion. I just don’t think that he will. — Anderson
Henry Cejudo wins fighter of the year
You want bold? I’m going bold here. While Cejudo is a long shot to win fighter of the year in 2023, the man is perfectly set up to do so if he can stack wins. Currently, the expectation is that he will come out of retirement in the first quarter of the year in a bantamweight title fight against Aljamain Sterling. It’s an extremely difficult matchup right out of the gate, as Sterling is firing on all cylinders right now. But if Cejudo was to win, look at his next fight: probably a title defense against Sean O’Malley, in a fight that would attract a lot of eyes.
And if Cejudo were to win that, I do believe the UFC would entertain his goal of moving up to 145 pounds and try to capture a third UFC championship, something that’s never been done.
Is all of this likely? No. That’s a tough year I just laid out. But of course, in order to be the fighter of the year, one has to win. And beyond that, the quality of the wins are looked at. Cejudo would seem to have an opportunity for the biggest year of anyone, if he wins. — Okamoto
Come Jan. 1, 2024, we’ll be talking about Nate Diaz returning to the UFC
Even on the night of Diaz’s UFC departure — a successful departure at that, with a win over Tony Ferguson at UFC 279 — Diaz hinted at an eventual UFC return. I see him scratching that non-UFC itch in 2023, fielding offers from all kinds of suiters, doing things his way — and all the while, letting that Conor McGregor trilogy fight in the UFC cook.
We’ve been saying for years that this fight needs to happen at some point, and that really hasn’t changed. It’s a massive fight, and all parties know it. Diaz was never going to “wait” for McGregor, though. McGregor hasn’t exactly been active and his schedule is far from reliable, so Diaz is going to go do his thing and be a star outside of the UFC. McGregor will likely come back and fight in the UFC at some point this year. And every time one of them competes, we will continue to talk about the likelihood of them meeting again. Diaz fights twice in 2023 outside the UFC. McGregor fights once. And by the first day of next year, all roads will be pointing to a third matchup between them in the Octagon. — Okamoto
Fedor Emelianenko, 46, retires as Bellator heavyweight champion
All he needs to do is defeat Ryan Bader on Feb. 4 at Bellator 290 in Inglewood, California. That would have been a piece of cake for the Emelianenko who was beating up the best heavyweights in the world during a near decadelong win streak mostly in the Pride Fighting Championships. Of course, the decade of which I speak is not this current one or even the one prior. That dynamo is long gone, and what lingers in our midst is a faded Emelianenko. He fought Bader four years ago and was knocked out in 35 seconds. But now Bader is 39 years old and joining Emelianenko on the senior circuit. If the aging process levels the playing field at all, it could be enough to provide Emelianenko with one last golden moment in a career filled with them.
Bellator having its heavyweight champ vanquished by a 46-year-old headed into retirement would be among the most Bellator moments ever. But it also could open the door for a new behemoth to take center stage. — Wagenheim
Edwards’ win over Usman did a lot for his confidence. Entering the trilogy bout, Edwards now knows he has the power to stop Usman. Sure, he might have believed it before, but now he knows it. That matters.
In the first fight, Edwards learned that he needed to work on his takedown defense. Initially, he was able to slow down a lot of Usman’s takedown attempts early in the fight, but as the fight went on, Usman started finding success. Then, at UFC 278, after Edwards appeared to have some cardio issues, which could have been due to fighting in the higher altitude in Salt Lake City, he managed to find a way to win. Now, just like the last fight was pretty much in Usman’s backyard (he trains in Denver), the next bout is expected to be in Edwards’ backyard in England and Usman could be the one who has to adjust. Don’t be surprised if Edwards pulls off a major upset two times in a row. — Anderson
Multiple UFC fighters will follow Jake Paul to PFL
A new money matter now facing the UFC relates to the PFL’s signing of Jake Paul. During the announcement, Paul highlighted the PFL’s commitment to pay out over 50% of pay-per-view revenue to its fighters. While the UFC’s top fighters still make far more than anyone in the sport, Paul is a master at grabbing attention and utilizing new media to spread a message on his terms. Can he seduce another star or two to follow Diaz out the Octagon door? And can he drag White into a battle the UFC owners would prefer to avoid with a second-tier competitor? –Wagenheim