MMA Rank 20-11: Will Sean O’Malley be the next bantamweight title challenger?

MMA news

Just days away from UFC’s opening fight card of the new year, ESPN is back with the second installment of its annual MMA Rank.

Using a two-step voting process, ESPN’s MMA contributors set out to project which 30 fighters will perform the best in 2023. The final list features fighters from multiple promotions — veterans and rising stars, champions and contenders — ranked by their potential for success over the next 12 months.

A pair of interesting fighters landed in the first 10 names revealed — former UFC champions Charles Oliveira and Glover Teixeira. From 20 to 11, you’ll find four more champions mixed in with a handful of former titleholders and rising contenders. Megan Anderson, Brett Okamoto, Jeff Wagenheim and Phil Murphy break down how 2023 could play out for each of them.

Follow the link to each UFC result to watch a replay of that fight on ESPN+. 10-1 will be released on Friday. | 30-21

2022 record: 1-1 (lost by UD vs. Israel Adesanya; UD over Marvin Vettori)

2022 ESPN MMA Rank: No. 15

Next fight: TBD

2023 outlook: Other than two championship losses to Israel Adesanya and a second win over Yoel Romero, Whittaker has picked apart every opponent since moving up to middleweight in 2014. In a vacuum, Adesanya dropping the belt complicated Whittaker’s path to a title shot. At the moment, we can safely assume an immediate rematch between Izzy and Alex Pereira is the next step. In truth, 2023 was likely another year of “The Reaper” buzzing around the top five to cement himself as the second-best middleweight on the planet, building an airtight case to demand a third crack at Adesanya. Paulo Costa at UFC 284 in Perth was up first until a contract dispute from Costa caused that booking to fizzle out. But there remains a real possibility that if Pereira can contain lightning in a bottle and beat Adesanya yet again, or if Adesanya needs to withdraw, Whittaker could challenge Pereira for the belt this year — and maybe even be a betting favorite. — Murphy


2022 record: 2-0 (TKO2 over Jai Herbert; SUB2 over Bryce Mitchell)

2022 ESPN MMA Rank: Unranked

Next fight: TBD

2023 outlook: Topuria punctuated 2022 with a statement submission of previously unbeaten Bryce Mitchell, raising eyebrows across the division. Not turning 26 until late January, the challenge for Topuria in 2023 lies more with matchmakers than the fighter himself: balancing booking an exciting, well-rounded fighter with strong competition while maintaining patience. He’s a jiu-jitsu black belt with proven submission skills and has reputable power in his hands for a featherweight. But it does no good to stretch him too fast, too soon. Though after his latest win, Topuria had no interest in “slow and steady.” He called out Brian Ortega. And after his last fight, the Paddy Pimblett ship seems to have sailed. Thankfully, featherweight offers options with a wealth of talent between those two. “El Matador” has had Movsar Evloev on his mind after past fights, and the Russian fighter would seem to fit the bill of an appropriate test. Topuria has become appointment viewing. And with a tactful path up the ladder, he could find himself in the title conversation by year’s end. — Murphy


2022 record: 1-0 (UD over Brandon Moreno)

2022 ESPN MMA Rank: Unranked

Next fight: UFC 283 vs. Brandon Moreno

2023 outlook: We can set aside any “best trilogies” debate after Figueiredo defends his belt against Brandon Moreno later this month, when it becomes an unprecedented title-fight tetralogy. So much of Figueiredo’s 2023 outlook hinges on this result. With hometown support in Rio, a win allows him to get back to building a legacy against other elite flyweights. A loss will prove more costly than a win does beneficial, as it would send Figueiredo into a historically deep pool of flyweight contenders. “Deus da Guerra” would then need to win with assertiveness to demand another crack at the belt, especially if Moreno starts a title reign. Whether as reigning champion or fallen king, it will be refreshing in 2023 to see Figueiredo stand across from someone other than “The Assassin Baby.” But first, there’s important business to settle at UFC 283. — Murphy


2022 record: N/A

2022 ESPN MMA Rank: Unranked

Next fight: TBD

2023 outlook: It’s an overdue homecoming for “Triple C.” With results flowing in his favor and all the momentum for which a 33-year-old fighter could hope, Cejudo abruptly retired as champion in 2020. To say “he stepped away from the sport” isn’t altogether true; social media posts and videos follow champions and contenders like shadows. It now appears Cejudo might return and challenge Aljamain Sterling for the bantamweight belt in a zero-to-60 return fight at some point in 2023. Cejudo’s comeback makes the 135-pound division somehow even deeper, and if Cejudo were to become champion again — at 36, as of February, after nearly three years without a fight — it might rival every other athletic accomplishment of his other than the gold medal he won at the Beijing Olympics. — Murphy


2022 record: 1-0-1 (NC vs. Pedro Munhoz; SD over Petr Yan)

2022 ESPN MMA Rank: No. 29

Next fight: TBD

2023 outlook: It’s time to find O’Malley’s ceiling — for both performance and popularity. “Suga Show” silenced skeptics when he beat Petr Yan at UFC 280, even those who scored the split decision for Yan. O’Malley thrust himself into the title conversation, showing he can stand toe-to-toe with a recent champion. It appears a somewhat murky path to the belt in 2023, as Aljamain Sterling remains heavily linked to Henry Cejudo, but O’Malley is first in line to follow, which could happen by this summer. Long forgotten is the first-round loss to Marlon “Chito” Vera in 2020 that temporarily derailed the hype train, thanks to a series of high-profile wins for both in the interim. Stardom is a vacuum in MMA. If Jon Jones or Conor McGregor fail to recapture past glory and O’Malley finds himself holding a belt by year’s end, he’ll likely be a face of the promotion in 2024. — Murphy


2022 record: 1-0 (UD over Julianna Peña)

2022 ESPN MMA Rank: No. 16

Next fight: TBD

2023 outlook: Nunes showed incredible growth and development in her game for the Peña rematch at UFC 277. She looked better both physically and technically. I expect her to carry that same hunger she showed for that fight with her into 2023. There aren’t many options for Nunes in the women’s featherweight division. However, some potential new names could pose for some exciting bouts with her in the women’s bantamweight division. What’s better than some new faces at 135 pounds to keep Nunes motivated and at the top of her game this year? — Anderson


14. Brandon Moreno (20-6-2)

2022 record: 1-1 (lost by UD to Deiveson Figueiredo; TKO3 over Kai Kara-France)

2022 ESPN MMA Rank: No. 20

Next fight: UFC 283 vs. Deiveson Figueiredo (men’s flyweight title fight)

2023 outlook: The tetralogy with Figueiredo will ultimately determine how Moreno’s year goes. A loss would put him in limbo. With nearly no likelihood of a fifth fight with Figueiredo, and plenty of talented fighters who have been forced to patiently wait for the Moreno-Figueiredo saga to come to an end, a win for Moreno in this fight could be more important than the previous three fights. A win next month could also help Moreno cement his stardom in the sport as one of the most popular Mexican fighters on the UFC roster. — Anderson


13. Marlon Vera (20-7-1)

2022 record: 2-0 (UD over Rob Font; KO4 over Dominick Cruz)

2022 ESPN MMA Rank: Unranked

Next fight: Feb. 18 vs. Cory Sandhagen

2023 outlook: Currently riding a four-fight win streak, there’s a lot on the line for Vera in 2023. He is set to take on Cory Sandhagen in the main event of the Feb. 18 UFC Fight Night. If he wins, I expect him to fight for the bantamweight title next. Vera really elevated his game while stacking up wins against quality fighters last year. A win over Sandhagen could be enough to propel him into a title shot afterward. Vera matches up well against those at the top of the bantamweight division, including O’Malley, Cejudo (if he comes back) or the champion, Aljamain Sterling. He has length, controls range well and is hard to get to the mat. — Anderson


2022 record: 1-0 (KO5 over Kamaru Usman)

2022 ESPN MMA Rank: Unranked

Next fight: TBD

2023 outlook: Edwards lived up to his nickname “Rocky” last year. Now, with an upcoming trilogy with Kamaru Usman for the UFC welterweight title, he has a chance to prove it wasn’t a fluke. If he gets a win in that fight, plenty of names exist for him beyond Usman. Contenders such as Colby Covington, Jorge Masvidal or even No. 29 on this list, Shavkat Rakhmonov, come to mind. Even though Masvidal isn’t ranked at the top of the division, there’s some bad blood there, and I could see Edwards wanting that fight. Winning some of those fights and continuing to show his perseverance would only endear him to fight fans in 2023. — Anderson


11. Aljamain Sterling (22-3)

2022 record: 2-0 (SD over Petr Yan; TKO2 over TJ Dillashaw)

2022 ESPN MMA Rank: No. 26

Next fight: TBD

2023 outlook: Although Sterling looked fantastic in his most recent fight vs. Dillashaw, finding out that Dillashaw entered that fight with a serious injury seemed to leave a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths. There are many potential matchups out there for Sterling this year, if he can get past his next opponent, which could be Cejudo. A fight with Cejudo would be a huge opportunity for Sterling to officially silence the critics once and for all while also shaping the division going forward. In his past couple of bouts, it’s been clear that he has made the necessary changes and improvements to his training and preparation. Expect to see him to continue to elevate and showcase his skills with plenty of interesting matchups looming. — Anderson

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