It’s been a pretty good year inside the Octagon so far in 2023.
Sure, there have been a couple untimely injuries that cancelled a few fights everyone was looking forward to seeing and caused cards to be reshuffled, but there have also been five outstanding pay-per-view events, a couple sure-fire Fight of the Year nominees, strong early entries in the Knockout, Submission, Upset, and Newcomer of the Year races, and a bunch of really enjoyable Saturdays spent watching folks sing leather inside the UFC cage.
And that should all carry over now that we’re into May!
Here’s a look at the fights I’m most looking forward to in the month ahead.
UFC 288: Sterling vs. Cejudo — Saturday, May 6 (Newark, New Jersey)
Drew Dober vs. Matt Frevola
This one is pretty straightforward: Dober is appointment viewing, and has been for a couple years now, if not his entire UFC career, while Frevola is allergic to being in a boring fight and will be competing close to home as one of several New Yorkers on this card.
Dober enters on a three-fight winning streak, where he’s registered first-, second-, and third-round stoppage wins while solidifying himself as a dangerous presence towards the lower end of the Top 15, while “The Steamrolla” has scored consecutive first-round finishes over Genaro Valdez and Ottman Azaitar.
If this one is boring or somehow disappoints, I’ll eat my hat.
Movsar Evloev vs. Bryce Mitchell
Out of action since last June, Evloev is 16-0 overall, 6-0 in the UFC, and coming off a unanimous decision win over Dan Ige that showed he’s deserving of a place amongst the top talents in the featherweight division. Mitchell ran into a buzzsaw named Ilia Topuria in his last appearance but had posted six consecutive victories of his own prior to that, forcing his way into the Top 15 on the stretch of wins over Andre Fili and Edson Barboza.
It feels like featherweight is in the midst of a sea change, with younger talents rising in hopes of overtaking their veteran counterparts in the upper tier of the division, and the winner of this should get a chance to do just that later in the year.
Jessica Andrade vs. Yan Xiaonan
Although she’s coming off a loss at flyweight, Andrade remains a perennial contender in the division where she once sat upon the throne. In her last appearance at 115 pounds, “Bate Estaca” made quick work of fellow Brazilian Amanda Lemos, while Yan got back into the win column herself with a majority decision victory over Mackenzie Dern.
Current champ Zhang Weili is currently without an announced challenger, so a dominant showing for either woman here could put them in the driver’s seat for the next title opportunity as we progress towards what is going to be an incredible summer of action in the UFC.
Belal Muhammad vs. Gilbert Burns
It may have been put together on short notice, but you’ll be hard pressed to find a more intriguing, more crucial matchup between top contenders than the UFC 288 co-main event.
Muhammad is riding a four-fight winning streak, a nine-fight unbeaten streak, and has won 12 of his last 14 appearances inside the Octagon, most recently ending Sean Brady’s unbeaten run and halting his ascent up the divisional ladder. Burns has already registered a pair of wins this year, submitting Neil Magny in January before out-hustling Jorge Masvidal in his own backyard last month in Miami.
Stylistically, this is a tremendous matchup between a suffocating grinder and a world champion grappler, both who have better striking than we ever tend to talk about, and they’ve got five rounds to work, which means it should be fascinating theatre when they hit the cage in New Jersey.
Aljamain Sterling vs. Henry Cejudo
The reigning champ defends against the former champ, who relinquished his title to embark on a three-year sabbatical.
Sterling has won eight straight overall, successfully defending his bantamweight title in the last two of those victories, and finally gets the opportunity to put his title on the line close to home, making the short commute from New York to New Jersey. Cejudo surprised many people by pressing pause on his career after collecting a second-round stoppage win over Dominick Cruz at UFC 249, as many felt “Triple C” was just settling in to potentially have a dominant run atop the division.
Somewhere along the way, the vibes between these two went from friendly and respectful to combative and contentious, which only ups the level of anticipation surrounding the UFC 288 main event.
UFC on ABC: Rozenstruik vs. Almeida — Saturday, May 13 (Charlotte, North Carolina)
Ian Machado Garry vs. Daniel Rodriguez
This is the one folks that have been watching Garry’s progression have been waiting to see, and now it’s only a couple weeks away.
The undefeated Irish welterweight has made steady progress up the ranks since arriving in the UFC, earning four straight victories against good, but not great competition. Now he steps in with a hard-nosed veteran in Rodriguez, who has gone 7-2 over his first nine UFC starts and is 17-3 overall.
Can Garry keep advancing and collect the biggest win of his career or will “D-Rod” show the young hopeful that he’s not quite ready to be swimming with the sharks in the welterweight waters just yet?
Anthony Smith vs. Johnny Walker
Top 10 light heavyweights that only know how to be in exciting fights face off in the Charlotte co-main event.
The 34-year-old Smith has been a fixture in the title conversation for the last several years, and remains so even though he’s coming off a stoppage loss to Magomed Ankalaev and a layoff due to an ankle injury. Walker went through a rocky patch after a blistering start to his UFC career, but has since righted the ship, earning a pair of first-round stoppage wins.
This one should start fast and only accelerate from there, making it an exciting lead-in to the night’s main event.
Jairzinho Rozenstruik vs. Jailton Almeida
Rozenstruik and Almeida meet in a battle of heavyweights looking to establish their place in the hierarchy at a time when things in the division are a little unsettled.
“Bigi Boy” got back into the win column with a first-round knockout win over Chris Daukaus at UFC 282, bringing his record to 7-4 in the UFC, with all seven victories coming inside the distance. Almeida continued his unimpeded march forward in the division with a second-round TKO win over Shamil Abdurakhimov in January, giving him four wins in his first 12 months as an active UFC competitor.
This is a classic “seasoned veteran versus ascending newcomer” setup, while also being a clear “striker versus grappler” pairing, as well. Add the two together and you have an intoxicating blend that should have everyone tuning in when they take to the Octagon on ABC in a couple weeks.
UFC Fight Night: Pennington vs. Aldana 2 — Saturday, May 20 (Las Vegas, Nevada)
Natalia Silva vs. Victoria Leonardo
Whenever I put an instalment in this series together, there is always an “… and one for me” fight that might seem a little out of left field on this list for everyone else, and this is that fight.
Silva has looked excellent through her first two UFC appearances, dominating Jasmine Jasudavicius in her promotional debut off an extended layoff before dispatching Tereza Bleda in her sophomore outing in November. Leonardo snapped a two-fight skid and secured her first UFC victory last time out, defeating Mandy Bohm in London, and looks to build on that here.
Flyweight has a pack of young fighters already making noise towards the top of the division, led by Erin Blanchfield, and this is another chance for Silva to show she deserves to be included in that ascending pack, while Leonardo gets the chance to play spoiler and grab a little attention for herself.
Raquel Pennington vs. Irene Aldana
With Amanda Nunes and Julianna Pena set to renew hostilities in June, Pennington and Aldana will face off for a second time in a bout that will likely determine who will face the winner for the bantamweight title later this year.
“Rocky” enters in the best form of her career, having earned five straight victories, including four straight over ranked opponents, and having won six of seven, which began with a win over Aldana in their first meeting. Since that fight, the Mexican contender has gone 4-1, including stoppage wins over Ketlen Vieira, Yana Santos, and Macy Chiasson.
Within the division, there will be no one more deserving of a championship opportunity than the winner of this one, and you can be assured that both Pennington and Aldana are acutely aware of that fact. Add in that they battled to a close split decision a few years ago, coupled with this being a five-round main event, and you have the makings of a terrific and important fight to close out the month of May inside the Octagon.
UFC 288: Sterling vs Cejudo took place live from the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on May 6, 2023. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass