The highly unofficial half-year awards season continues with the best fights of the first half of 2023 and how we saw them on fight night…
5 – Alex Caceres vs Daniel Pineda
UFC Fight Night: Kara-France vs Albazi
As anticipated, the featherweight co-main event between Alex Caceres and Daniel Pineda was absolutely bonkers.
The opening round was a five-minute blur of heavy shots and scrambles, submission attempts and escapes, blood, sweat, and general chaos.
It was much of the same in the second, with fatigue setting in for both men, but not slowing the action in the slightest before Caceres grabbed control of the action early in the third, hammering Pineda to the body and putting on him for the majority of the frame.
Everyone expected this fight to be in the mix for Fight of the Night and it still managed to exceed expectations. With the victory, Caceres picked up a second straight win, moving to 7-1 over his last eight.
4 – Kelvin Gastelum vs Chris Curtis
UFC 287: Pereira vs Adesanya 2
Kelvin Gastelum and Chris Curtis closed out the prelims in style, going toe-to-toe, blow-for-blow for three rounds, no quarter asked and none given as the middleweights gave the audience in Miami a show.
Gastelum looked like on his feet and swift with his hands, turning in his best effort in a number of years, while Curtis was fundamentally sound as always, working body and head with his boxing and being defensively sharp. The former Ultimate Fighter winner Gastelum had his best success early, while Curtis turned in his best round in the third, with the crowd rising to their feet and full throat to cheer on these warriors down the stretch.
The outcome of the wildly entertaining affair was left to the judges sitting Octagon-side, and the officials all saw it the same way, with Gastelum coming away victorious. This was an outstanding fight between two tough-as-nails middleweights where neither man loses any ground in the divisional ranks.
3 – Justin Gaethje vs Rafael Fiziev
UFC 286: Edwards vs Usman 3
The co-main event between Justin Gaethje and Rafael Fiziev was everything it was expected to be and more, with the standout lightweights trading power shots for 15 wildly entertaining minutes.
Fiziev was the quicker of the two from the outset, taking the fight to Gaethje and having a good deal of success in the first before the American contender battled back in the second, leaving Fiziev bruised and bleeding heading into the third. Early in the final round, Fiziev blasted Gaethje with a clean right hand that would send everyone else in the division to the Shadow Realm, but “The Highlight” somehow remained upright, responded, and then rallied, putting it on the emerging contender in the second half of the round.
They fought tooth and nail to the final bell, leaving the responsibility to determine a winner in the hands of the judges, with Gaethje emerging with a hard-fought majority decision victory.
This was an outstanding fight between two elite lightweights, with Gaethje showing he’s still got plenty left in the tank.
2 – Shavkat Rakhmonov vs Geoff Neal
UFC 285: Jones vs Gane
Shavkat Rakhmonov just keeps winning.
The undefeated rising star picked up his fifth consecutive UFC win and 17th straight victory overall midway through the UFC 285 main card, getting the better of things in a competitive, tough fight against durable DWCS grad Geoff Neal. It was the toughest test of the 28-year-old’s career and despite some scary moments, he was able to pass.
In all three rounds, the ranked welterweights got after each other on the feet, with Rakhmonov offering greater variety and volume. Neal had him rocked early in the third, but couldn’t find the shot that put him down, resulting in Rakhmonov closing the distance and getting a chance to recover.
Late in the frame, the undefeated “Nomad” hurt Neal with a clean right hand, compounding the punishment with knees to the body, yet somehow, the Fortis MMA man remained upright. With under a minute remaining and the pair battling along the fence, Rakhmonov latched onto a standing rear-naked choke and found the finish.
This was the most entertaining fight of the year thus far, and elevates the stock of both competitors. Rakhmonov advances to 17-0 with 17 finishes with the victory, and will be facing Kelvin Gastelum his next time out.
1 – Islam Makhachev vs Alexander Volkanovski
UFC 284: Makhachev vs Volkanovski
Islam Makhachev called his shot and followed through, venturing to Perth, Australia and defeating pound-for-pound king and featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski to successfully defend his lightweight title for the first time.
The surging Russian standout showed his skills on the feet through the first three rounds, spending long stretches of the initial 15 minutes trading with Volkanovski and getting the better of the exchanges. While “Alexander the Great" had success of his own and showed an impressive ability to contend with Makhachev’s takedown attempts, the lightweight champ was just too much.
In the fourth, Makhachev timed a perfect level change that resulted in his climbing onto Volkanovski’s back and staying there for the duration of the frame. In the final frame, Volkanovski tried his damnedest to rally and finish, taking the fight to Makhachev and hurting him with a left hand late, finishing the bout in top position, much to the delight of the capacity crowd in Perth.
This was an incredible fight between two standout talents, and it’s going to be amazing seeing them continue to lord over their respective weight classes going forward.