While there is a ton of anticipation for the electric collection of fights set to take place over the final quarter of the year, this little pause in the action before that home stretch begins is a tremendous time to take a look back at some of the memorable moments that have taken place inside the Octagon already in 2023.
From dynamic debuts and breakout efforts to slick finishes and championship triumphs, this year has been filled with a number of outstanding efforts, and we’ve collected one from each of the last nine months here to remind you of what a magical year it has been thus far.
January: The Bonfim Brothers Arrive (UFC 283)
Brazilian brothers Ismael and Gabriel Bonfim earned contracts on the same episode of Dana White’s Contender Series last fall, and on the first pay-per-view of the year in Rio, each brother made a statement in his respective promotional debut.
First up, elder brother Ismael Bonfim collected a second-round knockout win over Terrance McKinney. After using the first round to draw out actions and make reads, the 27-year-old lightweight backed up into space and then launched into the air, planting a beautiful switch knee on the jaw of McKinney, sending him plummeting to the canvas.
A few fights later, younger brother Gabriel waltzed into the Octagon and collected an impressive finish of his own.
Paired off with Mounir Lazzez, the unbeaten 25-year-old was a little frenetic and hurried out of the chute, wading into an early exchange with the more experienced Tunisian where he got hit with a couple clean shots. But he also landed a shot or two of his own that got Lazzez’s attention, and when the veteran welterweight rushed forward looking for a takedown, Bonfim quickly wrapped up his neck, rolling through the backwards momentum to land in mount and collect the tap.
Ismael subsequently lost his second appearance in the Octagon to surging Frenchman Benoit Saint-Denis, while Gabriel built on his win over Lazzez with a similar performance opposite Trevin Giles at UFC 291. Both are penciled in for the November 4 event in Sao Paulo, with the former slated to face Vinc Pichel and the latter paired up with Nicolas Dalby.
February: Erin Blanchfield announces herself as a contender (UFC Vegas 69)
Blanchfield’s fight with Jessica Andrade was viewed as the fighting equivalent of the prospect taking the MCATs or LSATs — a top-end entrance exam to determine if the ultra-talented 23-year-old was, in fact, ready to be a bona fide contender in the flyweight division.
“Cold Blooded” not only aced the test, but finished in no time flat, too, making it look relatively easy.
We often talk about athletes taking a step up in competition, but this was clearing an entire flight of stairs.
Blanchfield went from facing Molly McCann — a solid, veteran battler — at Madison Square Garden in November to dispatching a former strawweight champion and flyweight title challenger 97 seconds into the second round. How she did it was just as impressive, as well.
After trading with Andrade for much of the first round and getting stuffed on a couple different takedown attempts, Blanchfield hit a beautiful trip as the two came together in a body lock, and from there, it was done. She effortlessly floated into side control and quickly climbed onto Andrade’s back as the Brazilian made a tactical mistake, and as soon as she exposed her neck, the surging American laced up the choke, never really bothering with her hooks until things were all but over.
There are “yeah, but…” arguments that some will want to make to take away from Blanchfield’s achievement, but the bottom line is that she showed zero hesitation in accepting a fight with Andrade as her short-notice replacement opponent and then finished her in less than seven minutes.
Blanchfield followed up her breakthrough effort opposite Andrade with a gutsy, grimy, unanimous decision win over recent title challenger Taila Santos, whom she was originally slated to face in February, to put herself on the short list of potential title challengers in the 125-pound weight class heading into next year.
March: Alexa Grasso shocks the world (UFC 285)
One thing we don’t ever talk about nearly enough when it comes to these athletes and the fights themselves is an ability to capitalize on small openings — an alertness to what is happening and having the wherewithal to know exactly what to do and execute in a flash.
Grasso showed that back in her March 2022 win over Joanne Wood, jumping onto the Scottish veteran’s back when she bounced off the fence, and she did it in Las Vegas at the start of the month, as well. The instant Valentina Shevchenko threw that spinning back kick, Grasso wrapped an arm around her waist and climbed onto her back, and after a few adjustments, secured the finish.
At the highest level, fights can often be decided by small miscues and taking advantage of even the faintest opportunities, and that is precisely how Grasso became UFC flyweight champion.
This isn’t the last time you’ll see these two rivals on this list.
April: Christian Rodriguez’ Breakout Effort (UFC 287)
Under any other circumstances, fans and observers would have gone into UFC 287 hearing all about the 25-year-old Rodriguez — a sharp prospect who debuted up a division against the now-surging Jonathan Pearce before returning to bantamweight and collecting a first-round submission win.
But because he was paired with 18-year-old prospect Raul Rosas Jr. in Miami, the Milwaukee native was the B-side in the opening bout of the pay-per-view main card and someone that was largely mentioned simply as the guy that would be standing on the other side of the Octagon from Rosas Jr. on the first Saturday of the month.
Rodriguez showed his poise in the opening stanza, weathering the ferocious initial attack from “El Niño Problema,” and once the fight hit the second round, the long-time Roufusport representative took over, dominating the action the rest of the way to claim a unanimous decision victory and halt the momentum of the ascending Dana White’s Contender Series graduate.
The fact that he missed weight is a slight knock against Rodriguez in an otherwise terrific weekend, and despite having just nine fights prior to his UFC 287 assignment, he fought with an impressive level of composure and calm, which is something you don’t always see from young fighters in the early days of their UFC careers. He was heralded as one to watch heading into his own Contender Series appearance, where he earned a victory, but not a contract, and has since validated those forecasts with a steely effort against Pearce and a pair of victories in his weight class.
Bantamweight is absolutely loaded with talent at all levels and the road forward will be a treacherous one, but Rodriguez is technically sound with sharp fundamentals, which will always serve him well.
Next up is a showdown with fellow emerging bantamweight Cameron Saaiman on October 14, which was originally slated for UFC 290 before Rodriguez was forced to withdraw. The winner will claim top billing on the list of ascending prospects to watch in the 135-pound ranks.
May: Movsar Evloev and Diego Lopes Shine on Short Notice (UFC 288)
The featherweight scrap between Evloev and Lopes at the start of May was easily one of the best fights of the year thus far.
Lopes tagged into the matchup at the start of the week, raising his hand to replace Jonathan Pearce in the pairing with the Top 15 featherweight. DWCS fans knew him from his appearance on Season 5 and keen observers recognized him from being in Alexa Grasso’s corner, but few expected him to waltz into the Octagon on short notice and give Evloev much of a test.
And we were wrong.
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The Brazilian brought the fight to Evloev and forced the undefeated Russian to dig deep at every turn. Each time it seemed like Evloev was poised to truly seize control of the action and begin distancing himself from Lopes, the late replacement battled back, showcasing his sharp hands, scrambling ability, and an array of submissions and setups. Evloev was able to edge ahead of Lopes and remain a quarter-step in front of his foe for the duration of the fight, but Lopes made him work from the first second of the fight to the last.
This was one of those instances where Evloev took home the hard-earned victory, but Lopes was the real winner, as he showed in 15 minutes that he absolutely belongs in the Octagon with top-end competition.
Evloev has yet to return to action since registering this victory, but Lopes showed his efforts in May were no fluke, as he collected a first-round submission win over Gavin Tucker in August and is scheduled to face Pat Sabbatini on the UFC 295 prelims at Madison Square Garden in November.
June: “Proper” Mike Malott Becomes “Captain Canada”
Throughout the week in Vancouver, the one thing my buddy Ian O’Neill and I constantly said to each other as we built to UFC 289 was something along the lines of “Mike Malott has really been the star of the week; all that’s left to do is collect a victory and he’ll take off.”
Malott crushed his media day and press conference appearances, steering into this Canadian homecoming and the massive opportunity before him. He showed tons of personality and confidence, speaking with passion about competing in Canada, alongside several teammates, and his desire to keep pressing forward in the welterweight division by registering another stoppage win over Adam Fugitt.
The 31-year-old carried himself and presented himself the way hockey players would if they were allowed to say more interesting things, offering up “compliment sandwiches” to Fugitt and predicting another finish while exhibiting classic Canadian humility, respect, eloquence, and manners.
And then Malott went out and did almost exactly what he said he was going to do.
For the first time in his career, it took him until the second round to secure a finish, but for every moment of his fight with Fugitt, the Dana White’s Contender Series graduate was in control, showcasing his clean, sharp, technical striking before rocking the Pacific Northwest native and locking up a guillotine choke honed and perfected during his days as a coach at Team Alpha Male.
As I said in the UFC 289 edition of Fighters on the Rise, Malott is one of those fighters who is more experienced than his now 10-1-1 record suggests, and he keeps making waves in the welterweight division.
He was the unquestioned star of the week in Vancouver and should continue to shine bright going forward.
July: Justin Gaethje is a bad mother… SHUT YOUR MOUTH! (UFC 291)
Let’s unpack this one a little, because it was such a tremendous knockout for a multitude of reasons.
First, it’s a technically beautiful finish — a same side high kick that Dustin Poirier didn’t really expect, that still landed flush enough through a partial guard to put “The Diamond” on the canvas.
Second, what a way to close out a fight for the BMF title and get even with a guy that knocked you out in the past. I mean, this evened things out between Gaethje and Poirier in terms of their personal series, cemented Gaethje as one of the most exciting fighters in UFC history, and probably took away whatever last bit of sting lingered from his previous loss to Poirier.
Justin Gaethje Octagon Interview | UFC 291
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Justin Gaethje Octagon Interview | UFC 291
Finally, you can’t overlook how eerie it is that the last two pay-per-view events at Delta Center in Salt Lake City have been finished by the same kick, just from different sides! Oh, and the guy that was on the receiving end of the first one from Leon Edwards, Kamaru Usman, is Gaethje’s main training partner and was there with him on Saturday.
Just an insane finish for so many reasons and the unquestioned winner of this award.
August: Welcome to The Sugar Show (UFC 292)
Whatever lingering questions anyone had about Sean O’Malley and his ability to compete with the best bantamweights in the world were cleared up in Boston, as “Sugar” claimed UFC gold with a laser-sighted right hand and some follow-up blows to stop Aljamain Sterling.
Not only did this effort usher in a changing of the guard atop the bantamweight division, but it also elevated O’Malley’s already sky-high profile to another level entirely.
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And it was a beautiful finish as well.
Sterling pressed forward, lunging with a left hand that O’Malley saw coming. He slid back out of the way and quickly uncorked a right hand that connected flush, sending the champion to the canvas. It was a clean, crisp shot that would have put anyone down, and the follow-up blows quickly ended the fight.
This is the thing that makes the new bantamweight champion so special and so dangerous — the smooth blend of precision striking, deft footwork, and quick, powerful hands. He’s not the first person to land a counter like this, nor will he be the last, but the sharpness of his execution is ridiculously impressive and cannot be undervalued.
As soon as Sterling reached, O’Malley was chambering the shot and, if you asked him, I bet the “Funk Master” would tell you that he knew he’d made a grave mistake. O’Malley lands the front kick to the midsection, Sterling lunges forward with a looping, reaching left, and KA-POW — a right hand, swinging downward at the chin, finds the mark and we’ve got a new champion.
Heavy is the head that wears the crown, and remaining on top is more difficult than getting there, but O’Malley silenced any remaining doubters with this performance, and I absolutely cannot wait to see what he does now that he’s the UFC bantamweight champion.
September: Grasso and Shevchenko Combine for an Instant Classic (Noche UFC)
The rematch between Alexa Grasso and Valentina Shevchenko was everything that I adore about this sport.
Even before the fight began, you had the makings of something special: a championship rematch; a titleholder trying to prove herself in her first title defense; a challenger looking to return to the top of the mountain; and a night built around the pairing that had built to a crescendo.
Once we got underway, the flyweight title rematch featured the kinds of breathtaking moments that elevate a fight to “instant classic” status — Grasso knocking Shevchenko down; the challenger attacking a mounted guillotine; the late mistake that allowed Grasso to once again end up on Shevchenko’s back.
The tension was palpable as they each made the walk to the Octagon, and it never dissipated over the course of the 25-minute affair. From start to finish, you were on the edge of your seat, waiting to see what would happen next.
Regardless of the outcome, this was one of those bouts that we will talk about for a long time because it has become the epitome of what you hope for when booking an immediate championship rematch.
This was a classic. This is the clubhouse leader for Fight of the Year for me.