Unveiling our 2023 MMA award winners: Best KO, fighters and rookie of the year

Sports

2024 is shaping up to be a fascinating year in MMA. The UFC will celebrate its’ 300th pay-per-view event in April, Francis Ngannou — the “baddest man on the planet” — will make his debut in PFL (though we don’t know if it’ll be MMA or boxing) and maybe, just maybe, Conor McGregor will make his return to the Octagon. Fingers crossed.

Fight fans were treated to storylines galore in 2023. PFL acquired Bellator MMA. The women’s MMA GOAT — Amanda Nunes — retired, leaving two divisions behind without titleholders. Five weight classes in the UFC saw new champions holding the belts at the end of the year compared to the start of it. Surprises were never in short supply.

Those surprises included flash knockouts, stunning upsets and memorable moments inside and outside the cage. But which fighters and spectacles would be good enough to be one of our award winners for 2023? Let’s unveil this year’s winners.

ESPN’s panel of voters for our UFC midyear awards includes Air Broom, Sean Cooney, Andrew Feldman, Carlos Contreras Legaspi, Jake Lebowitz, Eddie Maisonet, Myron Medcalf, Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi, Dre Waters and Jeff Wagenheim.


Men’s fighter of the year: Islam Makhachev, UFC

Makhachev might have won his first UFC championship in 2022, but he did something better in 2023: asserted himself as the No. 1 fighter on the planet. The longtime heir to Khabib Nurmagomedov’s lightweight supremacy, Makhachev fought only twice in 2023, with both appearances coming against the same opponent: Alexander Volkanovski. Nevertheless, it was the biggest year of his career. In February, he summoned an all-time performance in a five-rounder against Volkanovski in enemy territory (Perth, Australia) before slamming the door on the Volkanovski rivalry with a knockout in October. As 2023 closes, Makhachev is the pound-for-pound king, the champion of arguably the sport’s deepest weight class and (clearly) the well-deserved Fighter of the Year. — Okamoto


Men’s non-UFC fighter of the year: Patchy Mix, Bellator

Not only did Mix win the $1 million Bellator Bantamweight World Grand Prix and the undisputed Bellator bantamweight title in 2023, he also established himself as one of the best 135-pound fighters in the world. Many in MMA think he would compete with the best bantamweights in the UFC (and 135 pounds is arguably the promotion’s best division) and potentially be the champion. That’s how good Mix is.

In April 2023, Mix knocked out Raufeon Stots in 80 seconds with a knee to win the grand prix and become interim bantamweight champion. Mix submitted champion Sergio Pettis in the second round with a rear-naked choke to unify the titles in November. That is six straight wins, all by finish, for the New York native, who trains out of Las Vegas. At only 30 years old, Mix won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. Expect to hear more about him in 2024 with PFL’s acquisition of Bellator. He should be one of the cornerstones of the revamped promotion. — Raimondi


Women’s non-UFC fighter of the year: Larissa Pacheco, PFL

It really can’t be understated how impressive Pacheco’s year was. Yes, she was a sizable favorite going into all four of her appearances this year, but the fact she even made four appearances is noteworthy in itself. She did so at 145 pounds, a division she hadn’t competed in since 2018. Four fights, four weight cuts, four wins — in less than eight months. She became PFL’s first two-division tournament champion and set the table for a potential bout against Cris Cyborg in 2024. All of this came after a 2022 campaign that saw her stun Kayla Harrison in the PFL lightweight finals. At that time, one wondered how she could top that 2022 run. Well, somehow she did in 2023. — Okamoto


Women’s UFC fighter of the year: Alexa Grasso, UFC

Few gave Grasso a chance against Valentina Shevchenko at UFC 285 in March. Shevchenko was arguably the best active women’s MMA fighter in the world, not to mention one of the greatest of all time. But Grasso didn’t just defeat Shevchenko to win the UFC women’s flyweight title. She finished her. In the fourth round, Grasso locked in a rear-naked choke to become the first Mexican-born women’s champion in UFC history. Shevchenko had not been finished in 13 years.

The rematch occurred in September, the headliner of Noche UFC in Las Vegas, the UFC’s first time celebrating Mexican Independence weekend. Grasso and Shevchenko competed in an excellent fight that ended in a split draw. It wasn’t a victory, but Grasso retained the title and once again proved she is among the best women’s fighters in the world. There will surely be a trilogy in 2024, but regardless of the result, there’s no doubt that 2023 was a proving ground for Grasso, her country and her Lobo Gym in Guadalajara. — Raimondi


Rookie of the Year: Bo Nickal

Too often, a highly touted UFC prospect has lofty expectations placed on them too early, and they fail to live up to the hype. That doesn’t appear to be the case with Bo Nickal. Since transitioning from collegiate wrestling to MMA, this three-time NCAA Division I national champion has proven he is as advertised. And, with only a handful of MMA fights under his belt, there is still plenty of room for improvement in his game.

In his five MMA fights, Nickal has finished each of his opponents in the first round. He used his world-class wrestling to get his opponents to the mat before securing the submission (three) or knockout (one) in the first four bouts. But most recently, Nickal flashed his powerful striking, recording a first-round knockout against Val Woodburn in a fight that never went to the canvas.

The UFC has been cautious with Nickal, slowly exposing him to higher levels of competition, but he has passed each test thus far with flying colors. If Nickal can continue to prove that he is as much of a problem for opponents on the feet as he is for them on the mat, 2023 will be the first of many successful years in MMA for the sport’s top prospect. — Waters


Say what you will about Strickland. Many have already said plenty. He can be wildly inappropriate in interviews, on social media and at press conferences, with most of the things uttered unsuitable for reprint. But despite all the callous, crude rhetoric, Strickland has become an excellent fighter. He’s the current UFC middleweight champion — something no one could have predicted at the beginning of 2023.

After a disastrous 2022, which featured a knockout loss to Alex Pereira and a split decision defeat against Jared Cannonier, Strickland went 3-0 in 2023. He beat Nassourdine Imavov in January, knocked out Abusupiyan Magomedov in July, and got a short-notice title shot against Israel Adesanya in September. A massive underdog, Strickland not only beat Adesanya to become champ, he rocked him early and dominated him in a unanimous decision. It was one of the most stunning title upsets in years. — Raimondi


Fight of the year: Makhachev vs. Volkanovski I, UFC 284

This five-round lightweight title fight is one of the finest examples of mixed martial arts skill we’ve ever seen. Makhachev and Volkanovski will likely go down as two of the best-ever champions of their respective divisions, and both were in their prime during this meeting in February. This matchup had everything. An undersized featherweight champ, brimming with confidence, fighting at home. A borderline arrogant lightweight master, who was ultimately forced to dig deep, and found inspired excellence. The fight was witnessed by the best crowd of the year in Perth, Australia, who went absolutely mad when Volkanovski stole momentum in the fifth round. It was exciting, close and, most notably, world, world class. — Okamoto


Knockout of the year: Adesanya KO vs. Pereira II, UFC 287

This award frequently goes to creative, unique or incredibly violent knockouts. Sometimes, it’s a head kick. Other times, a flying knee. Adesanya’s finish of Pereira in April didn’t look ingenious or flashy. It was more meat and potatoes: a perfectly timed counter right hand with Adesdanya’s back against the cage. The story around it, though, makes it the best knockout of 2023.

Pereira had beaten Adesanya twice in kickboxing. He was the only man ever to knock Adesanya out. Then, he came into MMA and did it again, stopping Adesanya with punches in November 2022 to win the UFC middleweight title. Down 0-3 overall in his series against “Poatan,” Adesanya could have shirked away from another fight. Instead, he got the immediate rematch — and put his personal boogeyman to sleep with a sensational combination. It was the kind of moment that turns someone from a star in the UFC to a legend. For Adesanya, it was a legacy-cementing, avenging victory. — Raimondi


Submission of the year: Grasso subs Shevchenko at UFC 285

The gap between Shevchenko and the rest of the flyweight division had seemingly closed in recent years — and still, Grasso’s submission at UFC 285 was both stunning and electrifying. Historically, it was massive. Grasso upset one of the greatest female fighters ever and became Mexico’s first female UFC champion. But this finish would deserve to be the submission of the year even beyond those historical implications. Grasso’s technique and preparation were beautiful, as she surprised Shevchenko with a perfect takedown as a counter to one of her patented spinning kicks. And once it was on the floor, Grasso didn’t waste her moment and secured the rear-naked without even going under Shevchenko’s chin. — Okamoto


All-purpose finish of the year: Sadibou Sy spinning back kick KO vs. Shane Mitchell

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. That had to be the mantra going through Sy’s mind in a high-stakes fight against Shane Mitchell during the 2023 PFL Regular Season. In a battle of two standup specialists, with the opportunity to clinch a PFL Playoffs spot on the line, Sy must have seen an opening to attempt a spinning back kick late in the first round, throwing the strike but coming up just short of his target as he just grazed Mitchell’s head.

Sy tried it again in the second round, baiting Mitchell into range before firing off the kick, which hit the mark this time — stunning Mitchell and following up with an extensive flurry — but Sy couldn’t put him away.

In the third round, however, Sy attempted the kick for a third and final time — this time, it was right on the money, as his heel connected cleanly to the side of Mitchell’s head for the win by KO. Before the fight, Sy, who closed as a -950 favorite, mentioned that he wanted to get a viral finish. Well, Mr. Sy, you certainly delivered. — Waters


Event of the year: UFC 290 and UFC 295, tie

It is impressive to see UFC 295 at the top of this list, as it suffered arguably the biggest hit of any UFC card all year with Jon Jones pulling out of a heavyweight title fight against Stipe Miocic. But UFC 295 nevertheless turned out to be a memorable one in New York, highlighted by Alex Pereira becoming a two-weight champion, Tom Aspinall seizing an interim heavyweight belt on short notice, and Jessica Andrade staying alive in title consideration with a knockout of Mackenzie Dern.

UFC 290 was a “sum of its parts” event, as its headliner — Alexander Volkanovski vs. Yair Rodriguez — was undeniably solid but not strong enough on its own to be considered Event of the Year. This card also saw one of the year’s best fights in its co-main flyweight championship between Alexandre Pantoja and Brandon Moreno. It also saw Dricus Du Plessis score a shockingly one-sided finish over Robert Whittaker, the continued rise of Bo Nickal, a valiant comeback by Dan Hooker and a very memorable retirement from welterweight legend Robbie Lawler. — Okamoto


Best coach: Eric Nicksick

This one is a no-brainer if you take just the back half of 2023 alone. In September, Nicksick guided Strickland on short notice to a one-sided unanimous decision win over the heavily favored Israel Adesanya. Strickland, on a two-fight losing streak coming into the year, was an afterthought among middleweight contenders at the start of 2023. Nicksick helped him find his focus, and he won two straight impressively to earn the title shot in Australia, where he dethroned the decorated champ, beating him at his own game of striking.

It wasn’t MMA, but just a few weeks later, on Oct. 28, Nicksick was in the corner of former UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou as Ngannou took lineal heavyweight boxing titleholder Tyson Fury to the very limit in the ring. Ngannou might not have won on the scorecards, but he won in the court of public opinion. Nicksick might not be a boxing coach, but he was vital in getting Ngannou into the correct frame of mind to put on such a performance. Nicksick also aided UFC fighters like Manel Kape and Brad Tavares into big wins in 2023. — Raimondi


Best non-fight moment: Korean Zombie’s last walkout at UFC Singapore

The entrance for fighters stepping into the cage can be an emotional scene for the fighter and the fans watching in the arena and worldwide. For Chan Sung Jung, aka The Korean Zombie, his fight against Max Holloway at UFC Singapore was widely believed to be his last in the promotion, and fans inside Singapore Indoor Stadium were prepared to shower him with appreciation. When his song, “Zombie” by the Cranberries, blared on the speakers, his walk began, and so did the emotional outpouring.

Korean Zombie, known for his stoic persona and willingness to exchange in dramatic slugfests during his 25-fight MMA career, urged fans to get louder as he entered the Octagon. The fans were inspired to give more, and Korean Zombie was inspired in his battle against a future hall of famer in Holloway. The two would exchange ferocious strikes for two rounds, and early in the third, Holloway ended the fight with a precisely landed right hook to Zombie’s temple. Afterward, during Holloway’s postfight Octagon interview with Michael Bisping, “Blessed” snatched the microphone and shouted directions at the fans.

“Give it up for Korean Zombie guys,” Holloway yelled. “This man is a f—ing legend. Let’s go. Louder. Louder!” The fans obliged, just as Korean Zombie had done for them with his fighting excellence. — Maisonet

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