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UFC Best of 2023 awards, including Conor McGregor getting ‘most disappointing fighter’ honors

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Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

With a wild 2023 schedule for the UFC in the books, we look back at some of the biggest moments from the year with our inaugural UFC awards.

This was another big year for the MMA world leader. Khabib Nurmagomedov’s pupil and pal Islam Makhachev solidified his place as not only the best lightweight on the planet but one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the sport. Valentina Shevchenko’s legendary reign of dominance at flyweight ended, and Israel Adesanya was on the wrong side of one of the biggest upsets in years.

Related: UFC tonight – Get the fight cards, odds and watch times for the UFC’s next event

Furthermore, promotion GOAT Jon Jones made his long-awaited return to the sport. Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje brought back the fan-favorite BMF title. Leon Edwards quieted all the doubters with another win over division great Kamaru Usman, and Sean O’Malley stamped his place as a new superstar in the UFC.

It was another productive year for the company as they stacked up boatloads of cash and set new records. With the year coming to a close, let’s hand out some awards to the truly special, and not-so-special UFC stars of 2023.

Knockout of the Year

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Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
  • Josh Emmet vs Bryce Mitchell
  • Israel Adesanya vs Alex Periera
  • Justin Gaethje vs Dustin Poirier
  • Sean O’Malley vs Aljamain Sterling
  • Ismael Bonfim vs Terrence McKinney

Like every other year, there were some spectacular knockouts. Gaethje stunned the MMA world by scoring a KO finish over the always-durable Poirier and O’Malley put the world on notice when he knocked out bantamweight king Aljamain Sterling.

However, no knockout was quite as emphatic and terrifying as the one-and-done shot Josh Emmett laid on Bryce Mitchell at UFC 296. Often it takes a strike to put a foe down and a couple of follow-up shots to finish them off. No, Emmett connected on a hook that put the Arkansas native to sleep immediately and had folks ringside worried about his health. Luckily Mitchell was fine when he eventually woke up.

Fight of the Year

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Credit: Jasmin Frank-USA TODAY Sports
  • Islam Makhachev vs Alexander Volkanovski I
  • Justin Gaethje vs Rafael Fiziev
  • Alexandre Pantoja vs Brandon Moreno II
  • Irene Aldana vs Karol Rosa
  • CJ Vergara vs Daniel Lacerda

There were quite a few fun and highly competitive UFC bouts in 2023, however, Islam Makhachev’s first fight with Alexander Volkanovski was a classic. It wasn’t a brutal war that took years off the competitors’ lives, instead, it was a showcase of elite-level skill.

The scrap was tactical human warfare at the highest level between, arguably, the two best fighters on the planet. Both men proved a lot in the fight, but the Russian showed he is far more than a grappling savant and is a complete mixed martial artist in successfully defending his title.

Biggest Story of the Year

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Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
  • WWE/UFC merger
  • Conor McGregor not making his return
  • Adesanya’s shocking loss to Sean Strickland
  • Nate Diaz leaving UFC
  • Sean O’Malley’s superstar turn

This year kicked off with huge news. After a year and a half away from the cage, MMA global superstar Conor McGregor was expected to make his return to the Octagon following a stint as a coach on the latest season of “The Ultimate Fighter.” Well, the show came and went, and a date and location were never set for the fight.

It was a story that created headlines throughout the year as the Irishman kept making it seem like news on a date was imminent but instead, he continued to avoid getting back into the USADA testing pool. It was a massive story that somehow stretched out for the entire year and still hasn’t been resolved.

Breakout Fighter of the Year

Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
  • Tom Aspinall
  • Ian Garry
  • Jack Della Maddalena
  • Erin Blanchfield
  • Dricus Du Plessis

Every fighter nominated for UFC Breakout Fighter of the Year has a legitimate case to get the honor. Tom Aspinall became the interim heavyweight champ. Ian Garry and Jack Della Maddalena had active and impressive years, while Erin Blanchfield stamped her place as an elite talent at women’s flyweight. However, Dricis Du Plessis elevated himself to being on the verge of superstardom.

He was able to finish top 10 stalwart Derek Brunson, and then do the same to one of the greatest middleweights of all time, Robert Whittaker, four months later. It set up a title fight for him early in 2024 because of the caliber of opponents he definitively defeated. Finishing a pair of top 10 fighters — one being a former champion — is deserving of an award in 2023.

Most Disappointing Fighter of the Year

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  • Petr Yan
  • Stipe Miocic
  • Conor McGregor
  • Julianna Pena
  • Paulo Costa

While several elite fighters disappointed their legion of fans in various ways in 2023, no one has a bigger fanbase that was let down than Conor McGregor. He lands a second award in 2023 for giving the sport reason to believe its biggest money maker would be back this year and deciding he was above being drug tested like others. Forcing a planned bout with Michael Chandler into 2024.

Throughout the year he talked the talk of a man dying to get back into the Octagon and never walked the walk. And that is why he is the most disappointing UFC fighter in 2023.

UFC Fighter of the Year

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Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
  • Sean Strickland
  • Tom Aspinall
  • Leon Edwards
  • Alex Pereira
  • Alexa Grasso
  • Alexandre Pantoja

A solid case could be made for every athlete nominated for our 2023 UFC Fighter of the Year. Sean Strickland shocked the world with a dominant win over Israel Adesanya. Aspinall won gold. Alex Pereira made history by winning a second-division title in record time. Alexa Grasso ended Schevchenko’s years-long reign of terror, and Alexandre Pantoja showed the world he was elite.

However, this year Leon Edwards had a pair of victories that pushed him towards the top of the list for the greatest welterweight of all time. In 2023 he extended his unbeaten streak to 13, quieted all the doubters about his first victory over Kamaru Usman, then followed that up with another definitive victory over the second-best 170-pounder of the last decade. That is a special year.

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