Chaos agents: The UFC fighters who could shake up 2023

8:21 AM ET

So much goes into a “breakout season” in mixed martial arts.

One could argue, more so than in any other sport. A breakout season in MMA requires skill and preparation, but it also involves timing, health, luck and maybe a viral moment here and there. If you want to break out in any other sport, you can do so strictly based on performance. In MMA, you can have your most successful year and not show up on any breakout lists depending on other factors.

Ahead of 2023, ESPN identified one athlete in each of UFC’s 12 weight classes as a potential breakout candidate. An agent of chaos. A person of intrigue who could have the right combination of ability and opportunity to shake up a division and catapult their career. These are people the sport might find itself talking about all year long.

We will go in order of our 2022 ESPN UFC weight class power rankings in listing out the breakout fighters.

Who? If it takes you a moment to recognize the name, that’s because Dariush has perfected the art of flying under the radar. He doesn’t run his mouth to get attention and is not flashy when fighting. But one thing he does is win — as in, eight in a row. The last two of those victories came against perennial contender Tony Ferguson and, last October, rising prospect Mateusz Gamrot.

That latter win happened at a UFC event headlined by a fight for the then-vacant lightweight title featuring Islam Makhachev, who at the time was lower than Dariush in many legit rankings. Makhachev proved his worth that night, no question, and will defend his new belt next month in a superfight with featherweight champ Alexander Volkanovski. But next should be Dariush, if only the radar picks up on his presence. — Wagenheim

He’s not the 135-pounder drawing the most attention. That would be Sean O’Malley, an attention-getter ever since he was on Dana White’s Contender Series over five years ago. What’s different nowadays is that all eyes are on “Suga Sean,” not just because of a big mouth and rainbow hair. O’Malley had a fight in October that elevated him alongside the bantamweight elite. Even those who didn’t score the Petr Yan bout for O’Malley cannot deny that he showed the grit of a title contender.

So why am I pointing to Dvalishvili as this division’s disruptor here? Because the rise of O’Malley might open up an opportunity for the man known as “The Machine.” Despite being on an eight-fight winning streak, Dvalishvili has said he will not challenge the champ, his best friend and training partner, Aljamain Sterling. The title shot could go to O’Malley, and if he were to dethrone Sterling, Dvalishvili would be a logical first challenger. Likewise, if the UFC opts to have O’Malley first prove himself against one more top contender, Dvalishvili would be a legit test. His relentless wrestling could be a nightmare for “Suga Sean.” — Wagenheim

Easily. Until proven otherwise, I think Chimaev is the most interesting, disruptive force in any division he competes in. This sounds like hyperbole, but I mean it as a fact: We have never seen anything like Chimaev in the sport’s history. Yes, we’ve seen meteoric rises in popularity and dominant performances that came ahead of schedule, but it’s different with Chimaev. Or at least, it feels different. Maybe the best of the best at welterweight and middleweight will be enough to slow Chimaev’s hype, but right now, it feels like he is a completely unstoppable force. And his personality draws him even more attention when combined with his fighting style. Until someone stops Chimaev, he is a runaway freight train. — Okamoto

There are some other ‘sleeper’ names we could go with here that would feel more interesting than Andrade, but if we’re looking for an agent of chaos in this division, it is her. She often gets overlooked because she’s lost to the best of the best (Zhang Weili, Rose Namajunas, Valentina Shevchenko) and she’s bounced around divisions. Still, Andrade is only 31 and she’s on a very short list of women who are capable of winning a title in multiple weight classes. And if she were to upset Zhang at any point in 2023, it would instantly create a new wave of potential matchups for the title and title eliminators. In this piece, we’re looking for athletes who can potentially shake up a division, and Andrade represents that more than anyone at 115 pounds. — Okamoto

Here’s the thing: Rodriguez can simply do things that most other fighters can not do. This guy has created multiple knockouts throughout his career that were in the running for Knockout of the Year. There’s an argument that his finish against Chan Sung Jung in 2018 is the greatest knockout of all time. Rodriguez was considered a budding phenom in 2017, when he suffered a major setback against Frankie Edgar. He’s been inactive recently, and much of his early potential has been somewhat forgotten. But if Rodriguez clicks, he could have a monster 2023. Josh Emmett for an interim title in Australia. Then Alexander Volkanovski for an undisputed title. Rodriguez is very far away from stardom at the moment, but the table is set. And when you add in his flair for jaw-dropping finishes — do not sleep on Rodriguez as a 2023 breakout candidate. — Okamoto

Middleweight: Khamzat Chimaev

Yes, I’m aware that he’s also listed as “The Man” at welterweight, where he has seen the most action during his time in the UFC. But 185 pounds seems just as likely to be his future home, and that future might very well be upon us. I considered naming Robert Whittaker here instead, because he has renewed relevancy in the title picture now that the man who beat him twice, Israel Adesanya, no longer sits at the top of the mountain. And this could indeed be Whittaker’s year.

But Chimaev is more likely to live in the spotlight, especially with him at a point of reckoning. After piling up video game stats while smashing his first several opponents, he got his first top-five matchup last April and had a tough time with Gilbert Burns — but won. Next, the UFC tried to use him to rudely kick Nate Diaz out the door, but Chimaev missed weight and, after a last-minute matchmaking shuffle, ended up making quick work of Kevin Holland. Since then, Chimaev has said no one wants to fight him. But someone will come in 2023, and if it’s in this division, it will be his biggest test. — Wagenheim

He has yet to compete even once in the big-boy weight class, but it feels like Jones has been a factor there for years. He dominated light heavyweights for (most of) nine years after winning the title in 2011, and during much of that time, he was talking of moving up. He finally vacated the 205-pound title in August 2020 with the intention of relocating to heavyweight, but that journey was derailed by prolonged bickering with UFC president Dana White. Jones wanted his debut to be a superfight with reigning champ Francis Ngannou, and Ngannou wanted it, too. One other thing they both wanted: to get paid.

Since then, Jones and Ngannou have been embroiled in a contentious relationship with the UFC. But now we keep hearing that Ngannou vs. Jones is a fight the UFC is targeting. This is one of the few still-in-the-works fights for which I’ll hold my breath, so I can deeply, contentedly exhale if (when?) it’s booked. Jones’ return, if it happens, will be the biggest moment in MMA this year. And when Ngannou swings one of those sledgehammers his way, we’ll all gasp. — Wagenheim

There are a lot of intriguing names moving up the flyweight ranks. Matheus Nicolau is entering his prime with a lot of confidence. Amir Albazi is a problem at 125. Muhammed Mokaev has the most hype of any of them, at age 22. Ultimately, I believe Kape has the best chance to wreak havoc on the division this year — even though he has a split decision loss to Nicolau from 2021. Kape’s style just jumps off the screen, and if and when he’s granted a high-profile spot, he’ll have the personality to capitalize. Plus, he’s outstanding. If he were to fight Deiveison Figueiredo or Brandon Moreno tomorrow, he’d be good enough to compete with either one. Don’t be surprised if Kape is holding a belt at the end of 2023. — Okamoto

Nearly three years since Jones’ last appearance at light heavyweight, this division is still finding its identity. Jan Blachowicz had a nice run at the top, but it was short-lived. As amazing of a story as Glover Teixeira has been, winning his first UFC championship over the age of 40, his days are numbered. Jiří Procházka had a real chance to make this division his own, but now we don’t know when we’ll see him again due to an unfortunate shoulder injury. This division currently has no champion. That’s all you need to know about its identity. What that means, though, is that this is a division of opportunity, because it needs an anchor. Thus far in his career, Hill has been good at taking advantage of opportunities. It’s all right there for him in 2023. He is set up to make this division his, if he can consistently perform at the highest level. — Okamoto

Aldana is entering her seventh year in the UFC. She signed with the promotion as a former Invicta FC title challenger under lofty expectations. She’s a full-size, athletic bantamweight with knockout ability. The fact she’s from Mexico is a built-in marketing advantage. If she were to become champion, she is a name and a face the UFC wouldn’t mind getting behind to try and strengthen that Mexican fanbase. The problem is that she has yet to quite put it all together. Seven years in and she’s never fought for a UFC title. 2023 may be the year. This division has belonged to Nunes for years, but if Aldana can make some noise in 2023, it could end up being very loud. — Okamoto

It may seem premature to spotlight a fighter not in the ESPN divisional rankings, but how we view this 23-year-old could change quickly. Next month she faces Taila Santos, who is No. 2 in the UFC’s official 125-pound hierarchy. That bout represents a big step up for Blanchfield, but there doesn’t seem to be an ounce of “too much, too soon” in this confident young woman.

In November, Blanchfield walked out to the cage at Madison Square Garden, just two blocks from the New York gym where she trains. And yet this hometown fighter was being loudly booed, because her opponent, Molly McCann, is a fan favorite. The rude greeting did not sidetrack Blanchfield for a second. She quickly took down “Meatball Molly” and, after trapping her in a mounted crucifix, beat on her purposefully and tirelessly as the crowd went silent. Blanchfield’s nickname, by the way? “Cold Blooded.” — Wagenheim

Women’s featherweight: Nobody

Maybe it’s Norma Dumont or Stephanie Egger. Perhaps it could be Zarah Fairn or Leah Letson. Or Josiane Nunes or Ailin Perez or Danyell Wolf. According to the promotion’s website, those are the only names on the UFC roster for women’s featherweight. The champ, Amanda Nunes, is listed at bantamweight, where she also reigns. But even if you count eight 145-pounders, that still adds to a barren cupboard. Each of the other three women’s divisions has a roster of at least 34 fighters, and four men’s weight classes come in north of 85. By comparison, women’s featherweight is invisible.

Nunes should be listed in a different place from the other seven featherweights — she is in a different place in her career, too. Some of the others might refine their games over time to advance within shouting distance of Nunes, in terms of championship skills and grit. But today, nobody in this group is in the same universe as “The Lioness.” So, who can shake things up this year? It will have to be a UFC matchmaker creative enough to find a pairing whose collision course leads somewhere. — Wagenheim

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