The year 2023 was an extraordinary one for MMA. There were massive upsets, new champions crowned, and record-setting crowds.
There were positives and negatives, including the loss of Bellator after being purchased by the Professional Fighters League. However, there were highlights from both brands and the UFC.
Jon Jones finally made his heavyweight debut, young Bellator prospects showcased their skills, and Alexander Volkanovski proved to be a workhorse. In fact, Volkanovski is one-half of 2023’s Fight of the Year (versus Islam Makhachev in their first fight).
The Sporting News’ global combat team already announced the Fight and the Men’s and Women’s Fighter of the Year. There were great knockouts, submissions, and upsets that rocked the combat sports world. Who stood out the most?
The results are in…
2023 Submission of the Year
Alexa Grasso vs. Valentina Shevchenko (UFC 285)
Winning the UFC flyweight title in 2018, Valentina Shevchenko was nearly unstoppable for over four years. “Bullet” decimated all challengers, scoring vicious knockouts and punishing decision wins. It felt as though her reign was never coming to an end.
Along came Alexa Grasso.
Mexico’s Grasso was riding a four-fight win streak when she challenged Shevchenko for the flyweight belt at UFC 285. The main event was Jon Jones vs. Ciryl Gane for the UFC heavyweight title. And while Jones submitted Gane in the first round, it wasn’t the most impressive submission win of the night.
Through Shevchenko’s reign, she was the bully. However, this time out, Grasso was an aggressor. She landed jabs and right hands that stunned the champion in the first round. Grasso landed a takedown after recovering from a spinning back fist. Shevchenko recovered well in the second and landed a takedown of her own. Later on, she landed another, doing enough to secure that round.
The champion countered Grasso’s shots in the third. When she got hit with a right, Shevchenko landed another takedown. Shevchenko would continue to apply pressure as the third came to a close. Grasso tried a takedown but got brushed off by Shevchenko, who attempted to land a signature spinning kick in the fourth.
Being predictable can have its downfalls.
Grasso scouted the kick, blocked it, and when Shevchenko got turned around, latched onto her back. She forced the champion down to the floor and locked in a guillotine choke. With the guillotine in tight, Shevchenko had no choice but to tap, shocking the announcers, the fans in attendance that night, and those watching at home.
ALEXA GRASSO HAS SUBMITTED VALENTINA SHEVCHENKO!!
— UFC (@ufc) March 5, 2023
Shevchenko was as high as a +1010 favorite that night, with Grasso being the +590 underdog. A draw spoiled a rematch a few months later, but nothing could have topped Grasso’s crowning moment.
2023 Knockout of the Year
Israel Adesanya vs. Alex Pereira 2 (UFC 287)
Oftentimes, this award goes to a devastating and creative finish. However, in this case, the award goes to a rewarding finish.
By now, everyone knows the story. The UFC needed a rival for Adesanya — who had carved up much of the middleweight division — and they found a ghost from his past in Pereira. With two wins over Adesanya in kickboxing, the UFC egregiously fast-tracked Pereira into title contention. Pereira landed a title fight after just a year in the promotion and promptly knocked Adesanya out at UFC 281 to improve to 3-0 against his rival.
It appeared that Pereira had Adesanya’s number, and a rematch for the title would end up yielding the same result.
Adesanya had other plans.
With about a minute to go in the second round, “Poatan” began building momentum and backing up Adesanya with a series of leg kicks and punches. Just when it appeared that “The Last Stylebender” would buckle under the pressure, he uncorked a sizzling right hand that caught his rival flush. Another combination sent the Brazilian crashing to the canvas in a heap, and Adesanya was champion once again.
It’s not always the art of the finish. Sometimes, it’s the story behind it.
Upset of the Year
Sean Strickland vs. Israel Adesanya (UFC 293)
After the year Sean Strickland had in 2022, he had no business finding his way into a title fight with Israel Adesanya in September 2023.
Strickland bounced back after back-to-back losses to pick up two wins in 2023m but it wasn’t against the kind of opposition that would put him into the title conversation. However, the UFC was desperate to keep Adesanya in the main event at UFC 293 in Sydney, Australia.
With top contender Dricus du Plessis unable to make the date and no other contender available, Strickland stepped up and was installed as a massive 7-1 underdog.
And then the cage door shut. Strickland turned the MMA world upside down with a one-sided beating of Adesanya that would end up being one of the biggest upsets in UFC championship history.
Not only did Strickland win, he beat Adesanya at his own game with a combination of brilliant defense and sublime striking. Once Strickland rocked Adesanya with a right hand that sent him to the canvas at the end of round one, all bets were off. And when the final bell sounded, the world was treated to a new and unexpected champion.