UFC - 286 - Edwards v Usman 3Mar 24
Five UFC fighters set for stardom in 2023
We’ve picked out five fighters who could make a big splash in the world of MMA over the next 12 months as the UFC return to BT Sport.
From epic title battles to jaw-dropping knockouts and heart-wrenching defeats, we were treated to quite the year of UFC action in 2022 and we’re expecting plenty more of the same over the next 12 months.
In anticipation of the UFC’s triumphant return on Saturday 14 January, with Kelvin Gastelum and Nassourdine Imavov headling the first event of the year on live on BT Sport.
We’ve decided to pick out five names you should keep an eye on over the next 12 months as we count down to another epic year of MMA.
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Long-time viewers of BT Sport’s Fight Week show will know that our very own Nick Peet has been captain of the Shavkat Rakhmonov Express since before the Kazakh destroyer had even made his UFC debut.
Rakhmonov, 28, has since proven Peet’s prophecies of future championship contention entirely vindicated, winning all four of his UFC fights and extending his undefeated to streak to 18 wins with 18 consecutive finishes.
A former welterweight world champion under the M-1 MMA promotion, Rakhmonov has quietly begun piecing together a title campaign that has made many in the sport sit up and take notice.
Speaking to MMA journalist Mike Owens last year, welterweight contender Vicente Luque opened up on his experience training alongside Rakhmonov as his team-mate at Henri Hooft’s Kill Cliff FC gym.
He definitely is a beast
- Vicente Luque
“He’s really good. I’ve trained with him. I’ve mostly grappled with him, but I’ve seen him sparring a lot,” Luque said.
“I sparred him a few rounds, but we were always in different moments. Like, I was not in training camp and he was right at the last weeks of training camp so he wasn’t going with everybody. Mostly with guys that had the style of his opponent, but I got to grapple with him and he’s a beast in grappling and he’s super technical striking. I’ve watched him on the pads with Henry Hooft and yeah, he definitely is a beast, you know.”
Rakhmonov’s lack of English has undoubtedly impeded his path to wider notoriety thus far, which is why one or two envious glances may have been shot towards Khamzat Chimaev’s direction in recent months.
The duo are precociously talented with a similar skillset and have dominated almost everyone they've shared the Octagon with to date, but Chimaev is the one currently being pushed along the UFC’s superstar pipeline.
A mouth-watering showdown between the two at some point in the future would be the MMA purists’ dream – but the chances of seeing that fight happen will improve as and when Rakhmonov’s star continues to rise in the sport.
He has his first appearance of 2023 already booked too. Having been set to face Geoff Neal on the first card of the year at UFC Fight Night: Gastelum vs Imavov, Rakhmonov will now return to action at UFC 285 in March after injury forced Neal to postpone the bout.
Erin Blanchfield will already be on the radar of fight fans on this side of the pond after emphatically halting Molly McCann’s winning momentum with a first-round submission victory at UFC 281.
The 23-year-old flyweight was already hovering at 12th in the rankings before coming up against McCann back in November, but was enjoying nowhere near the same amount of fanfare as her Scouse opponent.
However, the manner in which Blanchfield dominated and dismantled the number-15 ranked McCann alerted many to this young starlet’s growing potential as a champion in waiting.
Now benefitting from the rub of McCann’s stardust, Blanchfield looks to be someone the UFC are keen to push in the months ahead to capitalise on that momentum.
I know I can beat anybody in the world
- Erin Blanchfield
She will return to action on February 18 in a potentially pivotal clash against former title challenger Taila Santos, one that may well serve as a number one contender fight in the 125lb division.
Speaking to Morning Kombat after announcing the Santos bout, Blanchfield said: “As long as I have notice, I like to have a full camp so I can be prepared for anybody. As long as I have that, I know I can beat anybody in the world, so I’m hyped for it.
“She’s a little bit taller than me, I’m like 5’4, she’s like 5’6. She’s a striker but she has some good wrestling, she likes her takedowns off the cage. Her jiu-jitsu is decent. She’s well-rounded, but I don’t think she’s necessarily dangerous.”
Can she pick up where she left off and clear a path to the 125lb title?
Jack Della Maddalena
Crowned many observers’ breakout fighter of 2022, the next 12 months could see Jack Della Maddalena catapulted to the fringes of world title glory if he can keep winning in such stylish fashion.
The Aussie striker fought three times last year, producing three first-round stoppages including a bonus-winning victory against Liverpool’s Danny Roberts in November.
Still only 26-years-old, Della Maddalena looks to be a fearsome prospect in a welterweight division fast becoming one of the most entertaining and competitive in the UFC.
However, the Perth fighter’s meteoric rise over the past year has come at a cost too, as he revealed finding an opponent has begun to be a struggle on his quest to crack the top 15 early in 2023.
I look at the top 15 and definitely think I belong in there
- Jack Della Maddalena
“I was just waiting, everyone was saying no,” Della Maddalena told Daily Mail Australia last month.
“Other fighters know I'm dangerous and aggressive and they will know they have been in a fight, so they don't want to fight. There's not a lot in it for them.
“I look at the top 15 and definitely think I belong in there. I think I can give all of them a fight. I feel like I can beat a lot of them – if not all of them.
“I just need the opportunity.”
Thankfully the in-form Randy Brown stepped up to the plate and answered the call, signing on the dotted line to face Della Maddalena behind enemy lines when the UFC returns to Perth, Australia, for only the second time in history at UFC 284 in February.
Brown is riding a four-fight win streak and will be looking to steal the shine from one of the sport’s hottest prospects – but if the hometown hero gets the job done in destructive style once again, don’t be surprised to see the full weight of the UFC’s promotional machine thrown behind Della Maddalena throughout 2023.
The middleweight division could be set for a major shake-up next year when Bo Nickal finally makes his long-awaited full promotional debut.
Nickal had been set to fight at UFC 282 in December only to suffer an undisclosed injury that forced his withdrawal.
UFC 285 in March has reportedly been pencilled for Nickal to make his first Octagon walk although it is yet to be confirmed whether Jamie Pickett, who he had been set to face at UFC 282, will remain his opponent.
A dominant freestyle collegiate wrestler with impressive power, Nickal has all the tools to be a nightmare for anyone in the division – and potentially could compete among the 185lb elite right now.
However, the UFC have been patient with Nickal to date, preferring he feature twice on Dana White’s Contender Series before being signed to a full promotional contract after his third professional contest.
By the middle of 2024, I'll be fighting for the belt
- Bo Nickal
Nickal is not short on confidence about his ability to go far in the organisation either; when being asked to map out his ideal year recently, he replied: “Probably four fights.
“[Then] I think I’m in the top 10 and by the middle of 2024, fighting for the belt.”
And while Nickal knows his wrestling pedigree already puts him at the top of the tree in that discipline, he remains committed to developing every facet of his fighting ability to become a true mixed martial artist.
“I’m always gonna have a better wrestling base than anybody I fight,” he added.
“But that’s not gonna be enough to be a UFC champ and the number one pound-for-pound fighter in the world, which is my goal, so I gotta continue to sharpen my wrestling and sharpen all my other skills that I need to get there, and I’m extremely confident that I will when the time is right.”
A slightly left-field addition to this list but one certainly worth keeping an eye on in 2023 is Germany’s Abus Magomedov.
The towering Dagestani-born fighter breaks the mould set by many who hail from Russia’s legendary breeding ground for combat sport athletes, preferring to stand and strike with his opponents rather than grapple.
That isn’t to say Magomedov isn’t capable on the mat - he very much is – but as his electric promotional debut at UFC Paris showed, the 32-year-old is a powerhouse on the feet.
It took him just 19 seconds to claim victory on an incredible night in the French capital, as he pulverised Dustin Stoltzfus with a wicked front kick to the face before finishing with a flurry of punches that will have alerted the rest of the 185lb division of his arrival.
Magomedov has only lost once in the last seven years – that coming in the PFL Middleweight final back in 2018 – and is now in his physical prime.
He fights next against tough veteran Gerald Meerschaert in mid-February in what will be an interesting barometer of his ability.
Should be make light work of the 50-fight veteran at the UFC APEX, we could have a serious contender on our hands in the latter half of 2023.