The next few months will be a fun stretch for fight fans. The UFC has a pay-per-view in Anaheim (UFC 298 on ESPN+) this month and Fight Night cards in Las Vegas and Mexico City. Plus, the clash of PFL and Bellator champions is set to go down in Saudi Arabia on Feb. 24. Bellator, One Championship and UFC all have pay-per-view cards with titles up for grabs in March, and the UFC’s milestone 300th pay-per-view — with a loaded card — will take center stage in April.
But questions abound with such a stacked schedule. Which champions are most at risk of dropping their belt? What fights in the next few months offer the most intrigue? What does Kayla Harrison’s transition from PFL to UFC mean going forward?
We tapped Jeff Wagenheim, Marc Raimondi and Brett Okamoto to provide insight and analysis on these questions and more, along with a bold prediction on what’s to come in the world of MMA.
Which current UFC champion (with a booked title fight) is most likely to lose next?
Jeff Wagenheim: Sean O’Malley. I’m not expecting him to lose to Marlon Vera, honestly, because “Suga Sean” will be dialed in when he faces the only man who owns a victory over him. But I will point toward O’Malley here because, looking at the three title fights on the UFC books, I would be shocked to see either Alexander Volkanovski or Zhang Weili dethroned. “Alexander the Great” is 35 years old and coming off a knockout loss, and his challenger, Ilia Topuria, is undefeated. But Volkanovski is just too damn good, with more than twice as many title defenses as any other UFC champ. As for Zhang, she’s No. 1 pound-for-pound, and it’s not even close. And let me add that while I’m all for the BMF belt as a sideshow trinket, I’m not taking it seriously as a championship, so I’m setting that fight aside for this discussion. So that leaves O’Malley as the least invulnerable champion.
Marc Raimondi: Alexander Volkanovski. No fighter in the history of the UFC at lightweight or under has won a title fight after they turned 35 years old. Volkanovski is 35 now. I don’t think MMA is necessarily a statistics kind of sport. But this is more than a small sample size. It’s a legitimate trend and the best indication yet of when fighters’ primes are. Volkanovski isn’t just battling Ilia Topuria at UFC 298; he’s battling Father Time. And time is undefeated. That’s not to say he’s going to lose — Volkanovski is an all-time great. But this particular stat is illuminating.
Brett Okamoto: Volkanovski. One year ago, he almost beat Islam Makhachev. And now he seems most likely to lose his belt? Topuria is very good, and Volkanovski, even though I believe he’s done everything right, is still coming off the first knockout loss of his UFC career. Oddsmakers have listed Volkanovski as the smallest betting favorite he’s ever been during his championship reign.
Which PFL vs. Bellator champs fight intrigues you most?
Okamoto: I’ll go with the middleweight fight between Impa Kasanganay and Johnny Eblen. Eblen, the Bellator champion, looks as good as any middleweight on the planet. The former collegiate wrestler could hold his own against any top middleweight in the UFC. Kasanganay, the 2023 PFL light heavyweight champ, had a brief run in the UFC three years ago and couldn’t stick around after going 2-2. He found his groove in last year’s PFL season format, and, judging by the eye test, he’s improved dramatically in recent years. I’m interested in seeing how Kasanganay does against a top-tier opponent in his natural weight class. And if Eblen wins, it will be a quality win.
Wagenheim: I’m going to think outside the box and note how much more intrigued I am by an ex-champ-vs.-ex-champ clash that night between Bruno Cappelozza and Vadim Nemkov. The latter recently vacated the Bellator light heavyweight title to lug his 12-fight unbeaten streak up to heavyweight. He won’t exactly be easing into his new weight class. Cappelozza was the 2021 PFL heavyweight champion, and while his two seasons since then were scuttled by injury (2022) and a failed PED test (2023), he’s had a string of knockouts and just one loss in his last seven bouts. Though he’s not a big heavyweight — making him much like Nemkov’s mentor, Fedor Emelianenko — Cappelozza represents a substantial entrance exam to the division for Nemkov.
Raimondi: AJ McKee vs. Clay Collard has a chance to be the best scrap on the card. Collard is instant action and an exciting boxer on the feet, with a legit skill in pugilism. McKee has some of the most incredible submission victories of the last few years. Both men will try to impose their will — Collard on the feet and McKee on the ground — in what should be a fascinating stylistic matchup. McKee’s standup shouldn’t be slept on, either, because he can put opponents to sleep. And Collard has been wrestling since before he even started boxing.
Fill in the blank: Kayla Harrison’s arrival into the UFC is ______________.
Raimondi: A necessary shot in the arm for the women’s bantamweight division. Raquel Pennington winning the title at UFC 297 last month was a nice moment for longtime fans of the sport, who watched her start out green on “The Ultimate Fighter” more than a decade ago and keep trucking along through ups and downs, including severe injuries. But her fight against Mayra Bueno Silva was not a good one, and the division has a sizable hole with the retirement of Amanda Nunes, the longtime former champ and best women’s fighter ever. Harrison, who is incredibly skilled and has star potential, should give that weight class the fresh face it needs.
Wagenheim: Puzzling. For as long as she has been in MMA, Harrison has been chasing a fight with Cris Cyborg. And when it continually did not happen, Kayla became sharp in her criticism of the Bellator champ, calling her a “bad b—-” among other things. Then, when the PFL’s purchase of Bellator finally put the Cyborg fight within reach, Harrison promptly left for the UFC. Cyborg aside, Kayla also left behind Larissa Pacheco, the only woman to defeat her. Now, I have no problem with Harrison or any prizefighter chasing the biggest payday and opportunity. But while I have no idea how the PFL and UFC monetary offers stacked up, I am left wondering how Harrison could envision her best chance to be at bantamweight, a division 20 pounds under the weight she’s been competing in. If it’s just business, it’s risky business.
Okamoto: Exactly what needed to happen. Look, breakups don’t have to be messy. The PFL had a face of the promotion in Kayla Harrison, and benefitted from her carrying its torch for five years. And Harrison benefitted from the opportunities PFL gave her.
The PFL essentially created a 155-pound weight class that did not exist (and had) for her to compete in. And the promotion paid her extremely well for her appearances. The end of the relationship got a bit dicey, but much of that simply had to do with the lack of options left for Harrison in the PFL. Larissa Pacheco? Yeah, they could have run that for the fourth time, but it felt unnecessary. And Cris Cyborg coming over from Bellator? Even with the two women under the same umbrella, I wondered whether the fight would actually happen. Harrison has a new story going into 2023, and PFL is losing an asset, but one it had exhausted all options with.
Who would you like to see in the main event of UFC 300?
Okamoto: In a perfect world, Jon Jones vs. Tom Aspinall. Realistically? Dricus du Plessis vs. Israel Adesanya is the best option.
Raimondi: Something involving Israel Adesanya. Provided he’s healthy, mentally and physically, and ready to go.
Wagenheim: Islam Makhachev. He wants to do what champions before him have done and challenge the titleholder in the weight class above his, in this case welterweight champ Leon Edwards. But Makhachev says the UFC has declined to make that fight for 300. So who do I want to see fight under the UFC 300 spotlight? I want the No. 1 fighter in the world. Figure out how to get your best fighter on your biggest stage, UFC.
One bold prediction looking ahead into 2024?
Wagenheim: UFC 300 is the milestone event drawing all the attention, but it will not outshine UFC 299. While 300 doesn’t even have a main event booked yet, 299 will be headlined by Sean O’Malley, who is on a trajectory to becoming the company’s biggest star since Conor McGregor. The co-main is a five-rounder featuring Dustin Poirier. Enough said. Unless 300 can put together Jon Jones vs. Tom Aspinall, it won’t have a heavyweight fight on the level of 299’s Curtis Blaydes vs. Jailton Almeida. Michael “Venom” Page will make his anticipated UFC debut, and won’t even be the night’s flashiest striker, not with Michel Pereira also on the bill. And both Petr Yan vs. Song Yadong and Katlyn Chookagian vs. Maycee Barber look like crossroads fights between rising and falling contenders at men’s bantamweight and women’s flyweight, respectively. The UFC will put its best foot forward on March 9 in Miami, and it will be a hard act to follow.
Okamoto: This was my bold prediction for 2023, so I’m repeating myself a bit, but I’m ready to double down on it. Sean O’Malley vs. Marlon “Chito” Vera 2 for the bantamweight championship at UFC 299 will be the 2023 fight of the year. It’s already set up perfectly in terms of a story arc, given what happened the first time they fought, and that story is only going to get better as the fight gets closer and they start doing media. Miami is the perfect host for this fight. And the fight should be competitive. We’ll see momentum swings, drama, fireworks and maybe some in-fight mental games and taunting. It’s hard to predict something like fight of the year, but I’m putting my money on this main event.
Raimondi: Dana White and Co. will have something else up their sleeve for UFC 300, perhaps even a new signing. In other words, another fairly significant fight will get added to the UFC 300 lineup that is not the main event.