Using a two-step voting process, ESPN's MMA contributors set out to project which 30 fighters will perform the best in 2023. The final list features fighters from multiple promotions -- veterans and rising stars, champions and contenders -- ranked by their potential for success over the next 12 months.
A pair of interesting fighters landed in the first 10 names revealed -- former UFC champions Charles Oliveira and Glover Teixeira. From 20 to 11, you'll find four more champions mixed in with a handful of former titleholders and rising contenders. Megan Anderson, Brett Okamoto, Jeff Wagenheim and Phil Murphy break down how 2023 could play out for each of them.
2023 outlook: Other than two championship losses to Israel Adesanya and a second win over Yoel Romero, Whittaker has picked apart every opponent since moving up to middleweight in 2014. In a vacuum, Adesanya dropping the belt complicated Whittaker's path to a title shot. At the moment, we can safely assume an immediate rematch between Izzy and Alex Pereira is the next step. In truth, 2023 was likely another year of "The Reaper" buzzing around the top five to cement himself as the second-best middleweight on the planet, building an airtight case to demand a third crack at Adesanya. Paulo Costa at UFC 284 in Perth was up first until a contract dispute from Costa caused that booking to fizzle out. But there remains a real possibility that if Pereira can contain lightning in a bottle and beat Adesanya yet again, or if Adesanya needs to withdraw, Whittaker could challenge Pereira for the belt this year -- and maybe even be a betting favorite. -- Murphy
2023 outlook: We can set aside any "best trilogies" debate after Figueiredo defends his belt against Brandon Moreno later this month, when it becomes an unprecedented title-fight tetralogy. So much of Figueiredo's 2023 outlook hinges on this result. With hometown support in Rio, a win allows him to get back to building a legacy against other elite flyweights. A loss will prove more costly than a win does beneficial, as it would send Figueiredo into a historically deep pool of flyweight contenders. "Deus da Guerra" would then need to win with assertiveness to demand another crack at the belt, especially if Moreno starts a title reign. Whether as reigning champion or fallen king, it will be refreshing in 2023 to see Figueiredo stand across from someone other than "The Assassin Baby." But first, there's important business to settle at UFC 283. -- Murphy
2023 outlook: It's an overdue homecoming for "Triple C." With results flowing in his favor and all the momentum for which a 33-year-old fighter could hope, Cejudo abruptly retired as champion in 2020. To say "he stepped away from the sport" isn't altogether true; social media posts and videos follow champions and contenders like shadows. It now appears Cejudo might return and challenge Aljamain Sterling for the bantamweight belt in a zero-to-60 return fight at some point in 2023. Cejudo's comeback makes the 135-pound division somehow even deeper, and if Cejudo were to become champion again -- at 36, as of February, after nearly three years without a fight -- it might rival every other athletic accomplishment of his other than the gold medal he won at the Beijing Olympics. -- Murphy
2023 outlook: Currently riding a four-fight win streak, there's a lot on the line for Vera in 2023. He is set to take on Cory Sandhagen in the main event of the Feb. 18 UFC Fight Night. If he wins, I expect him to fight for the bantamweight title next. Vera really elevated his game while stacking up wins against quality fighters last year. A win over Sandhagen could be enough to propel him into a title shot afterward. Vera matches up well against those at the top of the bantamweight division, including O'Malley, Cejudo (if he comes back) or the champion, Aljamain Sterling. He has length, controls range well and is hard to get to the mat. -- Anderson
On November 20, 1999, Márquez faced Remigio Molina and defeated him in eight rounds. In 2000, he defeated former champion Daniel Jimenez and five fights later, he defeated future champion Robbie Peden in ten rounds and captured the NABF & USBA Featherweight titles.
Márquez moved up to the welterweight division and fought undefeated pound for pound champion Floyd Mayweather Jr. The fight was scheduled to take place at 144-pound catch weight on July 18, 2009, at the MGM Grand Garden Arena; but was postponed due to a rib injury sustained by Mayweather. The bout was rescheduled and held on September 19, 2009. During the official weigh in, Márquez weighed in at 142 lbs and Mayweather weighed in at 146 lbs, thereby incurring a financial penalty as he was 2 pounds over the catchweight. It was later discovered that both parties had agreed just before the weigh-in to allow Mayweather fight over the catchweight with Mayweather paying additional $600,000 due to arriving two pounds over the 144 lbs weight limit. Mayweather controlled the action in the fight. Márquez struggled to conquer Mayweather's defense and could not get out of the way of his counter punches. Márquez landed only 19% of his punches according to Compubox punch stats. Mayweather knocked Márquez down in the 2nd round. Mayweather won the fight by unanimous decision.
Márquez is the oldest world champion in the history of the lightweight division. On January 4, the WBA no longer recognized Márquez as their Super Champion due to going 18 months without fighting a mandatory challenger as required by the organization's rules. Fernando Beltrán of Zanfer Promotions stated that the WBA's decision had no validity and that he would immediately send them a letter, since the deadline of May 2012 for the mandatory defense had not expired, and Márquez paid sanctioning fees to the WBA even for the last few non-lightweight fights. On January 26, Márquez was stripped of his WBO title, as he was considered to be moving up to the welterweight division. The WBO promoted Interim titleholder Ricky Burns to full champion status. The Ring magazine stripped of him of their championship on April 17.
There were negotiations from January 2016 for a fight between Márquez and former four-weight division champion Miguel Cotto. The main issue between both camps being the weight with Márquez looking to fight at no more than 147lbs and Cotto looking to fight at 155lb catchweight. Miguel Cotto Promotions told ESPN.com that negotiations had broken down on August 2 as both camps could not settle on what weight the fight would be. After nearly three years out, Márquez announced he would be entering camp in January 2017. Márquez revealed he would have a named opponent and date for his next fight by the end of April 2017. Márquez had been training at the Omanza gym. According to trainer Ignacio Beristáin, Márquez was looking to return in Toluca, Mexico on June 24, 2017. It was then pushed back to August 19. Due to venues not being available for that date, Zanfer Promotions said a date in September or October would be more suitable with the venue being in Monterrey.
Sterling, who was scheduled to welcome Edgar to the bantamweight division before being forced out due to injury, is enjoying his best career run. He has won his past four fights, including victories over Jimmie Rivera and Pedro Munhoz. He thinks an established bantamweight like himself should be getting the next crack at the title.
6. Roberto Duran W10 Carlos Palomino, June 22, 1979: A Mexican based out of Los Angeles, Palomino had claimed the WBC welterweight title from John Stracey in London, then made seven defenses before running into defensive genius Wilfred Benitez in 1979. Duran had just officially exited the lightweight division, citing difficulty making 135 pounds, and ex-champion Palomino was to be his first serious challenge at welterweight. Some thought this a stiff challenge, but Duran was particularly sharp that night, out-working Palomino on the inside, and feinting him out of position before punishing him on the outside. In the sixth, a sneak right hand behind a jab cracked Palomino to the canvas. He got up to stave off the attack in the seventh, but dropped just about every other round, absorbing far more punishment in ten rounds with Roberto as he did in fifteen with Benitez. 2b1af7f3a8