The first half of the MMA year came and went, leaving us with some special moments and memories, including the UFC 290 and International Fight Week, the event that marks the midway point on the MMA calendar.
Now it's time to look ahead to the biggest questions that need to be addressed in the second half of the year, including potential retirements from MMA greats Jon Jones and Stipe Miocic, and the outlook of the light heavyweight division following the announcement that champion Jamahal Hill has vacated the belt due to injury.
Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim reflect on the status of the heavyweights and light heavyweights, plus the future of one of the most competitive divisions in women's MMA and more.
Zero, 1 or 2: How many fighters will retire after Jones-Miocic at UFC 295?
Raimondi: One. Miocic will be 41 years old when the fight happens. He has a full-time job as a firefighter, which he plans on keeping. Miocic has competed in big fights, won the heavyweight title twice and defended it a total of four times -- the most title defenses in the history of the division. Win or lose in November, Miocic has accomplished just about everything you can in MMA. Jones will likely be his last big-money fight. What else would be left for the blue-collar Ohio native? Madison Square Garden would be a nice way to go out.
Jones has spoken about retirement, but I don't think this will be his last bout. Did he spend three years bulking up to heavyweight just to step away after two fights in the weight class? I don't buy it. The problem is there just aren't many stars at heavyweight right now, especially with Francis Ngannou gone. Jones left light heavyweight because he felt like he was starting to fight guys who didn't have big names. That's probably one of the reasons. But after that quick finish of Ciryl Gane back in March, it's clear Jones still has a lot left in the tank.
Wagenheim: One. I think this will be it for Miocic -- one final bid to further enhance his already shiny legacy, and one final bigger-than-a-fireman's-salary payday. On fight night, it will have been 2½ years since Miocic last set foot inside the Octagon. How much does he have left? One hopes he at least has five competitive rounds still in him.
It's possible the correct answer to this question will turn out to be 1½ -- as Jones might say he's retired after the bout. But he'd get only half a point for that, because I seriously doubt he'd walk away for good. If he wins, Jones could demand overstuffed bags of cash from the UFC, which might be willing to dust off the wallet to avoid losing its heavyweight star at a time when Ngannou is poised to step into the PFL cage.
Okamoto: As Marc and Jeff pointed out, the most likely answer is obviously one. Miocic is already considered the greatest heavyweight of all time. This is the signature fight to end his career on. Jones is still relatively young and in his prime. Obvious, right? But allow me to throw a few things out there.
If Miocic pulls off the upset, I think the answer becomes zero. As great as it would be to watch Miocic retire on an upset win over Jones, I don't think he would and you can probably guess why. Money. Imagine the demand for a rematch. Miocic would be in the best bargaining position of his life, and he'd use it.
If Jones wins, I'm not dismissing the possibility the answer is two. He already has demonstrated he can sit out for multiple years and be just fine. He has the legacy and he has the money. There are other contenders for him at heavyweight, but are there big-money fights? Jones has hinted at retirement, and I'm not so ready to say there's nothing real about it. He's a guy who needs a lot of incentive to fight at this point in his career, and I don't see a fight beyond this one that obviously provides that.
Fill in the blank: The state of MMA's light heavyweight division is ________. Why?
Wagenheim: A free-for-all. Everybody's a champion. No, no one is. In the three years since Jones vacated the title to move on to bigger things, there have been four champs, more than in any other UFC weight class in that time. And here's an important distinction: The past two champs have not been dethroned inside the cage. All of this makes for a murky hierarchy among 205-pounders, especially when you factor in that Bellator champ Vadim Nemkov can make a legit claim to being the best 205er of all.
Okamoto: Weird. It's a wacky division. Honestly, I think it's been pretty wacky ever since Jiří Procházka vs. Glover Teixeira. That was a wildly entertaining fight, but it was also a weird fight. They both sort of gassed and got sloppy. Both fighters had their chances to put the other away but made awkward decisions that didn't play to their strengths. It was a great fight to watch, but it was a puzzling one to analyze.
Things have only gotten weirder since. A serious injury to Procházka. A vacant title fight ending in a draw. A hastily thrown-together title fight in Brazil, where one of the contenders wasn't even ranked inside the top five of the division. And now another serious injury has forced the current champ, Jamahal Hill, to vacate due to a torn Achilles. Call it the Jon Jones curse. This division has had zero momentum or clarity since he left. Procházka returning in the second half of this year will help, but who knows? At this point, expect the unexpected.
Raimondi: Cursed? Jinxed? There have been more champions who vacated the UFC light heavyweight title (three) than have title defenses (one) in the past three years. That's a crazy statistic. Jones dropped the belt in 2020 to prepare for a move to heavyweight, and since then, two of the three fighters to hold the title have vacated due to serious injury. And, between all of that, there was that bizarre UFC 282 title fight from last December when former champion Jan Blachowicz and Magomed Ankalaev fought to a draw, leaving the belt vacant.
Hill seemed like he could have been a stabilizing force for the division, but he never got a chance to defend the title as the UFC waited for Procházka. There could be a light at the end of the tunnel, though, with former middleweight champion Alex Pereira moving up to light heavyweight. He should see instant action at the top of the division, especially against someone like Procházka, but first, Pereira has a tough fight against Blachowicz at UFC 291 on July 29.
Real or not: If Alexa Grasso defeats Valentina Shevchenko again, she'll be the best P4P women's fighter.
Alexa Grasso celebrates in the Octagon after her stunning upset of Valentina Shevchenko at UFC 285.
Raimondi: Real. Grasso had ups and downs when she fought at strawweight, but she has definitely found a home at flyweight, winning five straight fights there. If she can beat Shevchenko in back-to-back fights, there won't be any woman in the world with a better résumé over the past three years. Shevchenko had lost only twice in the UFC prior to March -- both times against Amanda Nunes. So, if Grasso knocks off Shevchenko again, she would have accomplished the same feat as the greatest women's MMA fighter of all time.
Zhang Weili is ESPN's top pound-for-pound women's fighter right now. She fights at UFC 292 on Aug. 19 against Amanda Lemos. But even if she wins that bout, it would not be as impressive as Grasso beating Shevchenko a second time. And we're not too far removed from Zhang losing to Rose Namajunas twice. That pound-for-pound queen descriptor goes back to Mexico with Grasso if she wins that fight on Sept. 16, which happens to be Mexican Independence Day.
Wagenheim: I'm inclined to keep Weili in the top spot unless she falls on her face in next month's strawweight title defense against ninth-ranked Lemos. Zhang's splendid body of work includes victories over three UFC champions -- Joanna Jedrzejczyk (twice), Jessica Andrade and Carla Esparza. Her only two losses in the past decade came in consecutive fights with another champ, Namajunas.
Grasso is undefeated since moving to flyweight in 2020 and two consecutive victories over Shevchenko would be an immense achievement. But when Leon Edwards upset pound-for-pound No. 1 Kamaru Usman last summer, then beat him again seven months later, "Rocky" didn't automatically rise to the top of the rankings. For me to elevate Grasso, she'd have to absolutely smoke Shevchenko combined with a poor performance by Zhang against Lemos.
Okamoto: That is a really tough one. When you're talking about pound-for-pound rankings, it is often a discussion of splitting hairs. There are arguments to be made for multiple answers, and that's the case here.
Here's how I look at it. Résumé-wise, Grasso would deserve it. I have not forgotten how brilliant of a mixed martial artist Shevchenko is, despite her looking a bit flat in recent performances. If Grasso can take out that kind of a challenge twice in back-to-back fights, her résumé will look better than Zhang's. But pound-for-pound rankings are subjective. Résumé matters, but opinion and eye tests do too. Anyone can simply look at résumés and rank names. That's what divisional rankings are for. Pound-for-pound rankings are speculatory. And right now, I'd likely favor Zhang in a fight over Grasso, so I'd make her No. 1.
Who will Islam Makhachev fight next? Who should he actually fight?
Islam Makhachev wins a thriller vs. Alexander Volkanovski to retain his UFC lightweight title at UFC 284.
Wagenheim: I'm not privy to the inner workings of the UFC matchmaking machine, but my sense is that Makhachev will next defend his belt against an actual lightweight, not Alexander Volkanovski. The champ-champ era has to be getting old for the UFC, which prefers to headline its big fight cards with title bouts. And the promotion is kind of running low on star champs at the moment. So why allow one of them to take up two parking spaces?
We saw Makhachev-Volkanovski just five months ago, and while it was a banger that's deserving of an encore, let's give it time to marinate. Of course, the lightweight who makes the most sense as a title challenger, Charles Oliveira, would also be a rematch for the champ. Because of that, the winner of the July 29 fight between Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje could leapfrog his way into a title shot. I'm not going to complain too bitterly over one of those bruisers having a go at Makhachev, but it would be a disservice to Oliveira. Last month "Do Bronx" knocked out the hottest contender in the division, Beneil Dariush, and he also owns submission wins over both Poirier and Gaethje.
Raimondi: It seems like the only good option right now is Volkanovski. That comes with the caveat that Volkanovski is ready healthwise; he says he needs surgery on his arm. Oliveira told TSN's Aaron Bronsteter during UFC 290 week that he won't be ready for October, when Makhachev is likely to fight next at UFC 294 in Abu Dhabi. Another possibility would be the winner of Poirier vs. Gaethje. But that seems like a very quick turnaround after a fight that will likely be a violent brawl.
So, it'll probably be Volkanovski, the featherweight champion. And hey, no one can complain about a rematch of what has perhaps been the fight of the year between two of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world. But part of me would have liked to have seen Oliveira, who looked phenomenal in steamrollering Dariush at UFC 289 in June. Makhachev beat Oliveira last year via finish. But Oliveira has been one of the best in the world for a while now and has more than earned a rematch.
Okamoto: Volkanovski, and Volkanovski. It's a little unfortunate (I guess?) that the top two options for Makhachev are the last two men he beat in Volkanovski and Oliveira. But it's only unfortunate in the sense that we did just see those matchups. Otherwise, it's not unfortunate at all. Both of those rematches are pure fire. They both have narratives and they both have characters. I want to see them both. And I really can't envision anything happening in the fight between Poirier and Gaethje changing my mind on that. Poirier or Gaethje getting a title shot eventually is well-deserved, but Volkanovski and Oliveira are bigger fights for Makhachev.
Oliveira saying he won't be ready to fight by October almost assures it will be Volkanovski vs. Makhachev in Abu Dhabi. And even if Oliveira would have said he'd be ready, I think the UFC is so impressed with Volkanovski -- as we all are -- that the promotion would go with him either way.
Which fighter are you looking forward to seeing return from injury or lengthy time off?
Okamoto: Tom Aspinall. I know, I know, Procházka is the obvious answer, and for good reason. He was a champ at the time of his injury, and he looks capable of being a champ for a long time.
But Aspinall is more intriguing for me -- by a wide margin. He's a heavyweight who doesn't move like a heavyweight. He's got athleticism and he's well-rounded. He's a finisher. Not in a scary Sergei Pavlovich kind of way, but maybe in an even more dangerous way. And I'm telling you, if Aspinall comes back from a year off due to knee injury and blows the roof off the O2, which he has been known to do, that's the kind of thing that can grab the attention of the champ. Now, suddenly, it's not just that we have a new heavyweight title challenger in Aspinall. We have a big fight. U.S. vs. England. Can you imagine Jones trekking to the U.K. to take out one of their own? That's the kind of thing that would make the sports world pause. So, yeah, as intriguing as Procházka's return is, Aspinall's return potentially carries much bigger implications.
Wagenheim: I feel like we were just getting to know Procházka when he disappeared. He won the light heavyweight title in just his third UFC bout a little over a year ago, and he has been gone ever since due to injury. What I love about Procházka is that he arrived at the top of the mountain via an inventive, unforeseeable path -- spinning strikes, an out-of-nowhere submission, etc. He might not be as domineering as Khamzat Chimaev or have the seven-title-fight résumé of Namajunas -- others who've been gone for a spell and are due to return soon -- but Procházka is more fun to watch than anyone in the sport right now. I can't wait to see him again soon, especially with his old title once again vacant.
Raimondi: Procházka. He's one of the most exciting fighters in the world, and it seemed like he would be bringing a new vibe to the UFC light heavyweight division in the post-Jon Jones era. Instead, he didn't even get a chance to have a single title defense. The good news is that the Czech samurai is only 30 years old, which is very young for the heavier weight classes in the UFC. So, we should be getting plenty more Procházka highlights in the future.
Which fight are you looking forward to most in 2023?
Turn back the clock to 2018, when Dustin Poirier beat Justin Gaethje via TKO in their first meeting.
Wagenheim: Can I say Nate Diaz vs. Jake Paul 2, the caged-in sequel that the world really needs? OK, if we have to stick to MMA fights that have actually been booked, I'll go with the only answer there is: Poirier vs. Gaethje. That is my pick because it contains the magic word: Gaethje. An all-action clash is guaranteed, and I'm there for it.
I will admit, though, that the first fight that came to mind was Jones vs. Miocic. But I'm concerned that Miocic won't be sharp enough to give Jones a fight.
Okamoto: Makhachev vs. Volkanovski 2. It's the highest level of MMA in the game right now. Of course that's what I'd look forward to most. They are both at the absolute top of their game. They respect one another, which would even further bring out the best of their abilities. I believe Volkanovski when he says he's convinced he will win the second time, based on what he learned in the first one. And I'm sure Makhachev will make his own adjustments. As tactical and competitive as the first fight was, I believe the rematch will be even better because that's who we're dealing with -- two champions who are capable of elevating their game even further than what we saw in February.
There are a lot of good fights to look forward to for the rest of the year. But come on. Makhachev vs. Volkanovski 1 is, right now, my fight of the year. I'm confident the second meeting will be even better.
Raimondi: I could be a hipster and pick something obscure here. But let's be real for a second. Poirier and Gaethje are going to engage in an absolute slugfest at UFC 291. The mythical BMF title is on the line. Both of those men are allergic to being in boring fights. Violence will be on the menu in Salt Lake City, and I'll be there with my knife and fork. The two already fought back in 2018 and it was ESPN's fight of the year. Poirier and Gaethje have both gotten better since then, but neither has grown to be risk-averse. So, they'll take a few shots to land a shot and we'll all be there watching on the edge of our seats as they engage in a battle of wills.