MMA storylines to watch for the rest of 2023: Rematches galore, vacant titles aplenty

The final quarter of the year is upon us. Things have been hectic — and newsworthy — in MMA in 2023.

From a business perspective, the UFC has merged with WWE to form the publicly traded company TKO, under Endeavor. In the cage, UFC titles have been veritable hot potatoes. There have been 10 title changes in the promotion this year, if you include fighters vacating belts because of retirement or injury.

The UFC has three more pay-per-view cards before the year ends, and at least five titles will be on the line. Bellator 300 is a few days away, on Saturday in San Diego, with four title fights. PFL still has to decide its entire slate of 2023 championships in November.

What should fans watch over the next three months before the ball drops, sending us into 2024? ESPN MMA insiders Marc Raimondi, Brett Okamoto, Jeff Wagenheim, Andres Waters and Myron Medcalf glance at the top storylines for the rest of the year.

Raimondi: The future of the UFC heavyweight division

The UFC 295 main event on Nov. 11 is one of the biggest heavyweight title fights ever. In terms of pure achievements, it’s the biggest. Jon Jones is the longtime former UFC light heavyweight champion and a man who is unbeaten in 18 straight fights. Dial that back even more: Jones has never truly been beaten — his only loss came via questionable disqualification. Stipe Miocic, the challenger in New York, is a two-time former UFC heavyweight champion with a record four total title defenses. His three straight title defenses are also a UFC heavyweight record.

As if that isn’t significant enough — the light heavyweight GOAT against the heavyweight GOAT — what happens after the fight is completely in question. Miocic is 41 years old and a full-time firefighter, and this will be his first fight since March 2021. There’s a solid chance that, win or lose, Miocic will retire after UFC 295. Miocic told me in an interview last week that it was a possibility, but only because he’s thought about retirement after every one of his fights, going back to his first UFC bout. We’ll see.

Meanwhile, Jones has said on several occasions that this could be it for him. Whether that’s a negotiating ploy is up for debate. But Jones is 36 years old. He won his first UFC title when he was 23, the youngest to do it. There is nothing Jones has accomplished. His legacy as the greatest MMA fighter is all but set. Even beating Miocic would just be gravy — another on a list of Jones accomplishments that could barely fit on one of those lengthy drugstore receipts.

So, what would heavyweight look like without Jones and Miocic? The two names that immediately come to mind are Tom Aspinall and Sergei Pavlovich. The former is a well-rounded Brit who can finish a fight anywhere. Aspinall is on the verge of being a big star in the United Kingdom and beyond. The latter is a hard-hitting Russian, a modern-day Drago with size and enormous power. Aspinall and Pavlovich seem to be on a collision course, regardless of the result of UFC 295. Whether that’s a title eliminator or a flat-out title fight will be determined on Nov. 11. The heavyweight division will be in good hands with them, but it would be cool to see one get a shot at a Jones or Miocic in a potential passing-the-torch fight.

Okamoto: Which rematches will the UFC greenlight?

I’m curious how the UFC handles these potential rematches. Rematches can be good for the sport and draw a lot of attention. Any time you have a rematch, you have a built-in storyline. But how many will the UFC sign up for? It can’t be a year of rematches.

And if you look at each division, it’s rematches galore right now. Alexa Grasso vs. Valentina Shevchenko, trilogy. Sean Strickland vs. Israel Adesanya, rematch. Islam Makhachev vs. Charles Oliveira, rematch. Alexander Volkanovski vs. just about any featherweight after Ilia Topuria, rematch. Volkanovski vs. Makhachev, rematch. Sean O’Malley vs. Marlon Vera, rematch. Alexandre Pantoja vs. Brandon Royval, rematch. Pantoja vs. Brandon Moreno, tetralogy.

There are some great fights in there, for sure. But does the sport need a year in which nearly half of the major UFC pay-per-view events are matchups we’ve already seen? Depending on what happens in some of these divisions, we could be looking at more potential rematch situations. Leon Edwards vs. Kamaru Usman 3? Colby Covington vs. Usman 3? Volkanovski vs. Holloway 4? As Dana White likes to say, we’ll see how things play out — but I could see a scenario in which we are debating the merit of plenty of rematches during the next 12 months.

Waters: What’s next for the Bellator men’s flyweight division?

Earlier this year, Bellator announced that it would be launching a men’s flyweight division with former bantamweight champion Kyoji Horiguchi taking on Rizin’s Makoto Takahashi for the new title at Bellator MMA vs. Rizin 2 on July 29. But that didn’t go as planned — just seconds into the match, an accidental eye poke by Horiguchi forced the fight to be ruled a no contest, leaving Bellator without a champion for its new division on its inaugural night.

There are plenty of questions surrounding the division, but two questions are the most important. The first is obvious: Will there be a rematch for the 125-pound title? Since that fight, the promotion hasn’t announced any plans to run it back. Second, and most importantly, who’s on the men’s flyweight roster? Despite having a fight for the title, Bellator has yet to say anything regarding the fighters it has picked up to fill out this division. It’s not an ideal way to introduce a new weight class. Hopefully, we can get some answers sooner rather than later.

Wagenheim: Can we fill some of these championship vacancies, please?

The UFC women’s featherweight and bantamweight divisions have been without a champion ever since Amanda Nunes retired at UFC 289 in June. A month later, Jamahal Hill announced he was vacating the light heavyweight title after rupturing his Achilles tendon. So now 25% of the weight classes in the sport’s leading promotion have vacancies at the top.

The vacancies themselves are not what’s concerning. Retirements and, sadly, career-interrupting injuries happen. What matters here is the UFC’s urgency — or lack of urgency — in filling those essential positions.

The bean counters at the UFC no doubt are more concerned with sorting out the Conor McGregor soap opera, because a “Notorious” return would get a standing ovation from TKO stockholders. But fans deserve better. As fun as it used to be to watch McGregor fight, hasn’t the circus surrounding him grown tiresome? Every time McGregor rolls into town, it distracts the sport from what matters: the quest to be the best.

The UFC is working on it at light heavyweight. Jiří Procházka and Alex Pereira will tangle for the belt at UFC 295 in a tantalizing clash of former champions — Procházka at light heavy, Pereira at middleweight — who are standup standouts of very different styles. There’s nothing on the books, however, for reestablishing supremacy at women’s bantamweight and featherweight.

Let’s get those divisions topped before the end of the year. There’s no need to wait for a matchup as brilliant as Procházka vs. Pereira to emerge. The next Amanda Nunes is not out there. But the UFC’s 135- and 145-pound women need someone to chase, and fans deserve more shiny belts to follow.

Medcalf: The UFC women’s flyweight division’s bright future

For years, Shevchenko owned the women’s flyweight division. At 125 pounds, she had been the mayor, the sheriff and the deputy, as she defended her belt seven times in a row. Then she faced Grasso, the current champion who upset Shevchenko earlier this year and then kept the belt via a controversial draw last month. Grasso’s emergence has not only changed the division, but the titleholder and her colleagues could also change the UFC.

The 125-pound women’s landscape is no longer dominated by one fighter. Grasso and Shevchenko will eventually meet a third time — once Shevchenko heals from a hand injury — but she’s not the only threat to Grasso’s throne. Erin Blanchfield hasn’t lost since February 2019. The jiu-jitsu specialist has four submissions in that run. Who wants to fight her? Manon Fiorot toyed with Rose Namajunas, the former strawweight champ, when they met in September. Fiorot has won her last 11 fights. Who wants to fight her? And a Maycee Barber-Grasso rematch — Grasso beat Barber via unanimous decision in 2021, Barber’s most recent loss — also makes sense. Plus, Jessica Andrade is always a handful at 115 or 125 pounds.

There are enough fights to turn 125 pounds into the UFC’s most competitive and fascinating division in the years ahead, especially with the possibility of a few 115-pound fighters moving up. There has always been talk about Zhang Weili potentially chasing a second belt at 125 pounds. But the return of Tatiana Suarez — the undefeated fighter who beat Andrade at 115 pounds in August, her second bout after a four-year layoff — makes things interesting for two divisions. Suarez has fought at 125 pounds, and she’s a serious contender in both weight classes. Who wants to fight her?

And that’s the beauty of the UFC. For years, we just wondered whom Shevchenko would dismiss next. Now, the months and years ahead could feature a gauntlet in the women’s flyweight division that boosts the entire UFC.

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