Revisiting our 2023 MMA bold predictions: Hits, misses and learnings

Mixed martial arts is an unpredictable act.

Look no further than UFC Fight Night last weekend in Austin. A slam knockout is one of the most rare ways for a bout to end, and yet it happened in back-to-back contests on Saturday, in nearly mirror images of one another. It’s impossible to say the odds of that happening, but they certainly are low.

Due to the wildly unpredictable nature of this sport, there is probably no such thing as a prediction that is “too bold.” Just about any scenario feels possible in MMA. However, we did try to come up with some audacious ones for 2023. Some we got right. Others, we got very, very wrong. Please don’t judge us on the latter, as we tried to step out on a limb.

Without further ado, here’s a look back at the predictions Megan Anderson, Brett Okamoto and Jeff Wagenheim made, along with Okamoto and Wagenheim assessing what went right or wrong.

Wagenheim’s bold prediction: Jake Paul vs. Nate Diaz could be the most interesting combat crossover ever

Wagenheim: This was the dumbest take ever. That’s because dumb begets dumb, and as I was coming up with the prediction, here’s the thought that was swirling inside my head: “These crossover fights are dumber than dumb.”

Why such low regard for crossovers? Well, a boxer will always beat an MMA fighter in boxing, just like an MMA fighter will get the better of a boxer in MMA. Isn’t that obvious? Adding in a social media influencer only intensified my incredulousness over why we have to watch these goofy spectacles when there are high-level boxers and MMA fighters ready and willing to compete against the best in their own discipline. That’s what draws me to combat sports, not the pomp and circus acts.

My attitude toward making a crossover prediction was to dream up something that took the ridiculousness to an absurd level. Where I landed: Paul and Diaz would engage in a round of boxing, then a round of MMA and finish with a round of whatever the creative folks at the PFL could envision. Why not?

Well, it turned out that Paul and Diaz engaged in a boxing match. That’s it. And it was pretty dull. Afterward, I thought that if Jake and Nate couldn’t stir something up, maybe we’d be lucky enough to see this foolish trend fade away. And then Francis Ngannou had to go out there against Tyson Fury and wow fight fans — me included! Oh well.

Anderson’s bold prediction: Jon Jones doesn’t fight again

Okamoto: He made us wait a long time for it, but in the end, Jones did make good on his years-long promise to compete at heavyweight. His return to the Octagon at UFC 285 in a heavyweight title fight against Ciryl Gane was one of the year’s most anticipated fights, although it didn’t last long. Jones tapped Gane with a guillotine choke just two minutes in and picked up his second UFC championship.

Not only did he fight once, he nearly fought twice in 2023. He was scheduled to face Stipe Miocic at UFC 295 in November, but withdrew due to a torn pectoral tendon. All injuries in combat sports are unfortunate, but this one definitely stung, as it canceled what would have been Jones’ first appearance in his original home state of New York. It also threw a wrench into the heavyweight landscape, as the UFC moved to create an interim title (which was won by Tom Aspinall) but still intends to rebook Jones vs. Miocic when everyone is healthy. Either way, this prediction was a swing and a miss. But perhaps it’s not that far off, as the entire sport wonders just how many fights Jones has left.

Wagenheim’s bold prediction: Multiple UFC fighters will follow Jake Paul to the PFL

Wagenheim: Can we count Francis Ngannou as “multiple”? It’s not just about his size. It’s also about his immense status in the sport. The man walked away from the UFC as the heavyweight champion of the freaking world! Respectfully, this was not an Anthony Pettis or Shane Burgos transaction. This was a massive, prime-of-career (for heavyweights) acquisition.

OK, Ngannou is just one guy, so some might contend that my prediction was wrong. But I’m going to grade it as incomplete. It takes time for UFC contracts to expire, and the PFL is barely finished with its 2023 season and just now getting around to looking for 2024 roster additions. The influx of Bellator fighters into the PFL ecosystem changes the landscape, but the impact is a mystery. Will the added competition entice UFC fighters? Or will fewer open roster spots limit movement?

One thing I didn’t factor in when making my prediction was the unquestionable allegiance to the UFC among fighters. The Octagon is where many of them dreamed of competing when they were getting into MMA. Some fighters speak glowingly about the experience, including how the UFC treats them. It’s the MMA equivalent of playing in the major leagues — without getting 50% of the take, though, as the ballplayers get in MLB. Exhibit A of this self-limiting phenomenon was Derrick Lewis, who could have gone over to the PFL and been Ngannou’s first opponent, a booking that promotion officials have said will pay a minimum of $2 million. Lewis instead signed a multi-fight deal to remain in the UFC, and I imagine his next payday will fall quite a few dollars short of that seven-figure number.

I no longer expect UFC fighters to flock to the PFL en masse to chase the $1 million season prize. But the attention brought by Paul, and even more so Ngannou and the whole Bellator roster, will attract a higher level of UFC talent. Quality over quantity.

Okamoto’s bold prediction: Henry Cejudo wins Male Fighter of the Year

Okamoto: On the surface, this one could not have been more wrong, as Cejudo failed to win a single fight in 2023. However, I would argue my original logic stands. Cejudo came out of a three-year retirement and very nearly beat Aljamain Sterling for the bantamweight championship. He lost via split decision in May. Most observers scored the fight for Sterling, but only by a slim margin.

Had one round on one judge’s scorecard gone the other way, the wheels would have been in motion on this prediction. Cejudo would have gone on to fight Sean O’Malley. Who knows what would have happened in that fight, but Cejudo definitely would have been favored to win. If that would have happened, would he have won Fighter of the Year? It may come down to him, Islam Makhachev or Jon Jones. It’s wild to think how this bold prediction is wildly off, and yet, in another universe where just a few things go differently, it’s easy to imagine.

Anderson’s bold prediction: Leon Edwards will upset Kamaru Usman again

Wagenheim: The good news is this prediction was right on. The bad news is it was made by my colleague Megan, not me. But I am answering for her because I remember what I thought when I first read her prediction that Edwards would successfully defend his UFC welterweight title against Usman. “Well, that’s not gonna happen,” I told myself.

As it turned out, yes, it did happen. Edwards beat Usman a second time in April and did so way more convincingly than he had in winning the title eight months earlier. Back in August 2022, Edwards had been a step behind Usman all night and was on the verge of a decision loss when, in the final minute of Round 5, he unleashed the head kick heard ’round the 170-pound division.

Megan recognized something in Edwards that I did not. I suspect that’s because she’s a former fighter, and in my experience of talking with those who’ve walked the walk, they tend to dwell on the importance of the mental game far more than we non-combative civilians. Megan thought Edwards would be fortified with confidence drawn from the KO win. “Edwards now knows he has the power to stop Usman,” she wrote. “Sure, he might have believed it before, but now he knows it. That matters.”

She was right. And she taught me a lesson.

Okamoto’s bold prediction: Come January, we will be talking about Nate Diaz returning to the UFC

Okamoto: Wrong. We’re not talking about anything regarding Diaz because he’s not talking about it. It was a weird year for the 38-year-old Diaz. He only fought once, in a boxing match against Jake Paul. He didn’t win, but was paid handsomely for it, which matters most at this point in his career. Since that fight in August, he’s been off the grid.

Big picture, this prediction relied slightly on someone other than Diaz, and that’s Conor McGregor. The expectation was that McGregor would fight in 2023, and depending on what happened, it might significantly open the door for their long-awaited trilogy. Diaz set the table for an eventual UFC return even as he was leaving the promotion. After beating Tony Ferguson in 2022, he said he intended to box but made it no secret that he would return to the Octagon. He never mentioned McGregor, but he never has to. These two will always be linked. Their trilogy will always be possible because it’s a guaranteed seller.

Had McGregor fought in 2023, there’s a good chance we’d be talking much more about whether it was the right time to make McGregor vs. Diaz 3. As it turned out, he didn’t fight in 2023. I’m not saying Diaz’s future depends on what McGregor does, but it would be foolish to think it’s not part of the conversation. Maybe we’re not talking about Diaz’s return to the UFC right now, but I still think we will at some point in 2024.

Wagenheim’s bold prediction: Fedor Emelianenko retires as Bellator heavyweight champion

Wagenheim: If I were desperate for a “win” here, I would claim I got this half-right. Emelianenko did retire after his February challenge of champ Ryan Bader. But it would be bogus for me to take credit, as the bout was billed as Fedor’s farewell.

If my prediction had stipulated that Emelianko would retire for good, that would have been something. Fedor had walked away from the sport twice before, both times more than a decade ago. And no MMA retirement, even one long overdue and openly spoken about before a fight, is guaranteed to be the last hurrah. Fighters always seem to feel they have one more fight in them.

The “as Bellator heavyweight champion” part was predicated on my whimsical fascination with Bellator, which for its whole existence has tried and tried but seemingly always has had something go awry. In my prediction, I noted that having the heavyweight title change hands, only for the new champ to walk away immediately, would be “the most Bellator thing ever.”

Sure, there was also a bit of Fedor-as-superhero behind my prediction, the belief that even the 46-year-old version would find a way. In his final fight, he would have to do it against a man who had knocked him out in 35 seconds in their first meeting in 2019.

And then, in a result fully expected by everyone but me, Bader used a big right to send Fedor to the canvas for the final time. He needed considerably more time to complete the beatdown this time, but he finished off “The Last Emperor” halfway through Round 1. I guess I went out on a limb just a little too far.

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