PFL buying Bellator & 4 more shocking MMA moments of 2023

MMA was full of surprises in 2023, here are five of the biggest jaw-droppers.

Olivier Aubin-Mercier
Olivier Aubin-Mercier / Cooper Neill/GettyImages
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Francis Ngannou boxes Tyson Fury and is robbed

Mixed martial artists are said to be the jacks-of-all-trades of combat sports, but when Conor McGregor was routed by Floyd Mayweather in his boxing debut in 2017, it served as a reminder that "the sweet science" is harder to transition to than it is to transition from.

Still, that did not deter others from trying (and occasionally even succeeding) over the next few years. Former UFC champions Tyron Woodley, Cris "Cyborg" Justino, Anderson Silva, Anthony Pettis, Vitor Belfort, and Jose Aldo, among others, entered the ring and saw mixed success. However, Francis Ngannou managed to surpass them all in terms of adaptation in his own debut.

In January, Ngannou had made one of the biggest gambles in all sports when he decided to leave the UFC as the reigning heavyweight champion and become a free agent. He would not take long to find his new MMA home - the PFL, which granted him all sorts of incentives like the ability to box in his spare time.

But said deal would not begin in 2024, so he had to prove his worth first. Fortunately, Ngannou had long wanted to meet either Tyson Fury or Deontay Wilder, and in July 2023 he got a date with the former booked for Oct. 28.

Not many gave him a chance. He was a neophyte going up against one of the best heavyweight boxers of the modern era, one who boasted not just powerful punching volume, but hardiness and endurance that had allowed him to survive even a potential knockout blow. This was going to be a rout, they said - either a brutal TKO or lopsided decision.

Instead, Ngannou put on the performance of a lifetime - at one point even knocking down Fury, to the complete shock of fans. He ultimately lost - but obviously not by the predicted rout. It was instead a very close and widely-debated split decision, one that caused Fury's planned December unification bout with Oleksandr Usyk to be postponed to February to allow him to recover from his injuries.