MMA experienced it's very own coming of age in 2023. While the pandemic reshaped the professional sports landscape, the growth of social media, incredible storylines, and unforgettable performances propelled MMA into mainstream sports coverage.
The UFC saw 11 title changes in 2023, one less than the record of 12 set in 2016. Long-serving champions have been appreciated in their own way, but something has to be said for seeing such a competitive year come to fruition. The past year has seen the birth of healthy rivalries and fresh faces for MMA fans to appreciate.
With so many great performances in 2023, it can be tough to narrow them down. However, with great performances, come great rewards, and fighters are ready to make the most of their opportunities.
Sean Strickland’s unlikely win over Israel Adesanya
Sean Strickland had the biggest 2023 of any MMA fighter and it's not even close. His rise through the middleweight ranks certainly garnered him plenty of attention, but his popularity growth, coupled with his gritty style in the cage, have made him a true UFC superstar.
After his 1-2 UFC record in 2022, Strickland came back strong with a 3-0 record, including his massive win over Israel Adesanya to win the UFC middleweight title. The major part of his growth had a lot to do with entering the Israel Adesanya-Alex Pereira rivalry. One of Strickland's losses in 2022 was against Pereira, who ended up beating Adesanya for the title before losing it to Adesanya again. With the historical significance and incredible story associated with the rivalry, Strickland befriended Pereira and thrusted himself into mainstream MMA media as the Strickland-Adesanya rivalry started brewing.
Strickland was already popular with his fellow Americans after building a platform in support of the blue-collar worker. While his comedy and questionable remarks are not helping some of the political divide in the United States, it's obvious that people have fallen in love with Strickland and what he represents for the average working class.
Strickland enters 2024 as the undisputed UFC middleweight champion and will now prepare for his showdown with Dricus du Plessis in Toronto on Jan. 20.