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UFC bantamweight champion Sean O'Malley is seen on stage during the UFC 2024 seasonal press conference at MGM Grand Garden Arena on December 15, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
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Reviewing Each UFC Champion’s Journey In 2023

Take A Look At Each UFC Champion, How They Got There And What Could Be Next

With 19 undisputed title fights in 2023, plenty of drama happened at the top of UFC’s eleven divisions. So much so that only four fighters who started 2023 are entering 2024 with the belt still in their possession.

We recap the journey of each of UFC’s current champions as we head into next year.

UFC Flyweight Champion Alexandre Pantoja

It’s always a beautiful sight when a fighter breaks through and becomes a world champion, and that was true when Alexandre Pantoja staked his claim as the top flyweight in the world.

2023 AWARDS: The Upsets | The Submissions | The Newcomers  | The Knockouts | The Fights

Pantoja earned his championship opportunity when he collided with Brandon Moreno at UFC 290. It was the third time that Pantoja and Moreno had met inside the Octagon, their first fight was an exhibition match on The Ultimate Fighter in 2016 and their second fight came in 2018 on a UFC Fight Night in Chile.

Alexandre Pantoja of Brazil and his team pose for a photograph in the Octagon in the UFC flyweight championship fight during the UFC 296 event at T-Mobile Arena on December 16, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Alexandre Pantoja of Brazil and his team pose for a photograph in the Octagon in the UFC flyweight championship fight during the UFC 296 event at T-Mobile Arena on December 16, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

Pantoja won both those highly competitive bouts and he continued to showcase his ability to defeat Moreno by defeating him at UFC 290 to claim the UFC flyweight title. The fight was an incredible one, but Pantoja had accomplished what he set out from Brazil to do. He proved he was the best in the world.

For Pantoja’s first title defense, UFC tapped one of his former opponents, Brandon Royval to face him at UFC 296. Pantoja submitted Royval in their first meeting, and he was well aware that Royval would be much more difficult to defeat a second time around.

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Pantoja relied on his gameplan and his grappling skills to control Royval and defend his title. Pantoja won by unanimous decision and set himself up to defend against an exciting crop of new contenders in 2024.

What’s Next For Pantoja: UFC CEO Dana White hinted that Pantoja’s next fight could happen in Brazil, which would be a major moment for the Rio de Janeiro native. Through 14 fights in the Octagon, Pantoja has never fought in his home country and a title defense opportunity in front of a home crowd would be incredible for Pantoja and his family.

UFC Bantamweight Champion Sean O’Malley

Sean O’Malley throws a punch against Aljamain Sterling during their Bantamweight title fight at UFC 292 at TD Garden on August 19, 2023 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Paul Rutherford/Getty Images)
Sean O’Malley throws a punch against Aljamain Sterling during their Bantamweight title fight at UFC 292 at TD Garden on August 19, 2023 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Paul Rutherford/Getty Images)

After beating former bantamweight champion Petr Yan in October of 2022, Sean O’Malley knew an undisputed title shot was next. So “Suga” chilled on the sidelines while Aljamain Sterling defended his title against Henry Cejudo and he signed the dotted line for his chance at claiming the throne for August 19, 2023 in Boston, Massachusetts.

O’Malley was a true pro all fight week, doing all the media and maintaining that he was going to finish Sterling and he was going to make it look easy. O’Malley did just that in the first minute of the second round, knocking Sterling out and completing his journey from Dana White’s Contender Series prospect to contender to title contender to undisputed champion of the world.

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What’s Next For O’Malley: The Suga show will be back in action on March 9, 2024 when he rematches the only man that’s defeated him, Marlon “Chito” Vera. This time UFC gold is on the line and it’s on the line in beautiful Miami.

UFC Featherweight Champion Alexander Volkanovski

 Alexander Volkanovski of Australia reacts to his win over Yair Rodriguez of Mexico in the UFC featherweight championship fight during the UFC 290 event at T-Mobile Arena on July 08, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Alexander Volkanovski of Australia reacts to his win over Yair Rodriguez of Mexico in the UFC featherweight championship fight during the UFC 290 event at T-Mobile Arena on July 08, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

Alexander Volkanovski will be the first person to tell you he’s had a strange year. “The Great” had a very uneven year, which saw him fight three times – twice for the lightweight title.

His first attempt at Islam Makhachev’s belt came in Australia at UFC 284, where Volkanovski went all five rounds in a valiant effort that pushed Makhachev to the brink. Makhachev retained the title and even though he lost the fight on the judges’ scorecards, Volkanovski didn’t come out of the fight looking or feeling like a loser.

WATCH: Alexander Volkanovski Backstage Interview | UFC 2024 Seasonal Press Conference

Before Volkanovski took on Makhachev, the UFC put an interim featherweight title on the line between budding contenders Yair Rodriguez and Josh Emmett. Volkanovski was fine with UFC doing the interim title fight due to the fact that he was chasing champ-champ status.

Rodriguez submitted Emmett, setting up a chance to unify the featherweight title versus Volkanovski at UFC 290. Back at his own weight class, Volkanovski looked invincible as he dominated Rodriguez on his way to a third round TKO win.

Ilia Topuria of Germany punches Josh Emmett in their featherweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at Vystar Veterans Memorial Arena on June 24, 2023 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)
Ilia Topuria of Germany punches Josh Emmett in their featherweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at Vystar Veterans Memorial Arena on June 24, 2023 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)

Volkanovski’s up and down year wasn’t over yet, as his phone buzzed ten days out from UFC 294 and the UFC let him know he had a chance for a short notice rematch against Makhachev for the lightweight title. The competitor in Volkanovski couldn’t say no.

But that night in Abu Dhabi belonged to Makhachev. He connected with a first round head kick and knocked Volkanovski out. It was a disappointing result for the featherweight champion, who has his sights on nothing but all-time status. 

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What’s Next For Volkanovski: The featherweight champ wasted no time looking for a new challenge as he refocused his sights on the contenders at 145-pounds. That put his aim firmly on undefeated rising star Ilia Topuria. The two will throw down at UFC 298 in Anaheim, California on February 17, 2024.

UFC Lightweight Champion Islam Makhachev

 Islam Makhachev of Russia reacts after his knockout victory against Alexander Volkanovski of Australia in the UFC lightweight championship fight during the UFC 294 event at Etihad Arena on October 21, 2023 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Islam Makhachev of Russia reacts after his knockout victory against Alexander Volkanovski of Australia in the UFC lightweight championship fight during the UFC 294 event at Etihad Arena on October 21, 2023 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Chr

After beating Charles Oliveira to claim the lightweight title at UFC 280, Islam Makhachev immediately faced off with featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski. Little did Makhachev know, but his whole 2023 campaign in the Octagon would come against Volkanovski.

Makhachev went to Australia and beat Volkanovski on his own turf. Yes, it was a close fight and a great fight, but Makhachev left the arena in Perth with a unanimous decision victory over one of the best pound-for-pound fighters on the planet.

The 32-yeaer-old Makhchev was the slated to rematch Oliveira at UFC 294 in Abu Dhabi, but ten days prior to the fight, Oliveira suffered a cut that forced him out of the fight. In stepped Volkanovski.

This time Makhachev wanted to leave no doubt. He wanted to finish Volkanovski and crush the Australian champ’s dreams of becoming a double-champ – and he did just that. Just over the three-minute mark in the first round of their bout, Makhachev landed a brilliant head kick that he followed up with some strikes and put Volkanovski out.

Islam Makhachev of Russia kicks Alexander Volkanovski of Australia in the UFC lightweight championship fight during the UFC 294 event at Etihad Arena on October 21, 2023 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Islam Makhachev of Russia kicks Alexander Volkanovski of Australia in the UFC lightweight championship fight during the UFC 294 event at Etihad Arena on October 21, 2023 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

It was a massive legacy moment for Makhachev and helped him secure the No. 1 men’s pound-for-pound ranking in the world.

What’s Next For Makhachev: There is no shortage of contenders lining up for a crack at Makhachev. A rematch with Oliveira looms, while Justin Gaethje pushed himself to the top of the list with his head kick knockout over Dustin Poirier at UFC 291. In addition, Arman Tsarukyan, who faced Makhachev in a Fight of the Night bout in 2019 has worked his way into the top five.

UFC Welterweight Champion Leon Edwards

There were those that said Leon Edwards’ jaw-dropping knockout win over Kamaru Usman in August of 2022 was “lucky” or “a fluke.”

Leon Edwards of Jamaica punches Colby Covington in the UFC welterweight championship fight during the UFC 296 event at T-Mobile Arena on December 16, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Leon Edwards of Jamaica punches Colby Covington in the UFC welterweight championship fight during the UFC 296 event at T-Mobile Arena on December 16, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

Edwards’ 2024 campaign was essentially the perfect way to prove each one of those doubters wrong. He took the welterweight belt from Usman that night in Salt Lake City with no intention of giving it back and he defended the title twice in 2023.

His first title defense came against Usman, in London, and he showed major improvements from their previous two fights. He stifled much of Usman’s game and earned a unanimous decision win and claimed the 2-1 lead in his rivalry with “The Nigerian Nightmare.”

Special Announcement From Dana White | December 21, 2023

The second title defense came in the last UFC event of 2023, when he handily defeated Colby Covington at UFC 296. The fight with Covington was an interesting one for Edwards, who admittedly was emotional due to some of the words said by Covington prior to the fight. Edwards was able to put those things said to the side and get the win and put his saga with Covington in the rear-view mirror.

What’s Next For Edwards: Beating Covington put Edwards’ unbeaten streak at 13 in-a-row and also freed him up to face either contenders with unfinished business, or some fresh faces. Belal Muhammad and Edwards have history, with the two competing to a no contest due to an accidental eye poke in 2021. Muhammad was the back-up for UFC 296 and it would make sense for him to be next, but Edwards also has his eyes on the likes of Shavkat Rahkmonov and Gilbert Burns. Whatever Edwards does next, we’ll be watching when one of the best stories in MMA goes for his third title defense.

UFC Middleweight Champion Sean Strickland

Sean Strickland reacts after a unanimous-decision victory over Israel Adesanya of Nigeria in the UFC middleweight championship fight during the UFC 293 event at Qudos Bank Arena on September 10, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Sean Strickland reacts after a unanimous-decision victory over Israel Adesanya of Nigeria in the UFC middleweight championship fight during the UFC 293 event at Qudos Bank Arena on September 10, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

One of the best parts of Sean Strickland’s journey to champion is that he truly earned his chance to fight for the belt. 

In 2022, Strickland put his six-fight winning streak on the line to face Alex Pereira when he wasn’t even ranked. Then  less than a month after losing a close split decision to Jared Cannonier, Strickland was asked to step into a main event bout with Nassourdine Imavov.

VIDEO: Sean Strickland & Dricus Du Plessis Get Into Fight In Crowd At UFC 296

Strickland beat Imavov and then waited for another big opportunity. Instead, the UFC came to him with Abus Magomdeov because “no one” wanted to fight him. What did Strickland do? He knocked Magomdeov out in the second round.

Then when Dricus Du Plessis was unable to accept a title fight with Israel Adesanya, the UFC asked Strickland to step in and make the journey to Sydney to fight one of the biggest stars in the sport. What did Strickland do? He dominated Adesanya from start to finish and became the UFC middleweight champion of the world.

Opponents Sean Strickland and Dricus Du Plessis face off during the UFC 2024 seasonal press conference at MGM Grand Garden Arena on December 15, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Opponents Sean Strickland and Dricus Du Plessis face off during the UFC 2024 seasonal press conference at MGM Grand Garden Arena on December 15, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

It’s been a wild ride for Strickland, who has always done and said things his way, and 2023 was the year it all paid off.

What’s Next For Strickland: Strickland and Du Plessis are scheduled to headline UFC’s return to Toronto at UFC 297 on January 20, 2024, with the middleweight strap on the line. Strickland and Du Plessis aren’t big fans of one another, especially after the two engaged in a scuffle at UFC 296.

WATCH: Dricus Du Plessis Backstage Interview | UFC 2024 Seasonal Press Conference

UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Alex Pereira

Alex Pereira had one of the most interesting years out of any fighter on the roster. “Poatan” started the year off as the UFC middleweight champion but lost the title to rival Israel Adesanya at UFC 287 in Miami.

That defeat prompted the legendary kickboxer to move up to light heavyweight, a much more comfortable weight for his size, and pursue hopes of winning the title at 205 pounds. The top of the light heavyweight division has been devastated by injuries, so it was the perfect time for Pereira to throw his name into the mix.

Alex Pereira of Brazil punches Jiri Prochazka of the Czech Republic in the UFC light heavyweight championship fight during the UFC 295 event at Madison Square Garden on November 11, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Alex Pereira of Brazil punches Jiri Prochazka of the Czech Republic in the UFC light heavyweight championship fight during the UFC 295 event at Madison Square Garden on November 11, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

In July, at UFC 291, Pereira won a close split decision over former champion Jan Błachowicz and immediately found himself in the title conversation. He was granted the title shot opposite of former champion Jíri Procházka at UFC 295 in New York City.

The two light heavyweights were slotted to be the co-main event at Madison Square Garden, but an injury to Jon Jones forced the heavyweight title fight between Jones and Stipe Miocic to be cancelled from the event and moved Pereira vs Procházka to the main event.

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It was a close fight through most of the fight until Pereira was able to catch Procházka with some devastating strikes that put an end to the fight. Many were upset with the stoppage, but Procházka confirmed he was out and congratulated Pereira on the victory. It was the perfect ending to 2023, and while he lost his belt in one weight class, he sits atop another, ready to face all challengers.

What’s Next For Pereira: The light heavyweight belt has switched hands a ton over the last few years, and Pereira looks to bring stability to the throne. He has a myriad of options ahead of him, the most appealing of which may be to face former champion Jamahal Hill once he’s healthy. I’m sure Pereira would also love to fight for the first time in his home country of Brazil since 2016.

UFC Heavyweight Champion Jon Jones

Jon Jones reacts to his win in the UFC heavyweight championship fight during the UFC 285 event at T-Mobile Arena on March 04, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Jon Jones reacts to his win in the UFC heavyweight championship fight during the UFC 285 event at T-Mobile Arena on March 04, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

The return of Jon Jones did not disappoint. The longtime UFC light heavyweight champion took time away to prepare his body for a run with the heavyweight elite. 

At UFC 285, Jones returned to face one of the most unique heavyweights in the division, former interim UFC heavyweight champion Ciryl Gane. The bout was in Las Vegas, and it was for the undisputed heavyweight title – the perfect fight for Jones to add to his legacy.

Jones said he would make it look easy and the one that many see as the “G.O.A.T.” did just that. He took Gane down and he submitted him with a guillotine choke in the first round. Talk about impressive, Jones looked every bit ready to handle all the smoke at heavyweight.

That’s why Jones couldn’t wait to accept a bout with consensus all-time heavyweight great Stipe Moicic at Madison Square Garden. Jones was set to headline UFC 295 on November 11, the UFC’s 30th anniversary show, but a significant injury two weeks ahead of the fight forced Jones to pull out of the bout. It was a tough way for Jones to end the year, especially after coming back and winning the belt, but Jones assured fans that he wasn’t done yet.

Jon Jones wrestles Ciryl Gane of France in the UFC heavyweight championship fight during the UFC 285 event at T-Mobile Arena on March 04, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Jon Jones wrestles Ciryl Gane of France in the UFC heavyweight championship fight during the UFC 285 event at T-Mobile Arena on March 04, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

What’s Next For Jones: With the Jones and Miocic heavyweight title fight off, the UFC pivoted and selected rising stars Sergei Pavlovich and Tom Aspinall to compete for the interim UFC heavyweight title at UFC 295. Aspinall would go on to knock out Pavlovich and win the interim heavyweight belt. This creates an interesting scenario for Jones. First and foremost, Jones has to recover from his injury, but after that, he is expected to face Miocic. Will Aspinall wait for the winner or defend his interim belt? We’ll find out in 2024.

Interim UFC Heavyweight Champion Tom Aspinall

In July of 2022, Tom Aspinall suffered a devastating knee injury that put him out of the heavyweight title mix. It was his first loss in the UFC, and it pushed him out of action for almost a full year to the day.

Aspinall returned looking sharper than ever – knocking out Marcin Tybura in 73 seconds and putting his name right at the top of the list for future title contenders.

That’s why when his phone rang at the end of October and he was asked if he was willing to step in and fight Sergei Pavlovich for the interim title, he couldn’t have said yes quicker. 

Tom Aspinall of England punches Sergei Pavlovich of Russia in the interim UFC heavyweight championship fight during the UFC 295 event at Madison Square Garden on November 11, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Tom Aspinall of England punches Sergei Pavlovich of Russia in the interim UFC heavyweight championship fight during the UFC 295 event at Madison Square Garden on November 11, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

Pavlovich entered UFC 295 on a six fight first round knockout streak, but Aspinall put an end to that streak, knocking out Pavlovich in 69 seconds. It was a wild sequence and it showed just how ready Aspinall was physically and mentally for such a challenge. Aspinall let the emotions flow, and after the tough year he had in 2022, he ended 2023 on an absolute high.

What’s Next For Aspinall: The truth is that Aspinall would love to fight Jon Jones. Not only is that the biggest fight for Aspinall, but it’s the only fight that would give him the opportunity to test himself against the fighter many consider the greatest of all-time. If that fight doesn’t materialize and Jones chooses to pursue the fight with Mioicic, Aspinall will likely have to wait and see how that plays out before picking an opponent.

UFC Women’s Strawweight Champion Zhang Weili

Zhang Weili recaptured the strawweight title to close out 2022 and opened the door to face all contenders in 2023. Her first title defense of her second reign at 115 pounds came in the form of Brazilian finisher Amanda Lemos at UFC 292 in Boston.

It might have been Zhang’s best performance to date, as she went on to set records for significant strikes and collect a dominant unanimous decision victory. Zhang continues to grow as one of the biggest stars in the sport and, as the champ, there are incredible fights on the horizon for “Magnum.”

Zhang Weili of China celebrates after her knockout victory over Joanna Jedrzejczyk of Poland in a flyweight fight during the UFC 275 event at Singapore Indoor Stadium on June 12, 2022 in Singapore. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Zhang Weili of China celebrates after her knockout victory over Joanna Jedrzejczyk of Poland in a flyweight fight during the UFC 275 event at Singapore Indoor Stadium on June 12, 2022 in Singapore. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

What’s Next For Zhang: It’s not clear who the next opponent is for Zhang, but Yan Xioanan and Tatiana Suarez are the two names that people seem to be tossing out there as options. Suarez is booked to face Lemos at UFC 298 on February 17 and with a statement win she will certainly make a great argument that she should be next to challenge Zhang.

UFC Women’s Flyweight Champion Alexa Grasso

2023 was the year of Alexa Grasso.

The Mexican flyweight pulled off the biggest upset and the best submission of the year when she took the title from longtime champion Valentina Shevchenko. The win sent shockwaves through the fight game and propelled Grasso to stardom.

So how did Grasso follow up her movie moment performance? By headlining Noche UFC and defending her title in a back-and-forth rematch with Shevchenko that resulted in a split draw. It was a crazy fight and sure, Grasso would have loved to have defended her belt behind a definitive result, but, at the same time, the fight showed the gap between Grasso and Shevchenko didn’t exist and that Grasso shouldn’t be underestimated any longer.

Alexa Grasso of Mexico reacts after retaining her title with a draw against Valentina Shevchenko of Kyrgyzstan in the UFC flyweight championship fight during the Noche UFC event at T-Mobile Arena on September 16, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Alexa Grasso of Mexico reacts after retaining her title with a draw against Valentina Shevchenko of Kyrgyzstan in the UFC flyweight championship fight during the Noche UFC event at T-Mobile Arena on September 16, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris

What’s Next For Grasso: After Grasso and Shevchenko’s incredible second fight, the UFC hinted that they would love to run that back for a third time. Unfortunately, injuries to both Grasso and Shevchenko prevented the two from competing when the UFC returns to Mexico in February, but hopefully both Grasso and Shevchenko will be ready to go in the near future. If Shevchenko isn’t the option for Grasso’s next defense, then the winner of Erin Blanchfield and Manon Fiorot will likely be next.

What’s Next For UFC Women’s Bantamweight And UFC Women’s Featherweight Titles:

The departure of Amanda Nunes from the ranks left the belts at bantamweight and featherweight officially vacated.

Amanda Nunes of Brazil announces her retirement after her victory over Irene Aldana of Mexico in their women's bantamweight title fight during the UFC 289 event at Rogers Arena on June 10, 2023 in Vancouver, Canada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Amanda Nunes of Brazil announces her retirement after her victory over Irene Aldana of Mexico in their women's bantamweight title fight during the UFC 289 event at Rogers Arena on June 10, 2023 in Vancouver, Canada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

Nunes defended her bantamweight title one final time at UFC 289 against Irene Aldana and then chose to call it a career and what a career it was. With “The Lioness” out of the title picture for the first time in many years, the opportunity for other contenders to claim UFC gold is coming in 2024.

At UFC 297 on January 20, Raquel Pennington and Mayra Bueno Silva will fight for the vacant bantamweight title. 

As for featherweight, it’s to be determined what’s going to happen at 145 pounds.