Sometimes you can’t change the channel.
It could be the two-way greatness of Shohei Ohtani in baseball, the long-range excellence of Stephen Curry in basketball or the overwhelming power and quickness of Aaron Donald in football. It becomes hard to look away if they’re on your television screen.
But who are those people in MMA?
We’re past the midway point in the calendar, and as fight fans, we can sometimes settle in on just the big names and significant events of the year: from our favorite fighters to the big pay-per-views with titles on the line and the characters who make MMA genuinely unique.
In the name of switching things up and showcasing the uniqueness of the stars in MMA, we asked MMA experts Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Sam Bruce to spotlight the fighters, fight camps and atmospheres that get their full attention whenever they’re up to fight along with why you should give them your time.
The fighters we drop everything to see in the Octagon
If you love knockouts: Francis Ngannou
Raimondi: Ngannou is perhaps the most fearsome knockout artist in UFC history. The UFC heavyweight champion’s legendary power has been compared to being hit by a small car. The Cameroon-born fighter had to scratch out a decision win on a bad knee against Ciryl Gane at UFC 270 back in February. But don’t let that performance fool you. Before that, Ngannou knocked out five straight opponents, three of whom were former UFC heavyweight champions.
“The Predator” has 10 knockouts in 12 UFC victories. His uppercut KO of Alistair Overeem in December 2017 was one of the most visually frightening and vicious ever in mixed martial arts — and he did it with his left hand, his second-best weapon. Terrifying stuff.
If you love submissions: Charles Oliveira
Okamoto: The lightweight champ (not officially, but certainly unofficially) has the most submission wins in UFC history, and how he gets them is second to none. When world-class opponents, like Justin Gaethje and Dustin Poirier, refuse to follow you to the canvas after scoring a knockdown — because your guard is that dangerous — that’s all you need to know. His submission hit list in the Octagon reads like an advanced Brazilian jiu-jitsu seminar for black belts: finishes via D’Arce, Modified Peruvian Choke, Calf Slicer, Anaconda Choke.
For many MMA fighters, your submissions are only as good as your takedowns because you have to get the fight on the canvas first. Such is not the case with Oliveira. He can snatch a neck or limb from any position, and once he has it, there is no escape. In a sport in which knockouts are typically the prevailing highlight, Oliveira can make your jaw drop with his submissions.
If you love fighters with all the tools: Valentina Shevchenko
Okamoto: Shevchenko, the seven-time defending flyweight champion, is arguably the greatest female fighter of all time. She is as dedicated a martial artist as the world has ever seen. She is a master at her craft and has spent her entire life refining it around the world.
A multiple-time world champion in muay Thai, she has actually scored as many or more takedowns as her opponent in each flyweight appearance in the UFC. And, though she is coming off the most difficult title defense of her career, a decision win against Taila Santos in June, don’t consider making any downgrades to the champ. She is, in my opinion, the best female fighter. If you’re talking about well-rounded, complete skill sets, I will match her technique against anyone on the planet.
If you love striking excellence: Israel Adesanya
Raimondi: There is no better answer than Adesanya. The UFC middleweight champion has gotten criticism for some recent performances that were perceived to be dull, including his win earlier this month over Jared Cannonier at UFC 276. But, Adesanya, a longtime former champion kickboxer, is so far ahead of his 185-pound peers as a striker that he doesn’t need to do much out of his comfort zone to win. Adesanya, a Nigerian-born resident of New Zealand, is brilliant in managing distance and picking the right techniques at the right moment, and it has left some opponents frozen. His jabs and kicks are always perfectly timed and perfectly placed.
That is not Adesanya’s fault. If foes can’t find a way inside his reach, an area where they could do real damage, why should Adesanya put himself at risk? He’s winning some of these fights fairly easily while taking no damage. And, no damage means he can fight longer and make more money. Why would he not fight in this manner? If you love striking technique, Adesanya is your man. We haven’t seen this almost casual dominance on the feet in the UFC.
If you love cat-like quickness: Tom Aspinall
Okamoto: Aspinall’s speed, particularly his hand speed, is one of the most dangerous physical attributes in the sport right now. I’d put it up there with the likes of Francis Ngannou’s power, Frankie Edgar’s heart or Tony Ferguson’s gas tank. It’s a physical trait that is hard to prepare for because it’s unique. Aspinall can move. Watch the first minute of each of Aspinall’s fights in the UFC (some don’t last much longer than that), and you will see an obvious reaction from his opponents to his speed. They’re taken aback by it. And that description of “quickness” is perfect.
Aspinall has the kind of speed that pops. He flicks his punches more than he throws them. Most heavyweights will tell you this division relies on power, accuracy and luck more than any other sport. The skill and quickness of Aspinall make him stand out.
If you love wily and crafty veterans: Alexander Volkanovski
Bruce: Volkanovski is a fighter at the absolute top of his game, who has refined his craft to become arguably the best pound-for-pound mixed martial artist on the planet. You saw him pick apart Max Holloway, a future Hall of Famer, right? The Australian featherweight barely had a hand laid on him. This was a trilogy fight we wanted to see and a rivalry for which we now have a definitive and lasting answer. So who’s going to stop Volkanovski? Honestly, who do you think can eclipse him at featherweight? He has won 11 straight in the UFC, and only Holloway has gotten close to beating him. Perhaps it’ll come with a move up to lightweight? The world wants to see whether Volkanovski can become a champ-champ, so make it happen, Dana White. And, while you’re at it, bring it Down Under, too.
If you love trash talk: Colby Covington
Okamoto: This pick is going to be controversial because the name “Covington” is probably the most polarizing in the sport. But, to be fair, that illustrates the point. You will either love or hate Covington’s brand of trash talk.
There is no question he has crossed the line regarding what people believe acceptable, but he’s also very unapologetic. He’s willing to target anyone. Some might even say he has the worst trash talk in the UFC because they find his material to be forced and inauthentic — but he usually elicits a response, and in a way, that’s what matters most. His last opponent, Jorge Masvidal, took issue with Covington speaking about his family. Still, however he chooses to do it (whether you find it tasteful or not), Covington always does his fair share to push an event.
If you love young and brash: Tai Tuivasa
Bruce: Although the big-hitting Australian heavyweight could fit into the “knockout” category, given he has won five straight in the UFC either by KO or TKO, you have to love Tuivasa’s comprehensive approach. He doesn’t pretend to be a mixed martial arts technician by any stretch, yet every moment of a Tuivasa bout is must-watch television. Whether trying to work out which walkout song he’ll drop — Europop group Aqua and American pop star Vanessa Carlton have each had a run — to what kind of pain he will inflict on his opponent, he always has fans on their toes. Oh, and there’s also the monitoring of how long it will take to engulf a celebratory shoey. You simply can’t look away from Tuivasa, and he does it all with a smile.
Next up for “Bam Bam” is a trip to Paris to fight against Ciryl Gane. With one more win, Tuivasa might be tipping a shoey in celebrating a future heavyweight title shot.
The teams, regions and other miscellany we can’t get enough of
If you love team excellence: City Kickboxing
Okamoto: If you’re looking for the best fan experience of a single team in MMA, New Zealand’s City Kickboxing can’t be beaten. Middleweight champion Israel Adesanya serves as the frontman of the group, flanked by City Kickboxing affiliate and featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski and flyweight title challenger Kai Kara-France. You also have fan favorite Dan Hooker within the City Kickboxing roster.
Head coach Eugene Bareman deserves a lot of credit for the level this team has reached in an area that is not traditionally known as an MMA powerhouse. At the onset of the pandemic in 2020, few teams were impacted as much as City Kickboxing. New Zealand’s restrictions on group training and travel requirements added more complications. This team thrived amid circumstances that could have knocked them down.
If you can only watch one division: Bantamweight
Raimondi: Bantamweight, hands down. No division tops the depth and excitement of 135 pounds — across all promotions. Aljamain Sterling is the current UFC bantamweight champion, but fighters such as TJ Dillashaw, Petr Yan, Cory Sandhagen and Jose Aldo are nipping at his heels. On top of that, former bantamweight and flyweight champion Henry Cejudo will be back in that mix by October, legend Dominick Cruz is still a factor and there are rising stars, like Sean O’Malley, waiting in the wings. Merab Dvalishvili, a dominant wrestler, is in the mix, too.
Bellator is currently doing a bantamweight tournament that is stacked with potential future stars, like Raufeon Stots and Patchy Mix. Over in ONE, the 135-pound division has stars Demetrious Johnson, one of the greatest fighters of all time, and Adriano Moraes. Rizin in Japan did an excellent 135-pound tournament last year, won by Ultimate Fighter veteran Hiromasa Ougikuno. And this isn’t even mentioning top talents, like Sergio Pettis and Kyoji Horiguchi of Bellator, who are out because of injuries.
If you love geographical dominance: The Caucasus Region
Raimondi: An ordinary person might have no idea what the Caucasus region is, but for MMA fans, it’s part of the everyday vernacular. Fighters from that Eurasian area between the Caspian and the Black Sea — countries such as Russia and Georgia and republics such as Dagestan and Chechnya — are running roughshod through MMA right now. Khabib Nurmagomedov of Dagestan retired as the UFC lightweight champion and MMA pound-for-pound king, but he has a whole collection of fighters he is training coming up behind him, including Islam Makhachev (the top contender for the UFC lightweight belt), Umar Nurmagomedov and Usman Nurmagomedov. Umar is a UFC future bantamweight star, and Usman is one of Bellator’s top prospects.
Alexander Volkov, Magomed Ankalaev, Khamzat Chimaev, Makhachev, Arman Tsarukyan, Giga Chikadze, Movsar Evloev, Merab Dvalishvili and Askar Askarov are all from that part of the world and are currently ranked in the UFC top-10 rankings in their respective divisions. Up to four or five of them could get title shots before the end of 2023.
If you love WWE-esque ring entrances: Go East
Raimondi: Aside from unique instances, like Israel Adesanya’s choreographed dancing and Undertaker homage, the UFC has gotten away from spectacular entrances. Fighters have to wear their Venum fight kits with UFC sponsors on them to the cage, and some individuality has been sucked out of what should be one of the most fun parts of a big fight night. Thank goodness for MMA in Asia, which has had the best entrances in the sport going back to Pride FC. In today’s MMA world, ONE Championship and Rizin have the best.
Every Stamp Fairtex walkout is a spectacle in ONE, from anime outfits to singing to dancing. Miyuu Yamamoto’s 2018 emotional entrance in Rizin to the Fugees following her brother’s death — legendary Japanese MMA fighter Kid Yamamoto — is probably the best in MMA this decade. Bellator tries to differentiate itself with fun entrances, too. But Asian MMA is where it’s at regarding this aspect of sports entertainment. On an average card, you’ll see wild costumes, Japanese pop artists singing fighters to the ring or cage and more. A special shoutout to Rizin’s annual New Year’s Eve show, which is always one of the most fun MMA cards of the year because of the wild and sometimes wacky entrances.
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