As much as 2023 projects to be an exciting year for the UFC, and maybe even one of the best in company history, the global leader in mixed martial arts seems to be going through a transitional phase, at least as far as the top of the divisional rankings are concerned.
A youth movement has brought sweeping changes to the top of the UFC’s rankings. Kamaru Usman and Israel Adesanya, two mainstays atop their respective divisions, lost their belts in 2023 and while they are both currently booked for immediate rematches, it is far from a guarantee that one or both will be able to reclaim UFC gold. As a result, fight fans can expect to see a slew of fresh title fights in 2023 and beyond.
Meanwhile, fighters seem to be improving faster than ever, with vibrant, youthful athletes taking the UFC by storm. Raul Rosas Jr., who won a fight on Dana White’s Contender Series at just 17 years old, followed up by winning his UFC debut in the headlining prelims slot on the final pay-per-view of 2022. England’s Muhammad Mokaev, 22, has the aspiration to break Jon Jones’ record and become the youngest UFC champion of all time. Meanwhile, fighters like recent winner Jack Della Maddalena and former three-time NCAA amateur wrestling champion Bo Nickal are both 26, and have their best years ahead of them, potentially as future champions.
Names like these should ring a bell to most UFC fans. It’s not exactly a hot take to think either of them can force their way into a UFC title fight before long, particularly in Nickal’s case. Meanwhile, there are a slew of other unranked fighters that could wreak havoc in the UFC rankings as soon as this year if things break correctly for them.
Here are 10 unranked fighters to watch in 2023.
Ian Garry (10-0, 3-0 UFC)
Forget Paddy Pimblett. Ian Garry is arguably the best prospect to come out of Cage Warriors since Conor McGregor. Regardless, he is certainly the best Irish prospect to come along since McGregor, though Cage Warriors featherweight champion Paul Hughes may soon have something to say about that.
Garry fought just twice in 2022 but is already booked to make his return in March when he faces off with Song Kenan at UFC 285. He has displayed a level of technique well beyond his years and leaned heavily on his striking efficiency to beat Gabe Green by a unanimous decision in his most recent outing. Don’t confuse Garry for being McGregor-lite. He has his own confident demeanor about him that will lend to him becoming a star in no time, provided he continues his winning ways.
Tatsuro Taira (13-0, 3-0 UFC)
Mokaev may be grabbing most of the headlines in the flyweight division given his eagerness and bigtime skillset, but Tatsuro Taira has arguably been the more impressive prospect of the two to this point in their respective UFC careers. While Mokaev is 22 year old, Taira is 23 and just six months older than the Dagestani-born English fighter.
Taira’s skillset actually mirrors Mokaev in several ways. Striking is not his strong suit, but he is also competent enough to hang long enough with most fighters in the division to get the fight to mat. Once there, Taira has shown immense finishing ability, with armbar and triangle armbar victories already to his name. One more emphatic win will surely park Taira in the top-15 of the flyweight division where he could hang around for a very long time.
Yazmin Jauregui (10-0, 2-0 UFC)
Mexican women’s strawweight Yazmin Jauregui may have a few holes in her game to shore up before she truly begins her march towards the UFC Championship, but make no mistake, the 23-year-old is a bona fide superstar in the making. Jauregui’s striking defense is probably more porous than it needs to be, but she has also shown an ability to whether the storm and trudge forward.
Jauregui, an alumnus of Combate Global, fought Iasmin Lucindo in her UFC debut in a fight that turned out to be one of the best women’s three-round fights of the year. She then finished Istella Nunes on the ground in her follow-up fight and has finished six of her 10 victories. Given the premium on finishing ability in women’s MMA, Jauregui could eventually overtake Irene Aldana as Mexico’s most notable female fighter.
Mike Malott (8-1-1, 1-0 UFC)
The UFC has a Canada problem. Five months have passed since a Canadian fighter picked up a win in the UFC cage, with the most recent being Gillian Robertson when she submitted Mariya Agopova at the UFC Apex. This figures to change, however, when Ontario’s Mike Malott fights Quebec’s Yohan Lainesse this upcoming weekend. Lainesse packs massive power, but Malott has the skillset to become a bankable star for Canada if he keeps winning.
Malott has looked good since moving up to 170 pounds. The Canadian was formerly a prospect at 145 pounds, but injuries and extenuating circumstances outside the cage forced him into an early retirement. He resurfaced at 170 pounds on Dana White’s Contender Series in 2021, and finished Mickey Gall in violent fashion at UFC 273. Given the UFC’s need for bankable Canadian stars, Malott checks almost every box and should be pushed to the the top-15 in no time.
Gillian Robertson (11-7, 8-5 UFC)
Malott is not the only Canadian who can make waves in 2023. The aforementioned Robertson, a mainstay at 125 pounds, will be making her strawweight debut against the Piera Rodriguez this April. A ground specialist, Robertson’s performances have been somewhat dependent on the matchups in front of her, but she has found a new gear since moving her training camp to the Goat Shed in Miami, Fla.
Working out of the Goat Shed has allowed Robertson to fine tune her greatest skill: her grappling. She picked up a nasty submission over Mariya Agapova her last time out and recently appeared in the main event of Fury Pro Grappling 6 when she choked out two-time strawweight champion Rose Namajunas with relative ease. Robertson will now try her hand in a smaller weight class where punching power is less evident and her wrestling may have a more of an effect. If she can defeat Rodriguez and follow-up with another win this summer, watch out. She should be considered a fight-to-fight value on some of the best UFC betting sites in Canada.
Jonathan Pearce (14-4, 5-1 UFC)
Jonathan Pearce could appear in the UFC rankings in short order, as he has a huge fight with Bryce Mitchell lined up for UFC 288 in May. If he can defeat Mitchell, Pearce could go from unranked to the 11th-ranked featherweight in the UFC, given the manner in which fighters are ranked.
Pearce also bucks a trend of the first three fighters on this list – he is not undefeated, having suffered four losses in his career, including one to an aging Joe Lauzon in what will likely be the last of the legendary lightweight’s career. However, Pearce dropped to 145 pounds for his next fight and has been a revelation ever since. “JSP” is 5-0 with three finishes since falling to Lauzon, and can weaponize cardio as well as anyone outside of the division’s elite, though he is 30 and will need to make his move sooner rather than later.
Mike Davis (10-2, 3-1 UFC)
There is a lot to like about Mike Davis. He is arguably the most athletic unranked fighter in the lightweight division, and has fallen back on his athleticism in recent wins, sometimes to a fault. He has also flashed knockout power at different points in his career, has the smarts to know when the opportune time is to drag his opponents to the ground and the strength to finish takedowns and inflict damage from the top.
Davis also has a strong strength of schedule in his back pocket. His only losses have come to Sodiq Yusuf on Dana White’s Contender Series and future welterweight title challenger Gilbert Burns. As impressive as Davis has looked, the greatest impediment on his road to the top has been inactivity. “Beast Boy” has fought just twice in the last three years and four months have already passed since his victory against Slava Borschev at the UFC Apex. However, as long as he has the opportunity, the talent is there for Davis to make a big move up the rankings this year.
Montel Jackson (12-2, 6-2 UFC)
Speaking of athleticism, Montel Jackson might be in the top percentile of fighters at 135 pounds on athletic intangibles alone. Nicknamed “Quik,” Jackson is capable of not only putting a pace on some of the division’s most battled-tested fighters, but doing so with one of the division’s longest reaches (75.5 inches). For context, former champion Petr Yan has a reach of 67 inches, while current champion Aljamain Sterling’s is 71 inches. He even once claimed his hands are bigger than Francis Ngannou‘s.
Jackson’s recent victory over Julio Arce raised his stock tremendously. Wrestling-heavy gameplans have given him problems in the past, but his only losses have come to ranked bantamweight Ricky Simon and Bellator’s Brett Johns, two very good fighters. If he can shore up this area of his game, Jackson will undoubtedly hit the rankings, so long as he’s able to fight with consistency.
Gabriel Bonfim (14-0, 1-0 UFC)
As far as Brazilian prospects go, Gabriel Bonfim and his brother, Ismael may be two of the best the UFC has. The Bonfim brothers put on a show in front of their home fans at UFC 283, and will likely continue to be booked together so long as they keep up their winning ways. Gabriel is being specifically spotlighted due to having the stronger prospect profile heading into UFC 283, and for the way he destroyed Mounir Lazzez in a fight that floated around a pick ’em in most betting markets.
It took Gabriel less than a minute to submit Lazzez with a mounted guillotine. He is the younger of the Bonfim brothers and should have plenty of room to grow, even with a perfect 14-0 record already in hand. His striking is significantly better than most jiu-jitsu specialists, and wrestling will have to deal with a very active and skilled guard if they want to try and blanket him for three rounds. His ascent up the ladder should come naturally throughout the rest of the year.
Caio Borralho (13-1, 3-0 UFC)
Caio Borralho has several things going for him. He fights in a middleweight division relatively thin on depth outside the top seven or eight contenders. This is especially true considering Paulo Costa may be on his way out of the UFC. However, Borralho stand on his own two feet thanks to an all-around mixed martial arts skill set with a particularly strong grappling base that stems from years of training with former UFC contender Demian Maia.
Borralho finally got his UFC opportunity in 2022, even if it took him having to win two fights in four weeks on Dana White’s Contender Series. He has responded to that opportunity by winning each of his three fights and showing himself to be a dominant round winner who can effective utilize his wrestling in an offensive or defensive manner. Borralho fights Michał Oleksiejczuk the last weekend of April in what should represent a step up in competition for the 30-year-old Brazilian.