6 Biggest MMA Surprises of 2023

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The year 2023 has almost ended, and boy, some surprises came up this calendar year in the world of MMA. You could think of some yourself, but we came up with 6 of the biggest MMA surprises from 2023.

From fighters becoming champions to mental health struggles to the heavyweight kings colliding in the squared circle and one organization purchasing another. Check out our list below in no particular order.

The Biggest WOW Moments in MMA this Year

PFL Buys Bellator

It had been rumored for quite some time; however, on November 20, 2023, it became official — PFL purchased Bellator MMA.

From the article Frazer Krohn penned on MMASucka.com, this was announced at the time of the purchase.

What We Know

  • The price has not yet been disclosed
  • Paramount (Bellator’s former owners) will retain a minority stake
  • Both promotions will remain separate, however, they will share a roster of fighters
  • Bellator will remain as a separate, ‘reimagined’ brand with a Bellator International Champions Series
  • There will be a “mega event” in 2024 which will be built around PFL champions vs. Bellator Champions

Bibiano Fernandes Parts Ways with ONE Championship

He may have just opened a gym in Langley, British Columbia, called Flash MMA, but he has parted ways with his home for the past 11 years — Bibiano Fernandes and ONE Championship part ways. Guilherme Cruz of MMAFighting.com spoke with Fernandes and broke the news of the former champion leaving the organization.

The 44-year-old broke many records under the ONE Championship banner, including most title fight victories in promotion history at 11. However, with his contract expiring in December, the promotion decided they would not offer him a new deal.

“I wasn’t mad at them,” Fernandes told MMAFighting. “Do I think they could have offered me more fights? One-hundred percent. I was out for three years, basically, and they could have offered me more fights. Was I a bit upset? I was, but that’s life. Many people in the world work hard, give their lives for the company they work for, and in the end [the company] owners say, ‘Thank you for your work,’ and that’s it. I was sad, but what can I do? Life goes on.”

Will Fernandes fight again to write the ending of his story? That is unknown. But “Flash” will coach the next generation at his new gym.

Francis Ngannou Boxes Tyson Fury

It was quite a surprise when boxing and MMA world fans learned that former UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou would be fighting Tyson Fury inside a boxing ring. This wasn’t the first time we saw a UFC fighter compete against one of the best inside the squared circle — Conor McGregor made a spectacle around the globe when he fought Floyd Mayweather. However, this time, the shock did not just last on the announcement but also after the final bell sounded.

Transitioning from MMA to boxing is not the easiest science, but Ngannou performed for a lifetime inside the ring. He even knocked Fury down with a punch in the third round. In a very close bout, Ngannou lost on the judges’ scorecards. However, many fans and critics had the Cameroonian winning on their scorecards.

Sean Strickland Becomes UFC Champion

In Sydney, Australia, Sean Strickland went into enemy territory and came out with his hand raised. His hand was raised after beating Israel Adesanya, and he surprised everyone by becoming the UFC middleweight champion.

Strickland fought bell to bell in a 25-minute utter domination of one of the best fighters in the world.

At UFC 293, Strickland earned a 49-46 unanimous decision on all three judges’ scorecards. Following the fight, he was emotional and had the following to say to Joe Rogan.

“Am I dreaming? Am I going to wake up? Someone hit me. … I don’t cry much, but I’m trying to keep it together right now,” an emotional Strickland said immediately after the bout. “I give up so many brain cells to the MMA gods… I thought I’d be walking away a little bloody, a little broken up. I’m a little shocked that didn’t happen.”

Up next for Strickland is a battle with nemesis Dricus Du Plessis.

Alexa Grasso Beats Valentina Shevchenko

At UFC 285, Alexa Grasso was the heavy underdog against one of the top females in the world, Valentina Shevchenko. The Russian was up two rounds to one on all three judges’ scorecards in this contest; however, in round four, the tides changed. Grasso was able to get the fight to the ground and secure a very tight squeeze on the face of Shevchenko. The pride of Mexico earned the women’s flyweight championship via face crank in the fourth round of the UFC 285 co-main event. That performance earned her the title of first-ever Mexican UFC champion and her first Performance of the Night bonus award.

On September 16, at UFC Fight Night 227, the two scrapped again, and the fight was declared a draw. The decision displeased Shevchenko as she had some choice words on the microphone following the battle, but the title was kept around Grasso’s waist. And once again, the MMA world was shocked.

Angela Lee Reveals Suicide Attempt Retires from MMA

In March this year, the MMA world lost a shining star, 18-year-old Victoria Lee. Her sister, Angela Lee, came out later this year to tell her story, retire from the sport, and push through to raise money for suicide awareness.

Fightstory is a charity she created and continues to push telling stories.

Lee revealed “My car crash in November 2017 was not an accident. It was a suicide attempt.” She would go on to explain “I was getting ready for my last title defense of the year, things started to snowball for me. Pressure, stress, and expectations all began to build up. I had tunnel vision and thought that this upcoming fight was the most important thing in my life. Looking back now, I had everything I could have wanted at the time, but I didn’t realize it. Didn’t fully appreciate it. Because I had gotten to a place where making weight for that fight was the biggest thing in the world to me.”

“I told myself: If you don’t get this done, you’ll lose everything. And, as an athlete, in all honesty, that mentality can be useful and motivating. But it’s also a double-edged sword. And, with me, I got to a point where I had pushed my mind and body too far. I couldn’t stop thinking about the shame that would result if I wasn’t able to make the fight…” Lee goes on to explain how she had never missed a competition in her life, especially due to a weight cut, and that was further stress on top what she was already experiencing.

Her organization is going to save lives, don’t underestimate that fact. On this Suicide Prevention Week, Lee ended her story with a simple reminder for everyone by saying “If you are struggling right now, if you are in a dark place, if you are contemplating ending your life, let us be the ones to say, we understand. We know how you feel…”

If you are the person Angela Lee is talking to, there are resources. Visit 988lifeline.org to find a number where you can have someone to talk to or chat with if talking isn’t easy.

Check out her organization Fightstory.

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Jeremy Brand is an experienced MMA writer and columnist. He is the founder of MMASucka.com, and has represented the company with media credentials at many mixed martial arts fights. Jeremy is also a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, training in BC, Canada.

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