How six fighters could hold the UFC light heavyweight gold in 2023

Sports

Chuck Liddell is long retired. Same for Randy Couture and Tito Ortiz. Jon Jones was last UFC light heavyweight champion over two years ago.

Once the UFC’s glamour division filled with mainstream stars and future Hall of Famers, the 205-pound weight class is going through an awkward phase. There’s no champion now following the UFC 282 main event Saturday between Jan Blachowicz and Magomed Ankalaev, which was a contest for the vacant title. Blachowicz and Ankalaev fought to a split draw and the most recent champion, Jiří Procházka, had to relinquish the belt due to a severe shoulder injury.

In response to the lack of a winner in the Blachowicz vs. Ankalaev fight, the UFC quickly booked ESPN’s No. 2 ranked light heavyweight Glover Teixeira vs. No. 7 ranked Jamahal Hill for the still vacant title at UFC 283 on Jan. 21 in Brazil. UFC chief business officer Hunter Campbell and matchmaker Mick Maynard worked the phones while still inside the bowels of T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas minutes after the conclusion of UFC 282. The Teixeira vs. Hill fight is now “done,” per UFC president Dana White.

The light heavyweight division has been through a bumpy ride over the past couple of years, since division anchor and all-time great Jones vacated the belt in August 2020 to focus on a move to heavyweight. But 2023 has a chance to be a new year for the once-hallmark UFC division, filled with fresh matchups, new faces and interesting stories.

Here’s a look at the potential candidates who could be clutching gold at 205 pounds at this time next year:


The former champs

Jiří Procházka, No. 1 ranked light heavyweight (29-3-1)

2022 recap: This was the year many expected from Procházka. The UFC was very excited when it signed Procházka in 2020, and he’s shown exactly why through three appearances. Going into 2022, Procházka was a trendy pick to become a UFC champion, and he met those expectations in June when he defeated Glover Teixeira in a fight of the year candidate. After beating Teixeira, Procházka asked for an immediate rematch to prove he could win in a much more dominant fashion. And he was set up to do so until he suffered a serious shoulder injury, which prompted him to relinquish the belt in November.

How to get the title in 2023: Health. Even after suffering the injury, Procházka met with UFC executives and tried to show them how he could still defend his title against Teixeira with just one arm. That’s how badly he wanted this fight. Of course, that was never going to happen, but he’s already stated that he’d like to return in six months. What he needs to do is put his full focus on recovery and forget a time frame for now. A clean bill of health is the most important thing. The UFC has already said he’ll get a title shot as soon as he’s ready. Whether or not that comes in 2023 is up to his recovery.

Biggest issue to address: Fight IQ. In addition to recovering, Procházka needs to maximize his skill set, which means fighting smart. He did not do that against Teixeira the last time, which led to him wanting that immediate rematch. He knew he could perform better than he did in that one, and a lot of that comes down to simple decision-making. — Okamoto


Glover Teixeira, No. 2 ranked light heavyweight (33-8)

2022 recap: When this year started, Teixeira was the light heavyweight champion, and he was the second-oldest champ in UFC history at 42 years old. Teixeira choked out Jan Blachowicz at UFC 267 in October 2021 to win the title and then dropped the belt to Procházka in an all-time classic fight at UFC 275 in June.

How to get the title in 2023: The now-43-year-old Brazilian-born scrapper will have a chance to become a two-time champion in an impromptu title fight with Jamahal Hill at UFC 283 on Jan. 21 in his home country. That fight emanated from a lackluster split draw between Blachowicz and Ankalaev at UFC 282, a bout that left the title vacant.

Biggest issue to address: Location? Teixeira had a chance to fight Ankalaev in that bout for the title when Procházka vacated the title due to a badly torn shoulder. It turns out, the crafty veteran made the right call considering the outcome and his opportunity to get the title on his native soil. — Raimondi


The rising stars ready to take over at 205

Aleksandar Rakic, No. 6 ranked light heavyweight (14-3)

2022 recap: It was somewhat of a lost year for Rakic, who came into 2022 with hopes of a breakout year. He was supposed to face Blachowicz in March, but the bout was pushed back a couple of months due to a Blachowicz injury. When the fight happened in May, Rakic started to heat up in the third round when he suffered a torn ACL that ended his night and his year. He underwent surgery shortly after and is expected to return in the first half of 2023.

How to get the title in 2023: Health and opportunity. There is a lot to like in Rakic’s game. He’s very physical and athletic for the weight class. He’s durable. He’s a technical striker, who was showing improved wrestling against Blachowicz before the injury. He comes well-prepared. Rakic would likely still be a betting underdog against the likes of Procházka, but if so, not by much. He’s a legit contender in this division.

Biggest issue to address: More efficient grappling. Rakic has shown a willingness to take things to the floor, more so than some of his light heavyweight counterparts. But seven fights in, his takedown accuracy is a paltry 25%. And in a split-decision loss to Volkan Oezdemir, who isn’t known as a wrestling guru, he converted just one of nine attempts. If he can increase that success rate and give opponents something else to think about, that will help in some of these future matchups. — Okamoto


Jamahal Hill, No. 7 ranked light heavyweight (11-1, 1 NC)

2022 recap: Hill capped 2021 with a highlight-reel knockout over fellow up-and-comer Jimmy Crute. And he did nothing to cool his momentum as a rising star at 205 pounds in 2022. The Chicago native knocked out Johnny Walker in the first round in February and then dispatched former title challenger Thiago Santos via fourth-round TKO in August.

How to get the title in 2023: Initially, Hill was scheduled for what could have been a top contender matchup with Anthony Smith in March 2023. Instead, due to the Blachowicz vs. Ankalaev result, the 31-year-old will be thrust into a title shot against Teixeira.

Biggest issue to address: On the feet. Hill is as dangerous as anyone in the division. But he’ll have to stymie the wrestling and grappling — not to mention the veteran poise — of Teixeira if he wants to leave Rio de Janeiro with gold after UFC 283. — Raimondi


Recovering from the fallout of UFC 282

Jan Blachowicz, No. 3 ranked light heavyweight (29-9-1)

2022 recap: Blachowicz came oh-so-close to erasing a disappointing title loss to Glover Teixeira in 2021, but in the end it wasn’t meant to be. Had Blachowicz won the fifth round of his title fight against Ankalaev, he would have claimed the undisputed title he held from 2020 to 2021. Heck, had he even avoided losing the fifth round by a 10-8 score on one judge’s scorecard, he would have reclaimed the belt. That’s how close he came to getting it done. Alas, his 2022 wraps up with a 1-0-1 record and no UFC championship.

After jumping ahead with leg kicks in the opening rounds, Saturday’s fight was Blachowicz’s to lose — and he lost it because he couldn’t stop Ankalaev’s grappling. Even when he knew it was coming, he was badly outmatched in the later rounds. Trying to counter wrestling also cost him the title in 2021 against Teixeira.

How to get the title in 2023: Dominant performances and luck. Let’s not sugarcoat: Blachowicz is probably in the worst spot of any of the top title candidates after what happened at UFC 282. Teixeira and Hill will fight for the belt in January. Then, most likely, the winner would face Ankalaev — assuming he’s healthy. And then, beyond that, you’re starting to wonder if Procházka will return or if even another contender could emerge. Even though it was a draw, the immediate outlook for Blachowicz looks a lot like it would have with a loss. He’ll need some cards to fall his way and need to take full advantage of them if he is to pull off a title run in 2023.

Biggest issue to address: Keep the fight standing. Blachowicz turns 40 in February. His game is going to stay pretty much the same. Still, Blachowicz has enough going for him on the feet that he may win the title again, but he has to be able to keep it standing. You can bet all his future opponents will want to put him on the mat. — Okamoto


Magomed Ankalaev, No. 4 ranked light heavyweight (18-1-1)

2022 recap: All things considered, it was an excellent year for Ankalaev — but if you had to sum it up with one word on Saturday, it’d be heartbreak. That felt like his fight, especially at the end. His opponent, Blachowicz, seemed to indicate at the end that Ankalaev had won. And then it’s ruled a split draw. History will eventually show that 2022 was, in fact, a good year for Ankalaev. He was dominant against the likes of Santos and Smith. He asserted himself as one of the top light heavyweights on the planet and, in the eyes of many, he did enough to become a UFC champion. But he is not, and that has to hurt.

Biggest issue to address: Protect those legs. Ankalaev had nearly been an uncrackable code until the first two rounds of last weekend’s main event, where Blachowicz appeared to hurt him with leg kicks. Now, let’s not make too big of a deal about this. This isn’t to say there is now a blueprint for beating him. Blachowicz exposed something here, and even then, he couldn’t beat Ankalaev on essentially one leg. Ankalaev is young and talented enough to learn from Saturday’s fight and close this potential hole in his game. But for someone who had been nearly perfect, this was a dent that future opponents will target. Ankalaev can’t let it expand beyond what happened on Saturday.

How to get the title in 2023: One win. UFC president Dana White wasn’t too happy about how this fight went, but once the dust settles, I believe the UFC will still look at Ankalaev as a No. 1 contender. One thing that is working in Ankalaev’s favor is that the next title fight will take place soon. Teixeira and Hill will square off at UFC 283 in January, leaving plenty of time for another title fight after that, before Procházka is healthy enough to have his say. One has to believe Ankalaev will focus on healing from any damage taken Saturday and eye the winner of January’s title fight. That’s likely all he’ll need to win the belt. A single win. — Okamoto


Who could hold the belt in 2024?

Carlos Ulberg, not currently ranked (8-1)

City Kickboxing in New Zealand has a proven formula. That blueprint took Israel Adesanya and Alexander Volkanovski to UFC titles and to the top of the MMA pound-for-pound rankings. Ulberg, a 32-year-old Kiwi slugger, could be next. He’s won three straight, the past two by knockout, and has the size, stopping power and skills to be a factor in 2023 and beyond.

Ulberg’s only career loss came against Kennedy Nzechukwu, a fight he was winning until some cardio issues. That’s something he’ll need to repair — plus the ability to close tough opponents effectively — to make a serious run. — Raimondi

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