A new year is here, and that means it’s time for Combat Press to take a look back at the best of MMA in 2023. In the coming days, Combat Press will announce its award winners in multiple categories, covering everything from the action in the cage to the biggest stories surrounding the sport.
All throughout the calendar year, fans and pundits find quite a few fights the everyone is calling Fight of the Year. One of the best features of combat sports are those banger fights that are super exciting and closely matched. A good brawl is entertaining, and that is something deeply ingrained in the human psyche. 2023 had some amazing scraps.
At UFC 284, two of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the world met for the UFC lightweight championship. Reigning featherweight champ Alexander Volkanovski took on lightweight king Islam Makhachev on Volkanovski’s home turf. After a crazy five rounds, while the judges scored a unanimous decision for Makhachev, many thought that one could have gone to Volkanovski. It was a total war, but it doesn’t quite edge out a flyweight title bout that was the co-main event of another Volkanovski headliner five months later.
UFC 290 was the annual International Fight Week event in Jul. 2023 in Las Vegas. Volkanovski unified the featherweight strap with a knockout of interim champ Yair Rodriguez in the main event. But, it was the fight before that stole the show. Flyweight champion Brandon Moreno faced top challenger Alexandre Pantoja in the pair’s second official meeting, but third overall fight, as they also fought on The Ultimate Fighter 24. In the elimination round of TUF 24, Pantoja submitted Moreno with a second-round rear-naked choke. Two years later, at UFC Santiago in Chile, Pantoja won a dominant unanimous decision.
After their second meeting, Moreno went 4-0-1, with a draw against Askar Askarov, before entering into a years-long affair of back-and-forth title bouts with Deiveson Figueiredo with a win over Kai Kara-France for the interim strap sprinkled in. Pantoja, on the other hand, went 6-2 in that time, with decision losses to Figueiredo and Askarov. A first-round submission of Alex Perez set Pantoja up to face Moreno once again.
At UFC 290, Round 1 was a great round for Pantoja. After half of a round of Moreno clinching the Brazilian against the fence, the latter half of the round was all Pantoja, as he battered the champ on the mat and on the feet. In the second round, Moreno worked his jab to get a takedown, and he got Pantoja’s back. They eventually ended up on the feet, trading nasty strikes over and over again for the last couple minutes. Round 3 started with a Pantoja knee to the champ’s groin, and after the action restarted, Pantoja got Moreno to the mat, taking his back, and working for submissions. As they got back to the feet with three minutes left, the two men, bloody and bettered, traded shot after shot, with both landing bombs, before Pantoja gets another takedown and some nasty ground strikes.
With the fight likely at 29-28 Pantoja, they entered the championship rounds, and Round 4 was a doozy. Just in the first minute, the two landed every strike imaginable, from jabs and hooks to leg kicks and elbows, which ended, when Moreno landed a huge elbow, causing Pantoja to take him down. For the remaining four minutes, the action flip-flopped between Moreno landing punches, and Pantoja taking him down.
Pantoja appeared to be up 39-37 at this point. In the final round, the action started a bit slow with both men clearly tired. When the shots started landing, it appeared that Moreno was getting a lot more damage done, even though the two had the same number of significant strikes landed by the midpoint. Eventually, Pantoja gets to Moreno’s back while the two were on the feet, and that was the case until the time ran out. This one could have easily gone to Moreno, as he did more damage, and Pantoja did almost nothing while riding Moreno’s back. This one should have been 48-47 Pantoja across the board, but somehow it was a split decision in favor of Pantoja with Ben Cartlidge scoring it 49-46 for Moreno.
Regardless of the one bad scorecard, this flyweight title fight was amazing and action-packed. Both men left it all out there and for that reason, the UFC 290 showdown between Brandon Moreno and Alexandre Pantoja wins the Combat Press 2023 MMA Award for Fight of the Year.
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