How is it already December?
While I won’t go so far as to say, “It feels like just yesterday we were ringing in the New Year,” the summer doesn’t actually feel that long ago to me. Maybe it’s because I had such a good time at UFC 289 in Vancouver or there have been a lot of things going on for me personally and professionally over the last six months, but how did July, August, September, October, and the vast majority of November already come and go?
Despite feeling like we got here too quickly, December is always one of my favorite months of the year because in addition to the holidays — which means good eats, good friends, and good times — the slate of action that hits the Octagon is always outstanding and this year is no different.
Here’s a look at the key pairings slated to take place as the UFC closes out 2023 with a bang.
UFC Fight Night: Dariush vs Tsarukyan — Saturday, December 2 (Austin, TX)
Sean Brady vs Kelvin Gastelum
Sean Brady and Kelvin Gastelum are set to share the cage next weekend in the Texas capital, and both have a great deal to prove, which elevates the anticipation and intrigue surrounding this matchup.
Brady returns for the first time in over a year, having been forced to sit with his loss to Belal Muhammad at UFC 280 last October as the last entry on his resume for much longer than I’m sure he would have liked. Injuries have forced him out of a couple different assignments already this year, and now the 31-year-old comes back looking to get himself back into the conversation as one of the top ascending talents in the division after being at the vanguard of that pack earlier in his UFC run.
This will be Gastelum’s first appearance at welterweight since UFC 200, where he out-hustled former champ Johnny Hendricks. His time at middleweight was uneven, yet featured some huge moments, most notably his epic battle with Israel Adesanya at UFC 236, but it remains to be seen if the former Ultimate Fighter winner can rediscover that form and make a run in the 170-pound ranks.
Each of these men were tagged as potential welterweight contenders at one point in their careers and neither has reached that point as of yet. This showdown will go a long way to determine if either (or both) still carry that potential and where each fits in the division going forward.
Rob Font vs Deiveson Figueiredo
Bantamweight is the best division in the sport at the moment (in my opinion) and this is another example as to why, as Top 10 mainstay Rob Font welcomes former flyweight ruler Deiveson Figueiredo to the 135-pound weight class for the first time.
Font returns to the Octagon in a weird place — not quite four months removed from a lopsided decision loss to Cory Sandhagen, having gone 1-3 over his last four fights, but still quite clearly standing as one of the best fighters in the division. He hasn’t been able to take that final step that vaults him into the championship picture as of yet, but a bounce-back win over a former titleholder like Figueiredo would help in those efforts.
“Deus de Guerra” moves up after going 1-2-1 over the last three years against Brandon Moreno and a three-year run at the top of the flyweight division. This move always seemed inevitable, however it’ll be interesting to see how Figueiredo’s speed and power translate up a division where he’ll be giving up height and reach to most of the elite talents in the weight class.
Beneil Dariush vs Arman Tsarukyan
Standout lightweights Beneil Dariush and Arman Tsarukyan headline the UFC’s return to Austin in a battle with obvious championship ramifications.
Dariush looks to get things moving in the right direction again after having his eight-fight winning streak snapped by Charles Oliveira at UFC 289 in June. The 34-year-old veteran has to feel like his window of opportunity to challenge for championship gold is starting to close, and he will look to put himself right back into the title conversation by halting Tsarukyan’s ascent here.
This is the type of matchup the surging Tsarukyan has been seeking out for some time — a date with a Top 5 opponent where a victory could carry him one step closing to challenging for the UFC lightweight title. The 27-year-old has earned back-to-back wins since his debated decision loss to Mateusz Gamrot last summer, and is 7-1 overall since pushing current champ Islam Makhachev to a decision in his short-notice promotional debut in 2019.
This has a classic “veteran versus emerging contender” vibe to it and I’m fascinated to see how things shake out when these two hit the Octagon next weekend.
UFC Fight Night: Song vs Gutierrez — Saturday, December 9 (Las Vegas, NV)
Song Yadong vs Chris Gutierrez
Furthering my “bantamweight is the best” argument is the fact that these two ranked standouts are set to headline opposite one another on the second fight card of the month.
The 25-year-old Song, who currently sits at No. 7 in the rankings, rebounded from his loss to Cory Sandhagen last September with a dominant showing against Ricky Simon that ended in a fifth-round stoppage at the end of April. Now 9-2-1 inside the Octagon, the Team Alpha Male representative is already one of the top fighters in the division, and yet still has plenty of time to continue developing and adding to his game.
For the second time this year, Gutierrez looks to force his way into the Top 10 with a win over a fighter stationed ahead of him in the rankings. After losing to Pedro Munhoz in April, “El Guapo” quickly course corrected with a clean victory on the scorecards against Alantengheili, moving to 8-1-1 over his last 10 and setting up this showdown with Song in the process.
UFC 296: Edwards vs Covington — Saturday, December 16 (Las Vegas, NV)
Josh Emmett vs Giga Chikadze
The final preliminary card fight of 2023 comes in the featherweight division, as recent interim title challenger Josh Emmett looks to get things moving in the right direction again, while Giga Chikadze aims to take another step forward towards contention.
Emmett entered the year on a five-fight winning streak, staring down an interim title fight opposite Yair Rodriguez at UFC 284. That bout went sideways in a hurry, and his return to action in June against Ilia Topuria got away from him, as well, leaving the veteran from Sacramento looking to close out the year with a return to the win column at UFC 296.
MORE UFC 296: The Journey Means More To Colby Covington
Chikadze returned from an 18-month absence in August, registering a unanimous decision win over Alex Caceres to move his record to 8-1 inside the Octagon. The former kickboxing standout stumbled in his first attempt to claim a place in the title conversation, and aims to learn from that experience and get it right with a victory here.
This feels like one of those fights where regardless of how things play out, we’re going to come away with a better understanding of where each man is at in their respective careers and better equipped to forecast what the future may hold. Plus, it should be entertaining as hell to watch them get after one another when the cage door closes and the referee starts the fight.
Vicente Luque vs Ian Machado Garry
Vicente Luque and Ian Machado Garry face off in the UFC 296 main card opener, serving as the first of three elite welterweight pairings that will grace the Octagon on December 16.
The Brazilian veteran returned to action and the win column in August, halting a two-fight skid with a unanimous decision win over Rafael Dos Anjos. One of the most well-rounded and dangerous fighters in the division, Luque was on the precipice of contention before faltering last year, but can get himself right back there by handing “The Future” the first loss of his career.
Just 26 years old, Machado Garry is already 6-0 in the UFC, 13-0 for his career, and stationed in the Top 10 in the welterweight division. To this point, he has backed up everything he’s said he was going to do, and now he gets the first real significant challenge of his UFC tenure in the form of his friend and former training partner.
These are the fights that fascinate me most in this sport: a pairing between an established, ultra-talented finisher like Luque where we know what it means to beat him and how difficult that task is to achieve, and an undefeated, emerging star brimming with confidence and bent on proving he’s the genuine article.
Shavkat Rakhmonov vs Stephen Thompson
This one fits that bill, as well, and the fact that they’re both taking place at UFC 296 makes it even more delightful!
Rakhmonov pushed his record to 17-0 with a third-round standing rear naked choke finish of Geoff Neal at UFC 285 in March. He’s never been to the scorecards in his career, and has passed every test that has been placed in front of him to date with flying colors, justifying the hype that accompanied his arrival on the big stage and putting him squarely in the championship hunt in the 170-pound weight class.
The fact that “Wonderboy” remains a legitimate Top 10 talent and tough out for anyone in the division despite being a 40-year-old “Wonderman” is a testament to his work ethic, skill, and drive as a competitor. He out-worked Kevin Holland last December in Orlando to get things moving in the right direction again, and much like Luque above, could put himself front and center in future title discussions by knocking off Rakhmonov to close out the year.
Alexandre Pantoja vs Brandon Royval
Alexandre Pantoja makes the first defense of his flyweight title, facing off with frenetic finisher Brandon Royval in the UFC 296 co-main event.
After claiming the title with a split decision win over Brandon Moreno in July, Pantoja looks to extend his winning streak to five by successfully defending his title for the first time. Well-rounded and brandishing arguably the most experience in the division, the 33-year-old Brazilian has every opportunity to be the next in the line of entertaining, all-action competitors to hold the flyweight belt.
Royval is the fighting equivalent of throwing a lit match into a crate full of dynamite — you know something explosive is about to happen, but trying to predict what it’s going to look like is impossible. The UFC 296 title challenger arrives on a three-fight winning streak, having punched his ticket to this championship opportunity with a first-round knockout win over Matheus Nicolau in April where he hit the Brazilian standout with a perfectly placed, perfectly timed knee.
In addition to being a championship contest, this one is also a rematch, as Pantoja defeated Royval back in August 2021, catching the Factory X representative in a rear-naked choke. Will the champion continue to thrive against familiar foes or can Royval draw level while ascending to the top of the 125-pound weight class?
Leon Edwards vs Colby Covington
The final bout of the UFC’s 2023 campaign is a welterweight championship bout between reigning, defending, undisputed champion Leon “Rocky” Edwards and former interim titleholder and two-time title challenger Colby “Chaos” Covington.
Edwards cemented his standing as the top man in the 170-pound ranks with a majority decision win over Kamaru Usman in March, earning 48-46 scores on two scorecards with a 47-47 total on the other. Now unbeaten in a dozen fights, this is the champion’s opportunity to move beyond the established set in the division and position himself to face the next wave of welterweight contenders in 2024 and beyond.
Covington returns to Las Vegas hoping the third time is the charm, having come up short on twin bids to wrestle the title away from Usman in the past. He’s rebounded from each of those defeats with resounding victories and has a pressure-based style that is a nightmare to deal with, but hasn’t fought since dispatching Jorge Masvidal at UFC 272, which raises questions about where he stands at the moment.
This is one of those matchups where loads of people believe they know exactly how things are going to play out, and it’s been my experience over the last dozen years covering this sport that those moments are typically when things go cattywampus, so just keep that in mind.
It’s been an absolutely phenomenal year of action inside the Octagon — more on that in the weeks to come — and this should be an amazing way to wrap things up.
UFC Fight Night: Dariush vs Tsarukyan took place live from Moody Center in Austin, Texas on December 2, 2023. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass!