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Sean O'Malley was arguably 2023's best breakout star [Image Credit: @sugasean on Instagram]

5 best breakout UFC stars of 2023

With just three shows remaining this month, 2023 is almost over for the UFC, and as with most years, several new stars have emerged in the past 12 months.

New champions have been crowned in multiple weight classes and fresh names climbing up the ladder. Yet fans are curious about which fighters have been the UFC’s breakout stars this year.

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There are several options to pick from when it comes to this, but the following fighters stand above the rest.

Here are the UFC’s five best breakout stars of 2023.


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#5. Brendan Allen – UFC middleweight contender

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Very few fighters in 2023 could compete and win three times inside the octagon, but that’s just what middleweight contender Brendan Allen managed to do.

In the past 12 months, ‘All In’ has not only climbed into the top ten in the UFC’s middleweight rankings but he’s also gone from being a largely unknown undercard fighter to a reliable headliner.

Sure, Allen isn’t quite a superstar just yet, but based on what he’s achieved this year, as well as his undeniable charisma, he probably isn’t too far off.

‘All In’ began the year with a pretty tremendous upset, submitting world-class jiu-jitsu player Andre Muniz with a rear naked choke on a late-notice main event.

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That win was enough to elevate him into the top fifteen, and since then, he’s also beaten Bruno Silva and Paul Craig, with the latter win moving him up into the No.8 spot. More to the point, Allen dispatched all three opponents via submission, putting him on a six-fight win streak overall.

Whether Allen can follow this by moving into genuine title contention in 2024 remains to be seen, but it’s fair to say that he has had one of the best 2023s on the roster.


#4. Dricus du Plessis – UFC middleweight contender

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The first UFC pay-per-view of 2024 will see newly minted middleweight champion Sean Strickland look to defend his title for the first time when he takes on top contender Dricus du Plessis.

It’s probably fair to suggest that Strickland himself should be on this list. After all, nobody expected ‘Tarzan’ to dethrone Israel Adesanya to claim the title, and that win was his third of 2023.

However, Strickland was already seen as a reliable and known headliner for the promotion before this year, so it’d be unfair to claim he broke out in the last 12 months.

Du Plessis, on the other hand, absolutely did break out as a star this year. Sure, the South African came into 2023 on the back of a four-fight win streak in the octagon, but to stop both Derek Brunson and Robert Whittaker stands as a truly phenomenal feat.

After all, prior to ‘Stillknocks’, the only man to ever beat Whittaker in the octagon at 185lbs was Adesanya, and arguably Du Plessis put ‘The Reaper’ away in a more violent fashion.

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More importantly, though, everyone was talking about the South African’s big stare down with Adesanya in the summer, and while we won’t get that fight straight away, should Du Plessis dethrone Strickland, it’ll almost certainly be on.

Overall, then, ‘Stillknocks’ is the very definition of a breakout star, and he’ll be hoping 2024 will be an even bigger year for him, too.


#3. Tom Aspinall – UFC interim heavyweight champion

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When UFC fans last saw Tom Aspinall compete in 2022, the UK heavyweight star ended up leaving the octagon in agony after blowing his knee out in a headline bout with Curtis Blaydes.

Given the extent of his injury – a torn MCL, meniscus and damage to the ACL – it was difficult to imagine the Liverpool native having a truly successful 2023.

However, Aspinall has surpassed all expectations with his achievements this year, and now stands as the best bet to be the UFC’s next big heavyweight superstar.

July saw him return to action almost a year to the day that he injured his knee, and this time his night was far more successful. He needed just over a minute to dispatch of tough veteran Marcin Tybura via TKO in front of his home fans in London.

Better was to come, though, when he stepped in on late notice to face Sergei Pavlovich for the interim heavyweight title when reigning champ Jon Jones suffered an injury prior to UFC 295.

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Despite many observers favouring the Russian, Aspinall once again stunned everyone with his hand speed and power, switching off Pavlovich’s lights in the first round.

Whether the UK star can earn a unification fight with Jones in 2024 remains to be seen, but for now, it’s definitely safe to label him one of 2023’s biggest breakout stars.


#2. Alexa Grasso – UFC flyweight champion

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The biggest upset of 2023 was almost certainly produced by Alexa Grasso. The Mexican fighter stunned everyone by becoming the first woman to defeat longtime UFC flyweight queen Valentina Shevchenko at 125lbs, submitting her to claim the title back in March.

It was a remarkable, stirring performance, particularly as nothing that Grasso had done before inside the octagon really suggested she could beat ‘The Bullet’.

However, when the two women were pitted in a rematch in September – in the headliner of an event celebrating Mexican Independence Day to add to the drama – Grasso really proved her worth.

In one of 2023’s very best fights, she ended up going to a majority draw with Shevchenko, proving once and for all that she belonged at the very top of the mountain.

Whether Grasso has to face ‘The Bullet’ for a third time in 2024, or whether she’ll have to defend against a different foe remains to be seen. However, she’s clearly made huge strides in improvement, and with a quiet charisma to her, should definitely be considered one of 2023’s breakout stars.

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#1. Sean O’Malley – UFC bantamweight champion

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It’s arguable that Sean O’Malley, to an extent at least, was already a star of sorts prior to 2023. He had, of course, defeated former bantamweight champion Petr Yan in 2022, and was riding a five-fight unbeaten streak coming into the year.

However, despite only fighting once in the past twelve months, no other UFC fighter has seen their stock rise quite so much as ‘Sugar’. The new 135lbs kingpin has, in many ways, placed himself in line to be seen as the heir to Conor McGregor’s position as the biggest star in the promotion.

It actually took O’Malley eight months to even step into the octagon for an official bout this year. Prior to that, his only appearance came at the end of UFC 288 in May, when he went nose-to-nose with Aljamain Sterling following the latter’s win over Henry Cejudo.

Remarkably, the Sterling/O’Malley stare down seemed to get more publicity than the fight itself. From that moment on, the two men were on a collision course that had everyone buzzing about their inevitable clash.

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‘Sugar’ finally faced off with ‘The Funk Master’ in August, and despite many fans favouring Sterling to win, O’Malley proved them wrong. He showed remarkable poise and striking skill, and ended up landing a big counter to knock his foe out and claim the title in the second round.

The knockout immediately went viral – helped by the promotion making the footage readily available to social media – and drew comparisons to McGregor’s famous KO of Jose Aldo. It also sent O’Malley’s reputation into the stratosphere.

‘Sugar’ is now set to fight old foe Marlon Vera in his first defense next year, and if he can win, he could well position himself as the promotion’s top star point blank. For now, though, he is definitely 2023’s best breakout star.

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Edited by
Himakshu Vyas
 
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