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Highlights

UFC MONTHLY REPORT | DECEMBER 2023

Closing Out 2023 With A Look Back At The Biggest Moments From Inside The Octagon In December

What did I tell you about the action inside the Octagon always being amazing in December? What’d I say?

A refresher, courtesy of The 10:

“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.”

Now I’m not usually into the whole “pat myself on the back like I’m Barry Horowitz” routine, however, after Austin was awesome and the impromptu APEX show slapped, UFC 296 delivered some genuine end-of-the-year bangers and so I’m taking a victory lap to wrap up 2023.

This has been an incredible year of action, and here are the four performances that stood out the most in an insanely crowded December field.

Breakout Performance: Khalil Rountree Jr.

In a month with several memorable knockouts, the image of Rountree Jr. marching forward, his hand aloft, ready to come barreling down on Anthony Smith as he surveyed the impact of the early third-round blow that felled the former light heavyweight title challenger is one of the most indelible images of the year for me.

Rountree Jr. earns the Breakout Performance award this month for a host of compounding reasons.

Khalil Rountree Jr. reacts after his knockout against Anthony Smith in a light heavyweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on December 09, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Khalil Rountree Jr. reacts after his knockout against Anthony Smith in a light heavyweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on December 09, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

First, this was a short notice assignment, against a more established opponent, and he handled it with aplomb.

Second, it felt like previous punishing finishes over the likes of Karl Roberson and Chris Daukaus were chalked up as triumphs over beatable foes — the type of performances he should have delivered — but finishing Smith the way that he did, while then showing tremendous restraint at the end, cannot be downplayed, diminished or spun other than as an excellent win for the ascending light heavyweight.

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Third, that’s now five straight wins and four blistering finishes for the former Ultimate Fighter finalist, and in a division where fresh contenders are always needed and things are unsettled at the top, Rountree Jr. feels like an explosive wild card entering the mix.

Whether he gets the championship opportunity against Alex Pereira he lobbied for following this win, his logic and argument was inarguable: seeing he and “Poatan” share the Octagon would carry real “this could end at any second” tension and would be an automatic must-see attraction.

The win catapulted him into the Top 10, and regardless of whom he faces off with next, this performance will have people tuning in en masse whenever he makes that walk again.

Honorable Mentions: Rodolfo Bellato, Sean Brady, Deiveson Figueiredo, Jalin Turner, Tatsuro Taira, Steve Garcia, HyunSung Park, Ariane Lipski

Submission of the Month: Sean Brady submits Kelvin Gastelum (UFC Austin)

Sean Brady controls the body of Kelvin Gastelum in a welterweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at Moody Center on December 02, 2023 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Zuffa LLC)
Sean Brady controls the body of Kelvin Gastelum in a welterweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at Moody Center on December 02, 2023 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Zuffa LLC)

Whenever I talked to people from the Daniel Gracie crew in Philadelphia, I always heard what an absolute terror Sean Brady was on the ground.

I knew it to be true because he’s a Brazilian jiu jitsu black belt, competes regularly in grappling events against legit competition, and we’d seen flashes of his acumen on the canvas during the course of his ascent to the Top 10 in the welterweight division, but I had never had a real “that’s the guy they’re always telling me about” moment with the compact, tattooed talent.

That changed in Austin.

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Brady dominated Kelvin Gastelum with his grappling, going five-for-five with his takedown attempts, and racking up just over nine minutes of control time in a fight that lasted a shade under 12 minutes before ultimately ending with Brady wrenching out a tap with a kimura.

We’d seen Brady grapple and win by submission in the past — he choked out both Christian Aguilera and Jake Matthews — but this was a next-level kind of effort. He came out from Second One focused on putting Gastelum on the canvas and keeping him there, and successfully accomplished that goal, patiently working until he was able to create a finishing opportunity and take full advantage.

Business is picking up in the welterweight division, with a bunch of quality contenders either at the ready or on the rise, and Brady isn’t too far behind that pack after getting back into the win column in impressive fashion in Austin at the start of the month.

Honorable Mentions: Miesha Tate vs. Julia Avila, Tim Elliott vs. Sumudaerji, Ariane Lipski vs. Casey O’Neill

Knockout of the Month: Josh Emmett stops Bryce Mitchell (UFC 296)

Josh Emmett reacts to his knock out of Bryce Mitchell in a featherweight fight during the UFC 296 event at T-Mobile Arena on December 16, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Josh Emmett reacts to his knock out of Bryce Mitchell in a featherweight fight during the UFC 296 event at T-Mobile Arena on December 16, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

This one landed at No. 1 on my personal list of 2023 knockouts in the UFC, unseating Islam Makhachev’s finish of Alexander Volkanovski, because it contained all the elements I’m looking for when it comes to handing out hardware at the end of the year:

  1. It was instantly unforgettable — I can close my eyes and see this finish play out at regular speed, in slow motion, in bullet time like we’re in The Matrix; it is burned in my brain and not just because it happened only a few days ago.
  2. It was a perfect shot — this was a fastball counter that Mitchell never saw coming because he didn’t have a chance; Emmett fired so quickly after “Thug Nasty” started to let loose his own right hand and it landed flush before Mitchell had fully thrown his shot.
  3. The No Doubt Factor — there were no follow-ups, no moment where Mitchell was scrambling or moving or looking to wrestle up; the shot landed and the fight was done, and those types of finishes tend to resonate more with me.

For me, this one stands alongside Edson Barboza’s famous spinning wheel kick finish of Terry Etim from UFC 142 almost a dozen years ago — sudden, forceful, unquestionable, and bound to play in the montage that runs before UFC main cards for years to come.

Honorable Mentions: Drakkar Klose vs. Joe Solecki, Cody Brundage vs. Zachary Reese, Jalin Turner vs. Bobby Green, Arman Tsarukyan vs. Beneil Dariush, Garcia vs. Melquizael Costa, Rountree Jr. vs. Smith, Cody Garbrandt vs. Brian Kelleher

Fight of the Month: Irene Aldana def. Karol Rosa (UFC 296)

 Irene Aldana of Mexico punches Karol Rosa of Brazil in a bantamweight fight during the UFC 296 event at T-Mobile Arena on December 16, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Irene Aldana of Mexico punches Karol Rosa of Brazil in a bantamweight fight during the UFC 296 event at T-Mobile Arena on December 16, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

Aldana and Rosa combined to land 349 significant strikes on December 16, and combined to throw 658 such blows.

When you read those numbers, it’s easy to understand how the bantamweights ended up taking a “been through a battle together” picture with one another at the hospital following the blow where it looked like each had been through hell.

Because they had.

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Rosa brutalized Aldana’s lead leg from the outset, and for a stretch, you had to wonder how the Mexican contender was going to be able to continue. Instead of wilting and changing her approach, Aldana simply bit down on her gum shield and pressed forward, upping her output and efficiency in each of the next two rounds to take the fight to Rosa and ultimately secure a unanimous decision victory.

As these 15 minutes unfolded, you knew we were watching one of the best fights of the year.

For me, personally, it clocked in at No. 5 for 2023, behind a quartet of championship bouts where the title stakes and two additional rounds were just too great for this absolute gem of a battle to trump. It did, however, beat out some other memorable title bouts for a spot in the Top 10, and helped close out what was phenomenal year of action in the UFC.

Honorable Mentions: Bellato vs. Ihor Potieria, Alonzo Menifield vs. Dustin Jacoby

UFC 296: Edwards vs Covington took place live from T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada on December 16, 2023. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass