Sean Strickland and Dricus du Plessis are set to headline UFC 297 on Saturday in a middleweight bout filled with tension after the two were involved in a physical altercation earlier this week at a pre-fight press event.
Lead Up To The Fight
Strickland earned the UFC middleweight title in July 2023 by defeating Israel Adesanya via split decision in one of the biggest upsets of the year. He makes his first title defense against the fast rising du Plessis, who is 6-0 in the UFC and rocketed up the middleweight rankings with four straight finishes.
The fight was originally scheduled to take place at UFC 296 in December. However, Strickland was forced to withdraw just weeks before the event due to a knee injury. The UFC opted to rebook the contest quickly rather than find a short notice replacement.
|Original Fight Date
|New Fight Date
|December 10, 2023
|January 20, 2024
Even before Strickland’s injury, tensions were high between the two middleweights. The trash talk started shortly after the fight was announced, with Strickland mocking du Plessis’s resume and suggesting his winning streak was overrated. Du Plessis fired back by making comments about Strickland’s admitted past mental health issues.
Things finally boiled over early this week at the pre-fight press conference. Video shows Strickland shoving du Plessis from behind before the two exchanged blows backstage and had to be separated.
Details Of The Altercation
Accounts from witnesses suggest Strickland approached du Plessis while he was giving an interview and shoved him aggressively from behind. Du Plessis reacted immediately, spinning around to confront Strickland before throwing a punch that just missed the champion.
The two rivals traded wild swings for several seconds, with Strickland at one point grabbing du Plessis by the throat, before they were finally separated by security and staff.
After being pulled apart, Strickland continued yelling threats at du Plessis, reportedly warning his opponent: “I’ll stab you at the weigh-ins”.
UFC president Dana White downplayed the seriousness of the scuffle, chalking it up to typical pre-fight tension boiling over. But many others, including UFC champion Israel Adesanya, found the episode concerning.
“I guess somethings being said about mental health or something,” Adesanya remarked. “It’s a bit disturbing to see.”
Reaction And Fallout
In the days since, Strickland has continued his shocking rhetoric regarding Saturday’s fight.
The champion claims he told du Plessis via text message that he would have “shot him dead” during their altercation if he had a gun on him at the time. Strickland also released a bizarre theory this week alleging du Plessis must be using performance enhancing drugs supervised by scientists to have improved as rapidly as he has in the UFC.
Du Plessis has attempted to take the disturbing comments in stride. While finding Strickland’s threats over the line, he maintains confidence it will not affect his performance at UFC 297.
“We’re professional fighters about to compete in a sanctioned event,” du Plessis told media members. “At the end of the day I don’t think he will actually try to kill me.”
Many others remain concerned by Strickland’s recent behavior, questioning if he is fit to compete this weekend. A dominant win could go a long way toward silencing the doubters. But a loss, paired with any continued controversy, could put Strickland in hot water with the UFC brass.
The explosive bad blood between the UFC 297 headliners continues to be the dominant story in the lead up to fight night. And with tensions at an all-time high, many predict an early finish or all out war once the cage door closes.
Saturday’s main event is an intriguing clash of styles.
Strickland’s path to victory likely involves pressing forward aggressively behind a high volume striking attack. Though known primarily as a boxer, Strickland has underrated kicking ability he may look to utilize to offset du Plessis’s dangerous left hand counter.
DU PLESSIS VS STRICKLAND
For du Plessis, slowing down Strickland’s forward momentum will be critical. He is the more versatile striker, with dangerous knees and kicks in addition to punishing punching power. But he cannot afford to let Strickland push him backward and dictate the exchanges.
Grappling could also play a pivotal role. Du Plessis is an underrated wrestler capable of scoring takedowns in bunches. And Strickland’s bottom game remains largely untested against a submission artist as good as the South African.
What’s At Stake
Beyond the bad blood, the UFC 297 main event carries divisional significance.
Strickland sits atop the middleweight throne but remains unproven after just a single title fight victory. A statement win over the streaking du Plessis would go a long way toward legitimizing his reign.
Meanwhile, du Plessis has a golden opportunity to back up his lofty, rapid rise up the 185-pound ranks. A championship victory would put the MMA world on notice and establish du Plessis as arguably the promotion’s top emerging star.
The odds paint du Plessis as a slight underdog at +150, implying a 40% chance of unseating Strickland’s title according to betting markets. Regardless of who emerges victorious, their first true grudge match atop the middleweight division already looms as an early front runner for 2024 Fight of the Year.
What Happens Next?
Looking beyond Saturday night, the possibilities are wide ranging.
A Strickland win could see him grant an immediate rematch to Adesanya, who he admits to owing after a “flukey” first title victory.
There is also the chance of a showdown against former champion Robert Whittaker or emerging contender Andre Muniz. And Strickland maintains interest in a potential move to 205lbs for superfights against names like Jiri Prochazka or Jan Blachowicz.
For du Plessis, defeating Strickland to capture UFC gold would make him an instant superstar. With the division cleaned out, he could expect Paulo Costa to be first in line for a new champion.
A victory over “Borrachinha” would further elevate du Plessis’s profile. And other fresh matchups like Sean Brady moving up or Khamzat Chimaev returning to 185lbs would hold massive fan interest as well.
No matter who leaves the Octagon as champion on January 20th, the UFC middleweight throne has heated up substantially over the past six months. And the division’s new era appears likely to keep delivering must-see main events well into 2024 and beyond.
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