UFC 297: Bad Blood Expected to Spill Over in Strickland vs Du Plessis

TORONTO, ONTARIO - JANUARY 19: (L-R) Opponents Sean Strickland and Dricus Du Plessis of South Africa face off during the UFC 297 ceremonial weigh-in at Scotiabank Arena on January 19, 2024 in Toronto, Ontario. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Sean Strickland’s championship run will begin with a contender who has gotten under his skin in Dricus du Plessis at UFC 297.

It was quite the sight last month.  Sean Strickland, for so long an unapologetically brash contender, now a champion and finding himself genuinely bothered by the words of an opponent.  It spilled over into the following night where he had no issue taking the fight to his upcoming challenger in the stands a little more than a month before they were contractually set to enter the cage.  Whereas for the past several years he has had no issue belittling opponents and contenders alike, Strickland admitted that Du Plessis had struck a nerve and crossed a line he shouldn’t have in the name of pre-fight promotion.

It was different.  But different is to be expected when you go from challenger to champion.  Winning what many called the Upset of 2023 against a superstar in Israel Adesanya, Strickland became the unlikeliest of title holders as he bounced back from a late 2022 loss to Jared Cannonier to defeat Nassourdine Imavov, Abus Magomedov, and Adesanya in 2023.  He has downplayed the spoils of stardom and promotional hardware throughout his run, and along the way he has accumulated a cult following amongst the fan base.  Now, his title run will test him in such a way as he must live up to the level he displayed before while for the first time handling a field that is now solely focused on taking his place in the division.

For Dricus Du Plessis, there is a small but significant difference in what could be his title winning effort.  The contender from South Africa has built the majority of his UFC career on tentpole events in Las Vegas, being on the undercard to the likes of superstars like Adesanya, Conor McGregor, and Jon Jones.  He rode back-to-back finishes en route to his own epic upset of the highly regarded Robert Whittaker this past July that secured his shot at the title.  But he needed only to stand there to become the B-Side to one of the biggest fights to be made.  Then champion Israel Adesanya threw down the gauntlet with a loud and boisterous and challenged Du Plessis to come take it from him.

The UFC’s desire to have Adesanya headline in Australia and Du Plessis needing to recover from injuries incurred leading up to his fight led the promotion moving on from the bout and ironically giving Strickland the chance to claim the belt.  This makes Du Plessis’ opportunity all the more significant.  While winning the championship is a life-changing accomplishment in itself, he would also potentially set up the still very desired fight between himself and Adesanya.  When surveying the current landscape, it has the potential to be one of the biggest fights in 2024.

There are several fights to be made for the winner, with about as many options for potential dates.  A fight with Adesanya for either man is certainly one that would sell, with a spot at the top of the seminal UFC 300 card certainly being an option.  Should the promotion go in another direction, then a fight with another middleweight star in Khamzat Chimaev would also be a high profile bout that could make UFC 300 or another major pay-per-view event this year.