The UFC has its first champion from South Africa.
Dricus Du Plessis dethroned Sean Strickland in an entertaining, bloody, back-and-forth fight Saturday night in the main event of UFC 297 here at Scotiabank Arena. The final result was a split decision (48-47, 47-48, 48-47) for Du Plessis. It very easily could have gone Strickland’s way, too.
“When they said, ‘and new,’ it felt like 15 years of work, dreaming and sacrificing came together in one single sentence,” Du Plessis said. “It was incredible, it feels surreal. Amazing.”
Upon the scorecards being read, Du Plessis called for the South African flag.
“This is history,” Du Plessis stated in his postfight interview.
Strickland had a lot of success early in the fight with a nasty, piston-like jab. Du Plessis not only struggled to defend it but had trouble getting off his own offense due to that. Du Plessis called Strickland’s jab “super, super, super” good.
“It feels like somebody hits you with a rock,” he said. “It’s very deceptive when he throws the jab, and he can turn it into a left hook. He does that really, really well.”
In the third and fourth rounds, Du Plessis turned things around in a major way, cutting Strickland near his left eye and hurting him with a big right hand. Du Plessis stated that was by design, that his game plan was to play Strickland’s game in the first two rounds and turn it on in the third. Strickland closed well in the fifth, but Du Plessis proved his mettle in a championship fight, silencing critics of his cardio.
“Who says I’m not a five-round fighter?” Du Plessis said.
UFC CEO Dana White said he thought Strickland won the hotly contested fight.
Strickland actually landed more significant strikes, 173-137.
“I had it 2-2 going into the last round and I thought Strickland won the last round,” White said. “Guys who were sitting at the same table [as me] had it going the other way. … But I’m also a guy who believes you have to take it from the champion.”
Du Plessis said in the postfight news conference that any thought that Strickland won was “bulls—.”
Judges Derek Cleary and Eric Colon had Du Plessis winning the second, third and fourth rounds. Judge Sal D’Amato, the lone judge scoring it for Strickland, had Strickland winning the first, third and fifth rounds.
Saturday marked the fourth concluded UFC middleweight title fight in which the belt changed hands. Alex Pereira defeated Israel Adesanya in November 2022 and Adesanya won the title back from Pereira last April before dropping the title to Strickland last September. Du Plessis vs. Strickland was the first UFC middleweight title fight without Adesanya since November 2017.
Afterward, Du Plessis called for a matchup against rival Adesanya, who has said he will be taking time off from the Octagon.
Adesanya and Du Plessis had a confrontation in the cage in July. The two were supposed to fight in September, but Du Plessis suffered a foot injury. Du Plessis said fighting Adesanya at UFC 300 on April 13 “sounds amazing.”
White said Du Plessis “absolutely, positively can be the guy” to headline the UFC’s first card in Africa, which White and company have been working on for years.
Coming in, ESPN had Du Plessis ranked No. 2 and Strickland ranked No. 5 in the world at middleweight.
Du Plessis (21-2) has won nine consecutive and is 7-0 in the UFC.
The Pretoria native was coming off a TKO win over former champion Robert Whittaker at UFC 290 in July. Du Plessis, 30, is a former two-division EFC champion and KSW champion. Du Plessis was +900 to win by decision on ESPN BET.
Strickland (28-6), 32, won the middleweight title by shocking Adesanya via a dominant unanimous decision at UFC 293. The California native, who lives and trains in Las Vegas, had a three-fight winning streak snapped but has won eight of 11 since moving up to 185 pounds in 2020.
Strickland posted on X that a headbutt during the fight caused the cut near his eye and made it difficult for him to see. Du Plessis said he didn’t recall a clash of heads. Both men were bloody and banged up after the fight. Du Plessis came to the postfight news conference on crutches and with two swollen eyes.
“You remember how handsome I was before the fight?” Du Plessis said. “I look like a cauliflower now.”