By Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press on January 21, 2024.
TORONTO – Middleweight champion Sean Strickland and challenger Dricus (Stillknocks) Du Plessis had promised their UFC 297 showdown would be a war.
“To the death,” crowed Strickland before the fight.
It didn’t reach that stage, fortunately. But Du Plessis (21-2-0) arrived at the post-fight news conference early Sunday morning on crutches and with his right foot in a walking boot, his left eye almost closed and abrasions all over his face.
And he won.
Strickland (28-6-0) did not meet the media after a gruelling five-round main event that saw the two fighters combine for 310 significant strikes before an announced sellout of 18,599 at Scotiabank Arena for the UFC’s first show in Toronto since UFC 231 in December 2018.
It was a war of attrition with Strickland, an elite technical striker, scoring with a piston-like jab and, initially, evading Du Plessis’ power and dealing with the challenger’s awkward herky-jerky style.
“The jab was beautiful,” said UFC president Dana White, throwing in an F-bomb for emphasis. “You don’t see jabs like that in MMA. And the jabs did what they’re supposed to do. Both of his (Du Plessis’) eyes were swelling shut.”
But the 30-year-old South African kept coming, mixing up his wild, powerful strikes with takedowns, landing six of 11 takedowns attempts in the bout. The damage began to mount on Strickland, his face bloodied from several cuts.
According to UFC Stats, Strickland held an edge in significant strikes in the first (34-18), third (31-29), fourth (33-29) and fifth rounds (53-35). Du Plessis had the edge in the second (26-22).
But the challenger scored takedowns in the first (two, with 28 seconds control time), second (one, with 22 seconds) and fourth rounds (three, with 1:18). And delivered the more powerful shots.
The judges scored it 48-47, 48-47, 47-48 for Du Plessis, who said his game plan was to turn it up from the third round on.
Judges Derek Cleary and Eric Colon awarded the second, third and fourth rounds to Du Plessis. Sal D’Amato gave Strickland the first, third and fifth.
“I had it 2-2 going into the last round,” said White. “And I thought Strickland won the last round.
“Guys sitting at the same table had it the other way. “¦ It was one of those tight fights. But I’m also one of these guys, I believe you have to take it from the champion.”
Du Plessis said he had done enough to win.
“It was a close fight, make no mistake. But I thought I had it,” he said.
The 32-year-old Strickland offered his take via a brief social media post.
“Man, that head butt really made it difficult to see but I thought we got the job done. Blood and all. Onto the next one.”
Du Plessis said he did not recall a clash of heads. But judging from his face, it was not out of the question.
“Do you remember how handsome I was before this fight?” he said with a belly laugh. “I look like a cauliflower now. I’m pretty banged up right now.”
The crowd was solidly behind Strickland to start but Du Plessis won some over. There were both chants of “DDP” for Du Plessis and “Let’s Go Strickland” in the final round.
The Las Vegas-based Strickland, a loose cannon with no self-edit, made headlines in Toronto with his loud-mouthed, profane take on everything from homosexuality and transsexuals to Justin Trudeau and freedom of speech or lack thereof in Canada.
But Strickland, who was making the first defence of the title he took from Israel (The Last Stylebender) Adesanya in a major upset at UFC 293 in September, was gracious in defeat in the cage, applauding when the decision was announced.
Both men were all business Saturday after a messy month before the fight that saw the two exchange barbs at a Las Vegas news conference and brawl in the stands at UFC 296. Strickland threatened to stab Du Plessis if he returned to the issue of the violent abuse Strickland says he suffered as a child at the hands of his late father.
Clearly Strickland struck a chord with some fans. An unsolicited, obscene anti-Trudeau chant echoed around Scotiabank Area throughout the night.
Asked whether Strickland should have been reined in ahead of fight night, White was adamant.
“I don’t tell any other human being what to say, what to think and there’s no leashes on any of them (UFC fighters),” he said with an F-bomb.
“Free speech, brother,” he added. “People can say whatever they want and they can believe whatever they want.”
Fight week was also a reminder, however, that free speech – while prized – can be hateful and hurt.
Canadians had a tough night at the office, losing seven of nine fights with all seven men beaten – including three split decisions. The women had a night to remember, however.
Jasmine Jasudavicius, fighting up a weight class at bantamweight because of her opponent’s problems making weight, and strawweight Gillian (The Savage) Robertson were both rewarded with US$50,000 performance bonuses for dominant wins.
Robertson posted her ninth career UFC finish, second only to the retired Amanda Nunes’ 10 among UFC women.
Toronto rapper Drake also took it on the chin, after posting a betting slip that showed a $700,000 wager on Strickland to win. Perhaps fittingly, Scotiabank Arena echoed with his song “God’s Plan” as the crowd filed out.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 21, 2024