Dricus du Plessis is the new UFC middleweight king. The South African wrecking ball made history for his country on Saturday at UFC 297, edging out Sean Strickland to win a split decision and become the first-ever South African UFC champion in Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena. Du Plessis’ victory headlined the first UFC pay-per-view of 2024, which also saw the crowning of a second new champ, the rise of a new featherweight contender, plus more.
With so much to discuss, let’s dive right into our seven biggest takeaways from UFC 297.
1. Heading into 2024, Sean Strickland vs. Dricus du Plessis was my most anticipated fight on the immediate MMA calendar for two main reasons.
One was because of the sheer stylistic delight it seemed to foretell — two men who are devoted followers of the cult of forward pressure, but through drastically different means. The champ’s bull-like stubbornness and endurance versus the challenger’s rhinoceros-like strength and physicality — whose forward march would overwhelm the other first?
The second reason was a simple question that I just couldn’t get out of my head: Who was for real? If that sounds strange, just hear me out. Consider how we viewed Strickland and du Plessis before their final wins of 2023. Strickland was a 10-year UFC veteran best known for getting brutally colded by Alex Pereira. He’d been around forever and was who he was. Then he wandered into an opportunity to fight Israel Adesanya and everything changed. Same with du Plessis — he was regarded by many to essentially be a sloppy meme fighter. Then he fixed his nose and trucked over Robert Whittaker and everything changed.
So which versions of the two headliners were going to show up in Toronto? That was always the great mystery of UFC 297 for me. Would we see the Strickland and du Plessis who so clearly leveled up in 2023, or was it all an optical illusion — a combination of fluke performances and fluke circumstances that led to two wildly convincing upsets? Were Strickland and du Plessis both really as good as their last fights made them seem, or would one (or both) of them turn back into a pumpkin at the first chance they got?
In that respect, the first pay-per-view headliner of 2024 delivered everything I hoped for, because Strickland and du Plessis are that good. Sean Strickland is a proper elite middleweight. Dricus du Plessis can adapt and maintain his bowling ball ways over the long haul. That much is clear on this Sunday morning — nothing about last year was a fluke. And just as importantly, their five-round stylistic chess match up lived to all of its pre-fight promise. In a grueling affair that tested the mettle of both men, I scored the bout three rounds to two for the new champ, with Strickland claiming Rounds 1 and 5, and du Plessis capturing the sandwich-meat rounds. But Rounds 2 and 3 were tight enough that a 48-47 Strickland score is entirely justified. I certainly won’t begrudge anyone who saw it that way.
Regardless, it was a tense and enjoyable main event for a division that’s quietly become one of the best in the sport. That’s four middleweight title bouts in a row now that have all resulted in the belt changing hands, and it’s entirely possible that trend continues on to No. 5. The top of 185 pounds suddenly feels more competitive than it has in years. It’s a super fun dynamic for the weight class and not one I was sure existed until Saturday night.
Whether it’s du Plessis in a grudge match against Adesanya or Khamzat Chimaev, there’s also a very real chance the next middleweight title bout headlines UFC 300. Both challengers already seem to want it, and I personally love that. If 2023 was one for the history books at 185 pounds, 2024 is already shaping up to be one hell of a follow-up act.
2. Look, I’m not here to crap on someone in their crowning moment. That’s not my style. Raquel Pennington is an 11-year UFC veteran who is one of the longest tenured women in the organization. She’s been here since 2013 and paid her dues on the world’s stage — 17 octagon appearances, 12 wins, scalps from the likes of Miesha Tate, Jessica Andrade, Irene Aldana, Roxanne Modafferi, Ketlen Vieira, and now Mayra Bueno Silva. Sure, Pennington fumbled her first shot at gold in 2018, but she outlasted Amanda Nunes to seize upon her window and become the oldest female champion in UFC history at age 35. She’s as deserving of a titleholder as exists within what’s left of the women’s bantamweight ranks.
But good lord, is anyone outside of the Pennington household excited about this?
Women’s 135 has been the worst division in the UFC by a wide margin since the mirage of women’s 145 vanished upon Nunes’ retirement. But this? How we’re sitting to start the new year? This is bleak, man. Aside from Julianna Peña, there isn’t a single female bantamweight alive who could conceivably drum up interest for any of these permutations at the top. Silva was supposed to be that person. The heir apparent. The fresh blood. The newcomer who’d inject a little life in a dying division. And now it’s back to the drawing board.
Pop quiz: How many female bantamweights under the age of 30 do you think exist in the UFC’s top-15 rankings? The answer: One. Exactly one. No. 9 ranked Karol Rosa. That’s it.
Pennington’s title opportunity was justified and she certainly earned her flowers, but no one would ever confuse her with Justin Gaethje. So where is this division heading? Where is the next generation? Where are the contenders to restock the excitement coffers?
I really do hate to be the doom-and-gloom guy, but Saturday felt like the nadir of a weight class that has been struggling for a while now. And I’m not sure the future is any brighter.
3. The knees Arnold Allen pummeled Movsar Evloev’s skull with in the third round may not have technically been legal, but the fact that no one in MMA can seemingly come to a consensus on these sequences is reason enough for why the hand-on-the-ground rule is so dumb and difficult to officiate. (And the reality is actually dumber than you’d think: At least one of the knees was illegal because Canada hasn’t adopted the same rule tweaks as other commissions over the years. The unified rules of MMA remain anything but unified.)
Altogether it’s some tough medicine for Allen to swallow, because there was always a very good chance the winner of Evloev vs. Allen was going to get the next featherweight title shot if Alexander Volkanovski dispatches Ilia Topuria at UFC 298. Now Evloev is in pole position to cut the line into that title mix, while Allen is down 0-2 over his past two bouts. That’s the game of inches. It just sucks the story once again centers around the grounded knee rule rather than an otherwise sensational display of high-level martial arts from two of the top young talents set to carry featherweight forward into its next era. Some of the scrambles we saw from Evloev and Allen were the best action on the whole damn card.
Unlike some divisions (ahem), featherweight’s under-30 class remains loaded with premium talent — which is why it always drives me bananas when people proclaim that Volkanovski cleaned out the division — and Evloev and Allen are both young enough to know they’re going to meet again. (Hopefully for five rounds next time.) That being said, as much as this dumb and inconsistent rule leaves a slightly bitter taste in my mouth, you won’t hear a peep of complaint out of me if we end up getting Volkanovski vs. Evloev in the summer.
4. Nights like UFC 297 are exactly why Neil Magny is one of the GOAT gatekeepers this sport has ever seen. (The GOATkeeper, if you will.) The man is tailor-made to let young whippersnappers know whether they’re ready for the 170-pound elite or not. Just take a look at his last few opponents. Shavkat Rakhmonov and Ian Machado Garry? Very clearly ready. Philip Rowe and Daniel Rodriguez? Unfortunately, not quite there yet. And none of this is meant as a slight! The term “gatekeeper” may have a dirty connotation in combat sports, but it’s a deeply important job and a pathway for a multi-decade career if you’re good at it.
For 14 minutes on Saturday, Mike Malott appeared to pass that test. He went to the Garry and Rakhmonov well and picked Magny apart with a steady diet of kicks and top control. But the GOATkeeper isn’t going to just gift his stepping stone to you. You need to take it by force. And so we came to find out that the latest great Canadian hope may not be quite as ready for a welterweight ranking as many believed — at least not yet. Magny’s gutsy come-from-behind win in the final seconds instantly joins Demian Maia’s fend-off of Gunnar Nelson in the welterweight pantheon of great Not-Today-Young-Fella performances.
The old warhorse still has plenty of fight left in him. You love to see it.
And speaking of that…
5. I’m always blown away by woodwork figures like Neil Magny who quietly work their way onto the record books through sheer force of will. (If you’re confused about what I mean, here’s Magny’s current collection of UFC records: Most wins in welterweight history, most bouts in welterweight history, longest fight time in welterweight history, most significant strikes landed in welterweight history, and the most decision wins in UFC history. Not bad for a fringe contender who never once sniffed a real shot at the UFC welterweight belt.)
On that note, Gillian Robertson is quietly becoming something to behold. With her second-round knockout of Polyana Viana at UFC 297, Robertson continues to amass a Magny-esque trophy case to her own name: The most finishes in women’s flyweight history (7), the most submissions in UFC women’s flyweight history (6), tied for most bouts in women’s flyweight division history (13), and the most submissions in overall UFC women’s history (7). But most impressive of all is this one: Robertson has now moved into a tie with Jessica Andrade for the second-most finishes in UFC women’s history (9). She’s just one behind the women’s GOAT, Amanda Nunes (10), for first-place on that list. And she’s still only 28 years old.
At this pace, Robertson could hold sole possession of that finishes record by year’s end and start driving it into the stratosphere like the female Charles Oliveira. She may not receive the same acclaim as some of the more ballyhooed contenders at 125 pounds, but the pride of Niagara Falls is forging her own road in the big show, and it’s a damn impressive one.
I know the fight game is infamous for its highs and lows, but c’mon blood gods. This was just cruel.
7. The UFC could survive another 200 years and we may never see a run quite as majestic as the six-year legacy slapped together by Priscila Cachoeira.
Seriously, just consider this. There’s the eye gouges. The disrobing of opponents. The omnipresent cheating. The positive drug tests. The controversial wins. Multiple weight misses. And then you look at how this all began and how it’s likely to end. Cachoeira made her UFC debut in 2018 on the receiving end of a historic beatdown against Valentina Shevchenko. The strike differential in that fight: 230-3 in favor of Shevchenko. Not great. But then Cachoeira somehow went out and blew her own mark out of the water at UFC 297. Aside from botching the scale so badly that her fight had to be contested at a completely different weight class, Cachoeira shambled her way into the record books again with a 326-26 masterpiece of striking futility against Jasmine Jasudavicius. If Cachoeira’s UFC run ends tomorrow (and how on Earth could it not?), she’ll leave the promotion as the proud owner of the largest (-300) and third-largest (-227) strike differential in women’s UFC history.
I genuinely struggle to fathom how so much absurdity could be confined to a single résumé. We’re talking about a fighter with a lifetime spot locked up on the All-Nonsense First Team. But if Saturday night was also the last time we see her, there couldn’t have been a more perfect bookend to one of the UFC’s weirdest and most unrepeatable careers.
Here’s to you, Priscila. Six months ago I proclaimed you to be this generation’s Rousimar Palhares. But you were more than that. You were a living guarantee that even the most ho-hum of undercards could never be boring. That’s a gift few in this sport possess.