Sean Strickland-mania has hit Toronto.
The UFC middleweight champion looks to carry the momentum from a raucous 2023 campaign that turned the MMA world on its head when he faces Dricus du Plessis in Saturday’s UFC 297 main event. When 2022 came to a close, Strickland was on a two-fight losing streak; now he enters January seeking his first title defense. How quickly things can change.
Du Plessis will undoubtedly be thinking the same thing on fight night as he brings his unblemished UFC record to Scotiabank Arena. The South African also hopes to become the first UFC champion in his country’s history and if he can continue his recent run of form, he’ll do just that.
In the co-main event, Mayra Bueno Silva and Raquel Pennington square off for a vacant bantamweight title. The belt has remained unclaimed since Amanda Nunes retired this past June and with former champion Julianna Peña currently sidelined, it’s Silva and Pennington who get their shot at the crown. Can the winner bring some excitement and stability to a struggling division?
In other main card action, UFC welterweight wins leader Neil Magny looks to stop Canadian golden boy Mike Malott, Chris Curtis takes on Marc-Andre Barriault in a middleweight fight, and Arnold Allen and Movsar Evloev battle to stay at the front of the featherweight contender picture.
What: UFC 297
Where: Scotiabank Arena in Toronto
When: Saturday, Jan. 20. The card begins with a three-fight early prelims portion on ESPN+ at 6:30 p.m. ET, with continuing coverage of the four-fight prelim card on ESPN and ESPN+ beginning at 8 p.m. ET. The five-fight main card begins at 10 p.m. ET and is available exclusively on ESPN+ pay-per-view.
(Numbers in parentheses indicate standing in MMA Fighting’s Global Rankings)
Table of Contents
Sean Strickland (1) vs. Dricus du Plessis (3)
Sean Strickland’s first title defense could be his last, but one gets the sense that this might just be his week.
The controversial champion’s “we the people” shtick has been in full force in Toronto and it’s clear that he has a connection with the fan base, a connection that has to appeal to the UFC bean counters with plenty of 2024 headliners left to fill out. While it’s unclear how much of Strickland’s confidence is driven by positive reinforcement, but if he needs to draw from the crowd for support, it sounds like they’ll be there in force.
He might need that to deal with the uber-aggressive Dricus du Plessis. Conventional wisdom says that this fight favors du Plessis early and Strickland late, though it feels like plenty of options are on the table. “DDP” recently had surgery to address an issue with his nose that was supposedly affecting his cardio (he certainly looked fit against Robert Whittaker), so is a decision win by du Plessis really out of the question? And though Strickland hasn’t finished anyone in the first round in ages, you can picture him taking advantage of du Plessis’ aggression and landing a clean shot to end the fight early (don’t forget he dropped Israel Adesanya at the end of Round 1).
One thing to keep in mind is that Strickland is pretty hard to hit. Yes, we’re not far removed from his recent two-fight losing streak, but in one of those fights he was on the wrong end of Alex Pereira’s power, and in the other he lost a tough decision to Jared Cannonier in a fight where neither man landed a telling blow.
So Strickland can make it past the first two rounds. From there, cardio will be king and he’ll push the pace on a fading du Plessis until he either guts out the decision or puts du Plessis away with strikes in Round 5.
The circus goes on.
Raquel Pennington (2) vs. Mayra Bueno Silva (1)
Even as an advocate for this being a title fight worth watching, I’m not going to predict that the matchup turns into a surprising barn-burner. We were blessed with Karol Rosa vs. Irene Aldana just a month ago, it’s a lot to ask for two bantamweight blessings so close together.
The best we can hope for is a convincing win by either Raquel Pennington or Mayra Bueno Silva that not only gives us a new undisputed champion, but nudges the women’s 135-pound division toward a level closer to that of its past glory. So what does “convincing” mean for these two fighters?
For Pennington, all she has to do is keep frustrating Silva with her grinding fighting style and capitalize on enough mistakes to win three out of five rounds. Pennington rarely puts a finishing stamp on her wins, so she’ll have to control stretches of the action while adding punches in bunches. That could be enough for her to finally claim that elusive UFC title.
For Silva, she has a reputation to live up to. In a division that is typically light on highlights, Silva has proven herself to be a finisher, and anything less than a first- or second-round submission would be disappointing.
Going nearly five rounds with Amanda Nunes all those years back says a lot about Pennington’s toughness and determination, so Silva’s offense has to be on point. Fortunately, she has plenty of ways to get this fight to the ground and dominate with her grappling.
Let’s see Silva win this fight by submission to kick off a new era in the women’s bantamweight division.
Neil Magny vs. Mike Malott
Neil Magny is about to make a lot of Canadian fans real unhappy.
Mike Malott is the current Golden Boy of the North with his exciting fighting style and likeable presence on the microphone. He’s in for a big jump in the rankings if he can get past Magny. The concern here is how much of a jump up in competition Magny is compared to Malott’s previous opponents.
With respect to Adam Fugitt, Yohan Lainesse, and Mickey Gall, none of their résumés compare to that of Magny, who happens to be the welterweight division’s career leader in wins. Even if Magny seems vulnerable or on the decline with so much mileage on him, he’s still a legitimate top 20 fighter at 170 pounds and Malott hasn’t faced anything close to that yet.
Magny typically has a reach advantage in his fights and it will be even more noticeable against Malott. According to the official measurements, Magny has a seven-inch reach advantage, another deficit that Malott has never had to make up for before.
Where Malott is heavily favored is on the ground. It’s no secret that submission defense has been a weakness of Magny’s over the years, so if Malott continues to show off the versatility that has made him a potential contender in 2024, those 4-to-1 odds he’s getting as the favorite will look like easy money.
Call me a sucker for not giving up on Magny just yet. I see him keeping Malott at bay for three rounds and striking his way to a decision win.
Chris Curtis vs. Marc-Andre Barriault
With his best bud in the main event, Chris Curtis won’t have his favorite cornerman, but he shouldn’t have too much trouble making the adjustments needed to defeat Marc-Andre Barriault.
Quebec’s “Power Bar” has emerged as a factor at 185 pounds with wins in five of his past seven fights and he’s developed a style that’s challenging for opponents. Barriault hits hard, throws with a decent amount of volume, and has a respectable chin.
That said, Curtis is way too technical for him. “The Action Man” has had extraordinarily bad luck with accidental head clashes affecting the outcomes of his past two fights, so as long as he can avoid a Barriault bull charge he should be OK. This should be a strict striking battle that Curtis controls from start to finish.
It’s going to be a fun night for Xtreme Couture. Curtis by decision.
Arnold Allen (5) vs. Movsar Evloev (T9)
What a banger of a featherweight matchup and one that is exceedingly close on paper. Arnold Allen, near untouchable before a hard-fought loss to Max Holloway; Movsar Evloev, actually untouchable to this point in his career with a spotless 17-0 record.
We’ve seen some cracks in Evloev’s armor. In his most recent fight with Diego Lopes, he was taken to the limit early and were it not for his heart and incredible defensive instincts, he might not be opening UFC 297 with a potential title shot waiting for him. He can’t afford a slow start against Allen, who, while not the most dynamic finisher, certainly has the strength and athleticism to end this one fast.
Can Allen pull the trigger? That’s another question looming over not just this matchup, but Allen’s chances of ever becoming champion. No one would question that he’s one of the 10 best featherweights in the world. What we are left to wonder is if he has that competitive fire to author that exclamation point moment that puts him over the top.
Let’s make one thing clear: Whoever loses this fight isn’t “exposed” nor are they removed from the championship equation. It will just take some work to creep back up the charts. What we do know is that the winner will have a strong case to be the next man up to fight either Alexander Volkanovski or Ilia Topuria.
And the next man up is Movsar Evloev.
Yohan Lainesse def. Sam Patterson