UFC 297 roundtable: Is Sean Strickland poised for another ‘Fighter of the Year’ run?

Sean Strickland was the 2023 Fighter of the Year. Is he about to author a repeat performance?

That might sound crazy reading it, but it’s no less crazy than Strickland dominating Israel Adesanya to become champion. On Saturday at UFC 297, Strickland has his first title defense as he takes on Dricus du Plessis, who has yet to taste defeat inside the octagon. Strickand’s run at the top could be over before it begins, but a win over “DDP” could send him soaring toward another year of accolades.

MMA Fighting’s Alexander K. Lee, Steven Marrocco, Damon Martin, and Jed Meshew got together to discuss the UFC’s first pay-per-view of the year and how likely it is that Strickland shocks the world (again).

1. Is Strickland on the path to ‘Fighter of the Year’ again if he wins at UFC 297?


I mean, come on. No. The answer is no. Sean Strickland wasn’t poised to win “Fighter of the Year” last year. In a normal timeline, he wouldn’t have — 2023 just happened to be the weirdest, funniest year in MMA history, and he took advantage. Full credit to him for that, but I will bet my left foot he can’t go back-to-back, for two reasons.

First, it’s really hard! Winning “Fighter of the Year” is exceptionally difficult and requires a perfect storm of events to take place. Doing that twice in a row? Next to impossible. Just think of what Strickland would need to do to claim it again. He’d have to beat du Plessis and defend his title at least twice more — and that just puts him in the conversation. If some other fighter has a monstrous year — if Ilia Topuria beats Alexander Volkanovski, for instance — that’s all she wrote. Strickland is out of the running.

Second, he’s not going to beat du Plessis. If 2023 was the year of chaos, 2024 is going to be the year of cold certainty. Normalcy shall return to the MMA landscape and meritocracy shall reign. Strickland only got his title shot due to poor planning by the UFC. Credit to him, he made the most of it, but I’m still not willing to believe this man is the best middleweight alive. We saw him lose a terrible fight with Jared Cannonier just 13 months ago! “DDP,” on the other hand, is that dude. He’s going to claim the title, and then he will be the one on the Fighter of the Year trajectory.

UFC 2024 Seasonal Press Conference

Sean Strickland
Photo by Cooper Neill/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Martin: Strickland largely stole the show for Fighter of the Year in 2023 because he surprised just about everybody with his stunning win over Israel Adesanya. Chances are he’ll still enjoy underdog status against many of the best fighters at 185 pounds, but everyone should see him coming. So now it’s going to come down to dominant wins and racking up title defenses in 2024.

If he starts off the year with a win over du Plessis, that goes a long way to prove Strickland’s win over Adesanya was no fluke. It would also give him a jump start over a lot of the other defending champions, because most of the folks holding gold in the UFC are lucky to get two fights per year, much less three or more.

Strickland loves to stay active, so it’s possible he breaks that trend. If he can somehow get to three or four title defenses in 2024, it’s going to be awfully hard to deny him a second straight Fighter of the Year award. That said, he’d really be defying the odds to pull that off, so even if he wins at UFC 297, it’s tough to imagine he’ll take the lead for long.

MMA is such a wildly unpredictable sport that there will surely be a new champion somewhere that will likely steal the show much like Strickland did in 2023. Throw in defending champions with something to prove this year, like Jon Jones coming back from injury, Leon Edwards potentially taking out challengers like Belal Muhammad and Shavkat Rakhmonov, or Muhammad beating Edwards to claim a UFC title, and there will be stiff competition.

One more thing — Conor McGregor will supposedly return in June. If he does, wins and somehow manages to get another emphatic victory before the end of 2024, he’s surely going to be near the top of that list.

2. How will the UFC 297 main event compare to Strickland and du Plessis’ UFC 296 brawl?

Marrocco: They will be scheduled for 25 minutes, mainly. On the floor of the T-Mobile Arena, Strickland figured he’d go fast and dirty against his new rival, and the main thing he needed to do was send a message. When they meet under sanctioned circumstances, the looming presence of championship rounds will keep them from firing the nitro in the first round.

Strickland isn’t the brightest bulb in the box, but he’s not dumb enough to deviate from his strong suit, which is the slow drip-drip-drip of pressure that wins points and wilts fighters in deep water. It just so happens that skill set potentially aligns with a historical weakness of du Plessis in oxygen deprivation. Nose surgery or not, du Plessis hasn’t sniffed a fourth round in 11 years of professional fighting, and his heavily muscled frame doesn’t scream cardio machine. Survive the initial onslaught, and Strickland could have his way with his rival at the very moment he’s fading. What better way to get revenge than by making your enemy suffer?

On the side of du Plessis, it will at the minimum give him the platform to show he’s a championship-level fighter. All the things I wrote are based on what I’ve seen, but we could see a completely different type of fighter emerge against Strickland. Equally possible, we could see a repeat of what we’ve seen thus far: a 185-pound wrecking ball who racks up another big finish. But something tells me that the stakes of his fight—and the personal rivalry that underscores it—will lead us to a more tactical affair in which the better technician will win the night.

Lee: It will be a lot less manufactured, hopefully.

Putting aside the assumption that there was a firm guiding hand behind Strickland and du Plessis’ previous fracas (at the very least, that was some convenient seating!), there is clearly plenty of legitimate bad blood between Saturday’s headliners, and I expect that to make for a thrilling main event. We’ve certainly seen fights where the walk doesn’t live up to the talk, but I have a feeling that the action between these two should outshine the pre-fight sparks.

There’s certainly a mileage-may-very quality to Strickland and du Plessis’ choice of insults—frankly, I could do without any of it—and that will probably color how one views the in-cage performances. Is du Plessis just running through Strickland the most exciting possible outcome? Or is it more intriguing to see Strickland convincingly pick du Plessis apart for five rounds as he did to Israel Adesanya? I actually think they’ll find a happy medium, with Strickland’s unorthodox style frustrating du Plessis for long stretches, and the challenger answering with flurries that will have the commentators jumping out of their seats. I don’t think Joe Rogan will be at Scotiabank, but if he is you can be sure there will be at least a couple of shrieking “HE’S HURT!!!”s.

Neither of these fighters is going to be winning any awards for political correctness anytime soon. The great thing about it is that none of that matters once the cage door closes. We have a surprising champion in his first defense facing the most dangerous challenger possible and, all bulls*** aside, this is a great title fight to kick off 2024.

Now let’s hope that there aren’t any post-fight antics that make us regret this matchup ever happening.

UFC 2024 Seasonal Press Conference

Sean Strickland and Dricus du Plessis
Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

3. Can a new champion at women’s bantamweight revitalize the division?

Lee: Women’s bantamweight needs revitalizing? But it’s so good!

Fair enough, for the sake of conversation, I’ll begrudgingly acknowledge that 135-pound division might not have the same luster that it had when Ronda Rousey, Miesha Tate, Holly Holm, and Amanda Nunes were prominently featured on cards that regularly drew pay-per-view numbers in the high six figures. Heck, we barely even see women’s bantamweight fights booked anymore, much less anywhere near the top of a UFC card.

So yes, the division could use a boost, and Mayra Bueno Silva vs. Raquel Pennington is just the fight to do it. I’m not predicting a “Fight of the Year” candidate or anything, but with Nunes out of the picture, we’re getting the two best in the weight class (no apologies to Julianna Peña) battling for a vacant title, and you can’t ask for much more than that. Silva did us all a favor by ending Holm’s gatekeeping reign of terror, and Pennington has rattled off five straight wins since 2020. This is as good as it gets in this situation.

Beyond damning Saturday’s co-main event with faint praise, I’m actually optimistic that the UFC can build some momentum in this division with Silva or Pennington at the top. Either woman has the ability to string together a few title defenses, providing some stability at the top while a fresh name gets the chance to build their résumé (Josiane Nunes? Nora Cornolle? Luana Santos?).

I don’t know if women’s 135 can ever be a marquee division again, but for the first time in a while, I can actually see a path back to relevance.

UFC Fight Night: Holm v Bueno Silva

Mayra Bueno Silva
Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Martin: The short answer? No.

You want more? OK.

In a day and age where the UFC needs title fights to fill pay-per-view cards more than ever, the women’s bantamweight belt sat dormant for seven months after Nunes gave up the gold when she retired from the sport. It wasn’t that long ago that Francis Ngannou knocked out Stipe Miocic but couldn’t make a quick turnaround to fight again four months later so the UFC just randomly introduced an interim title for no real reason whatsoever.

There was no rush to crown a new champion because nobody really cared much about the women’s bantamweight division once Nunes was gone. Just about every name near the top of the rankings was somebody that Nunes had already demolished including ex-champion Peña, who holds a win over the Brazilian legend but not a single victory over anybody else on the active UFC roster. Let that sink in. Not a single win over anybody on the active UFC roster.

The best thing the UFC can hope for here would be Silva getting an impressive win — and hopefully it doesn’t get overturned this time — and she could then cement herself as a dominant champion to help the division move forward. It doesn’t mean 135 would suddenly be revitalized but at least Silva is new blood who isn’t part of Nunes’ highlight reel.

Outside of that, this division is a barren wasteland and there’s no Rousey-type talent in sight to inject some much-needed enthusiasm.

4. What is the sleeper storyline of UFC 297?

Marrocco: We’re a little light on big storylines for a year-opening pay-per-view, but I’m a little intrigued to see if The Ultimate Fighter 31 winner Brad Katona can make it happen in his second go-around as a UFC fighter and TUF champion. As workmanlike as his performances may be, they are effective, and he’s getting a big spot on the prelim headliner against the unheralded Garrett Armfield to build another title run.

As a bantamweight, he’s facing steep odds, but who knows… maybe there’s a chance with fresh blood needed at the top of the division? Or maybe he’s the test case for the UFC to finally admit it’s time to put TUF to bed forevermore. I can’t lie and say the latter sounds like a better idea, but I love to be proven wrong. And you have to hand it to Mr. Katona in that he did just that by becoming the first two-time TUF winner.

Meshew: Why does the UFC hate Canada?

J/k, J/k, but you have to admit, this is not exactly the best fight card ever put together. Considering what we know about the rest of the pay-per-views in 2024 thus far, Canada is getting the short end of the stick.

As for me real answer, I think there’s only one: Is Movsar Evloev the dark horse at featherweight? Evloev takes on Arnold Allen on the main card, and given the lay of the land at 145 pounds, Evloev is almost certainly fighting for a title shot. Allen might also be, but since he just lost to Max Holloway, it’s by no means guaranteed. But if Alexander Volkanovski beats Ilia Topuria at UFC 298, and Evloev beats Allen, he’s the only real contender that makes sense. Do we really want to do Volk-Max 4?

Even if Topuria beats, Volkanovski, Evloev is still in great shape with a win. In that reality, Volk and Topuria will rematch later in the year, and then he still makes sense as the first opponent for the winner of that fight. Obviously, there are a lot of balls in the air, and Evloev is far from a household name, but if he can win and do so impressively, I think he’s got a real shot at claiming the featherweight title by the end of the year.

UFC 288: Evloev v Lopes

Movsar Evloev
Photo by Cooper Neill/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

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