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Challenger du Plessis wins split decision over Strickland at UFC 297

Dricus du Plessis Dricus du Plessis - The Canadian Press

TORONTO — South African challenger Dricus (Stillknocks) Du Plessis dethroned middleweight champion Sean Strickland, winning a split decision after a five-round gruelling battle in the main event of UFC 297 Saturday night.

The judges scored it 49-48, 48-49, 49-48 for Du Plessis.

Strickland initially used his more technical striking to advantage, managing to handle Du Plessis' power and awkward style. But the South African kept coming and his damage began to take its toll on Strickland.

Du Plessis, wrapped in a South African flag, walked out at 12:54 a.m. local time to the sounds of Australian band Airbourne's "Live It Up." The champion followed to cheers and a metal version of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" by Finland's Megaraptor.

They touched gloves at 1:03 a.m. and went at it. Seconds later, a "Let's Go Strickland" chant went round Scotiabank Arena.

Strickland pumped his jab while Du Plessis landed kicks and looked for a power shot. The South African took Strickland down briefly.

Strickland continued to find a home for his jab in the second round, with Du Plessis attempting wilder strikes — and landing another takedown. The round ended with a trickle of blood near Strickland's right eye.

Du Plessis came forward in the third, his face showing damage. It was more of the same in the fourth with Strickland fighting off a takedown attempt and landing some good blows. But at a cost, with more blood leaking.

The challenger finished the round strongly, with three takedowns and some heavy strikes.

The fighters touched gloves before the fifth round, with the crowd alternating chants of "DDP" for Du Plessis and "Let's Go Strickland." The fight finished with both men exhausted but still swinging.

Not everyone agreed with the decision.

"I had it 2-2 going into the last round and I thought Strickland won the last round," said UFC president Dana White.

"It was one of those tight fights … But I'm also one of those guys, I believe you have to take it from the champion," he added.

The UFC boss said he expected the two would fight again in the future.

Du Plessis arrived at the post-fight news conference on crutches and in a walking boot.

"I'm pretty banged up right now," he said.

But he thought he had done enough to deserve the win.

Strickland did not speak to the media but tweeted "Man that headbutt really made it difficult to see but I thought we got the job done Blood and all. On to the next one."

Du Plessis said he did not recall any clash of heads.

Strickland (28-6-0) was making the first defence of the 185-pound title he won in September in a major upset, dominating champion Israel (The last Stylebender) Adasanya in a five-round decision at UFC 293.

A native of California now based in Las Vegas, Strickland came into Saturday's showdown with a 15-5-0 record in the UFC — and a reputation as a loose cannon with no self-edit. The potty-mouthed Strickland came as advertised, making headlines fight week by sharing his views on everything from homosexuality and women's MMA to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and freedom of speech in Canada.

The crowd took a page out of Strickland's book, with obscene anti-Trudeau chants echoing throughout the night.

Du Plessis (21-2-0) came into the fight having won all six of his previous UFC outings. The 30-year-old from Pretoria had 19 finishes in his 20 wins, explaining why his brother gave him the nickname Stillknocks, after the Stilnox drug used to help people sleep.

American Raquel (Rocky) Pennington, ranked second among 135-pound contenders, won the vacant women's bantamweight title with a unanimous decision over No. 3 Mayra (Sheetara) Bueno Silva of Brazil in a co-main event that drew boos from the crowd.

The judges scored it 49-46, 49-46, 49-45 for Pennington (16-8-0), who lost a title shot to Brazil's Amanda (Lioness) Nunes via a fifth-round TKO at UFC 224. Bueno Silva fell to 10-3-1 with one no contest.

"It's been a long five years getting back to this," said Pennington.

Saturday's show featured nine of the UFC's 19 Canadian or Canadian-based fighters, with welterweight (Proper) Mike Malott and middleweight Marc-Andre (Power Bar) Barriault on the main card.

It was a long evening for the locals, who went 2-7 on the night. Three of the losses were by split decision.

American veteran Neil (The Haitian Sensation) Magny, ranked 13th among welterweight contenders, rallied late to stop Malott (10-2-1) via TKO with just 15 seconds remaining. Malott had seemed in control, scoring takedowns in the second and third rounds, but Magny (29-11-0) got the stoppage when he landed a takedown and flurry of blows from top position with time running out.

It was Malott's first loss in the UFC. The 32-year-old from Fonthill, Ont., had needed just 16 minutes two seconds in total to dispatch his first three opponents.

Barriault (16-7-0 with one no-contest) lost a split (30-27, 28-29, 30-27) decision to 14th-ranked contender Chris (Action Man) Curtis (21-10-0 with one no contest) of the U.S.

Jasmine Jasudavicius and Gillian (The Savage) Robertsonwon their preliminary bouts but Malcom (X) Gordon, Yohan (White Lion) Lainesse, Serhiy Sidey, Charles (Air) Jourdain and Brad (Superman) Katona all lost.

Jasudavicius and Robertson each won a US$50,000 performance of the night bonus. Strickland and Du Plessis each collected US$50,000 for fight of the night.

The two main-event fighters brawled in the stands at UFC 296 in December, one day after getting in a heated exchange at a UFC news conference. They were better behaved in the lead-up to this fight although Strickland careened between entertaining and offending during fight week with his shoot-from-the lip comments and tsunami of F-bombs.

White noted, the pay-per-view audience was probably made up of those wanting to see Strickland win and those who just wanted to see him punched in the head.

Russian Movsar Evloev, ranked ninth among featherweight contenders, added to his perfect record with a unanimous (29-28, 29-28, 29-28) decision over No. 4 Arnold (Almighty) Allen (19-3-0) in the opening bout of the main card.

Evloev (18-0-0) showed off a nasty grappling game and effective striking against his gritty English opponent, who trains at Montreal's Tristar Gym.

The card was the UFC's first in Toronto since UFC 231 in December 2018 and the first in Canada since UFC 289 last June in Vancouver. Canadian fighters went 6-0 on the Vancouver card and 3-3 at UFC 231.

Attendance was announced as a sellout of 18,559 with a bumper gate of US$7.9 million (C$10.6 million), second only among the promotion's previous 32 Canadian shows to UFC 129 in April 2011 which drew 55,724 to the Rogers Centre for a gate of US$12.1 million.

The UFC announced during the card that former lightweight champion Frankie (The Answer) Edgar will be inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame’s "Modern Wing" in the Class of 2024.

Former NHL star PK Subban and UFC current flyweight champion Alexandre (The Cannibal) Pantoja were among the celebrities in the crowd. Drake had promised to be there too — and the Toronto rapper had skin in the game, posting on social media his $700,000 wager on Strickland to win.


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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 21, 2024.