South African fighter Du Plessis happiest when UFC cage door closes
TORONTO — Dricus (Stillknocks) Du Plessis is in his happy place when he steps into the Octagon, as evidenced by the wide smile always present during pre-fight introductions.
"It's the thing I love most in the world," said the South African mixed martial artist, who turns 30 on Sunday.
"Well, with my clothes on, of course," he added with a laugh.
And why not?
Du Plessis (20-2-0) has won eight fights in a row, including all six in the UFC, since a loss to German Roberto Soldic on the card of Polish promotion KSW in London in October 2018. Of his 20 victories, only one has gone the distance.
Du Plessis looks to add to that win streak Jan. 20 in Toronto when he takes on middleweight champion Sean (Tarzan) Strickland in the main event of UFC 297 at Scotiabank Arena.
It's a compelling matchup.
A heavy underdog, the 32-year-old Strickland (28-5-0) won the title from Israel (The Last Stylebender) Adesanya in September in Sydney, Australia, in impressive fashion via a unanimous 49-46 decision.
A loose cannon outside the cage with little sense of self-edit, Strickland is relentless when the fight begins. Equipped with an effective defence and a powerful jab that serves as an entree for more powerful punches, Strickland landed 137 significant strikes on Adesanya while evading 66 per cent of Adesanya's 271 significant strike attempts.
Strickland, a native of California who fights out of Las Vegas, is also hard to take down, fighting off 23 of 24 takedown attempts over his last 13 UFC outings.
Du Plessis is ranked second among 185-pound contenders, behind Adesanya.
He is a high-volume striker — landing 6.95 significant strikes per minute over his UFC career, compared to 5.82 for Strickland. And his power is hidden by a herky-jerky style of movement that sees the South African alternating orthodox and southpaw stances.
In his six UFC fights, Du Plessis outstruck each opponent.
Du Plessis earned his title shot with a second-round knockout over former champion Robert (The Reaper) Whitaker at UFC 290 in July. He won despite fighting with a fractured foot suffered on the eve of the bout.
"Luckily all the hard work was already done. Everything was done and dusted. We just had to show up and fight," he said. "And with that adrenalin you can get by anything."
Strickland and Du Plessis appear to be oil and water, fighting in the stands last month at UFC 296 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
The trouble started when Strickland was shown cageside on the broadcast with Du Plessis, sitting two rows behind, reacting with boos and a thumbs down. Strickland then cocked a finger like a gun and mimed shooting the South African, who dodged the imaginary bullet.
Du Plessis kept talking and Strickland, after politely asking the son of UFC fighter Gilbert Burns to vacate the seat between them, jumped over the gap and starting punching Du Plessis. Security and others intervened.
Du Plessis says he's not sure if the bad blood will continue to boil next week when the two fighters square off at the pre-fight news conference.
"I'm Dricus and I'm always going to show up to be a professional," he said. "I'm always going to show up and be myself, like I am. If you treat me with respect, I'll treat you with respect. If you try and start something, I'll be glad to finish it. But for me I'm going in there with an open mind and ready to face whatever happens."
Du Plessis started with judo at the age of five, mainly to keep up with his brothers. He then tried wrestling and was drawn to MMA after watching various fight movies.
"It just caught my eye and I thought this is the coolest thing in the world," said du Plessis, who started kickboxing at 14.
"It's been my passion since I was a young boy," he added. "I didn't want to do anything else than become a professional fighter."
Older brothers Neil and W.C. will be in his corner for the Strickland fight
Du Plessis got the Stillknocks nickname from one of his brothers ahead of his first pro MMA fight in 2013. The inspiration was Du Plessis' 30 knockouts in 33 amateur K-1 bouts.
Stillnox is a drug used to help people sleep.
"Here we are today," Du Plessis said. "What a wonderfully applicable name."
Du Plessis hopes to follow the lead of the Springboks, who won the Rugby World Cup in October, by becoming the first South African UFC champion.
"The Boks did it and I'm the Springbok of the UFC," said Du Plessis. "Nothing in the world could mean more to me than brining that belt home to South Africa and make my country proud."
A native of Pretoria, Du Plessis supports Cape Town's rugby team, the Stormers.
Away from the cage, du Plessis is an entrepreneur thanks to the Stillknocks Meat Co. The products are made up of a dried, cured meat called biltong originating in Southern African countries.
"It's similar to jerky but it's real meat," he explained, calling it a taste of South Africa.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 12, 2024.