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UFC middleweight champion Sean Strickland puts on a show at UFC 297 news conference

Sean Strickland Dricus Du Plessis Sean Strickland and Dricus Du Plessis - The Canadian Press

TORONTO — As befitting its main attraction, Thursday's UFC 297 news conference was loud and raucous.

Middleweight champion Sean (Tarzan) Strickland, perhaps the loosest of loose cannons in the UFC's arsenal, walked onto the stage at the Winter Garden Theatre wearing a white T-shirt with Strickland emblazoned over a red Maple Leaf above the words "Make Canada Great Again," a take on Donald Trump's "Make America Great Again" slogan.

He was greeted by wild cheers from the capacity crowd of some 900, with more outside unable to get in.

While UFC president Dana White was the MC at the podium, flanked by five main event fighters on each side, Strickland seemed in charge.

On Wednesday, Strickland managed to combine being abrasive, entertaining and offensive at a lively session with reporters. One day later in front of fans, he was a cheerleader — albeit one with a potty mouth.

When the crowd booed South African challenger Dricus Du Plessis as he tried to answer a question, Strickland stepped in.

"No, no. Everybody calm down. This man's a warrior. We're going to fight hard for you guys," said the champion, adding three F-bombs. "Applaud him and encourage him, because we want a war."

Du Plessis, stylishly attired in a white turtleneck under a dark jacket, seemed unimpressed by the entire event. He was essentially a prop for Strickland on the day.

But Strickland drew him in later, managing to shake Du Plessis' hand while promising blood will be spilled Saturday.

"Me and Dricus, we're going to try to kill each other. Dricus, can I get agreement? To the death. To the death," yelled Strickland, inserting three F-bombs.

The trash talk came from the co-main event fighters with Brazil's Mayra (Sheetara) Bueno Silva, ranked third among bantamweight contenders, doing her best to disparage second-ranked American Raquel (Rocky) Pennington.

The wild affair saw a fan evade security and climb on stage to shake Strickland's hand. While the champion seemed to enjoy the moment, security didn't and the young man soon found himself pancaked, the middle of a beefy sandwich as he lost his footing with two security men all over him.

Even White, no stranger to mayhem, seemed taken back by the wild atmosphere.

Asked about the marquee main event of UFC 300, White replied: "I'm not even thinking about 300 right now. I'm just trying to get through the next 15 minutes here."

The crowd was so loud, it was hard hearing anyone at times.

"What the (expletive) is going on in here?" asked English featherweight Arnold (Almighty) Allen.

Saturday's card, the first in Toronto since UFC 231 in December 2018, is already a hit.

White announced the event is expected to be a sellout of 18,100 with a gate of US$7.6 million. Only UFC 131, which drew 55,724 to Rogers Centre in April 2011, has boasted a bigger gate among Canadian UFC shows.

White said the show is expected to be the highest-grossing live event at Scotiabank Arena, not counting Maple Leaf and Raptor games.

Du Plessis is ranked second among middleweight contenders behind former champion Israel (The Last Stylebender) Adesanya, who lost the title to Strickland in a major upset at UFC 293 in September.

The 30-year-old challenger has won eight straight, including all six of his UFC fights. Strickland, 32, has won three in a row.

Strickland (28-5-0) is seen as a slight favourite by bookmakers at minus-120, meaning you have to wager $120 to make $100 profit. Du Plessis (20-2-0) is plus-100, meaning a $100 wager brings a $100 profit.

Both fighters had misbehaved at previous encounters.

At a December news conference in Las Vegas, the two exchanged barbs with Strickland making homophobic comments about Du Plessis and his coach, and the challenger referencing the abuse the champion says he endured as a child at the hands of his late father.

The next night, at UFC 296, the two brawled in the stands after Strickland launched himself at Du Plessis.

Strickland revealed later that he messaged Du Plessis a day later threatening to stab him if he returned to the issue of childhood abuse.

Du Plessis joked about the threat.

"When I saw a knife (reference) I'm like no, that's not going to work. He won't touch me with that knife. I'll knock you out way before you get to stab me," he told reporters Wednesday.

On a more serious note, he said in addition to the knife threat, Strickland apologized in his message for what he had said about his coach and asked if there was any topic he should clear of.

Strickland said emotion will be put to the side Saturday.

"My job is to fight you for five rounds, trying to put you away. And that's all it is. And that's Dricus. We don't go in there angry … You just detach and you do work," he told reporters Wednesday.

That appeared to be the case when the two fighters met by chance in their Toronto hotel lobby. Video of the interaction shows the two exchanging handshakes and a bro hug.

"The missus?" Strickland politely asks Du Plessis, who was accompanied by girlfriend Vasti Spiller.

"Nice to meet you," says Spiller.

The brief meeting ends with Strickland thanking Du Plessis for "being understanding" and Du Plessis wishing him good luck.

Nine of the 19 Canadian or Canada-based fighters on the UFC's roster of 600-plus are on Saturday's 12-bout card with welterweight (Proper) Mike Malott and middleweight Marc-Andre (Power Bar) Barriault on the main card.

Malott and Barriault were both on stage Thursday with Malott getting a lot of love from the crowd.


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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 19, 2024