When Robert Whittaker, the former middleweight champion, made the walk to the Octagon on July 8 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas to face Dricus Du Plessis in the co-main event of UFC 290, a legitimate argument could have been made that Whittaker belonged in the MMA pound-for-pound Top 10. He was that good.
He'd lost to Israel Adesanya at UFC 243 and UFC 271, but other than those two, Whittaker had reeled off 13 wins since a 2014 win over Mike Rhodes. In that span, he'd beaten Yoel Romero twice, as well as Jacare Souza, Jared Cannonier, Kelvin Gastelum and Marvin Vettori, among others.
He was, in short, the real deal.
And then the bell rang and everything changed. Du Plessis dominated Whittaker, much to the delight of Adesanya, who was seated ringside. He knew he needed fresh blood as an opponent, and given he'd beaten Whittaker twice, a win by Whittaker over Du Plessis did him little good.
It didn't hurt that Adesanya, who was born in Nigeria, took offense to comments made by Du Plessis, who is from South Africa, about Adesanya not being "a real African." Adesanya left Nigeria in search of fighting knowledge and fought in China extensively before settling in New Zealand.
When Du Plessis won, Adesanya came into the ring and the two did a staredown. UFC president Dana White generally does not like such occurrences, but when Adesanya promised he wouldn't get physical, White relented.
It seemed for all the world that Du Plessis would be facing Adesanya for the middleweight title Saturday in the main event of UFC 293 in Sydney, Australia.
But then Du Plessis said he had a foot injury that he didn't specify and said he couldn't fight. Adesanya had so thoroughly cleaned out the division that the only fighter in the top six he hadn't faced was Sean Strickland. And so, on Saturday, it will be Strickland, and not Du Plessis, who will challenge for the title.
Strickland has done what Strickland does, talk to anyone who will listen and even a lot who don't want to hear what he has to say. He made a mini-controversy when he said he punched a fan not long after getting into Australia.
He's made one outrageous comment after another, though none of it surprised White. He ordered members of his security staff to follow Strickland everywhere he goes in Sydney to prevent any type of incident.
"Going into this, I knew; I knew what this week was going to be like," White said Tuesday at the "Contender Series" post-fight news conference. "Yes, we were prepared for it and yes, we have people around him now, so he won’t be punching people in the stomach any more, whether for fun or not for fun. "
A legitimate question exists, though, about whether Strickland should even be in this fight. Du Plessis, based on his win over Whittaker and his dominance since joining the UFC, clearly earned the title shot. He's No. 1 in rankings, he's 20-2 overall and 6-0 with five finishes in the UFC. It's a compelling résumé.
Adesanya, though, had no time for him once he said he injured his foot.
"He's a p****," Adesanya said to Yahoo Sports, interrupting a question about Du Plessis. "I fought my last fight with my knee jacked and did you see me [wimp] out?"
Du Plessis' withdrawal created a lot of problems for the UFC. Rescheduling Adesanya wasn't really possible, because the entire card was built around him and the crowd in Australia is coming to see him. The undercard is filled with fighters from Australia and New Zealand.
But at least Du Plessis could have been promised the winner when he was healthy, but that's not the case, either.
"You know how much I love guys who turn down fights," White said, sarcastically, when asked if Du Plessis would get the next shot. "I don’t know. We’ll see what happens Saturday and then we’ll go from there."
The real money in the UFC comes from fighting for and then winning the title, and Du Plessis knows that. So should he have gone into the Octagon limited, with a foot injury, against one of the pound-for-pound greats and arguably the finest middleweight in MMA history, despite that?
Well, it's a tough call.
Title shots don't come around often, and most of the UFC fighters never come close to getting one. White's opinion on that topic is well known: He loves fighters who step up despite adverse circumstances, and rewards them handsomely.
But when you say no, White doesn't necessarily blacklist you, but he's not looking to do you any favors, either.
Khamzat Chimaev's days as a welterweight appear over, despite him still being in the UFC's welterweight rankings at No. 4. He'll fight Paulo Costa on Oct. 24 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, and a win there would likely make him the top contender at middleweight. If Strickland were to pull the upset and win, it would likely mean a rematch with Adesanya.
But if Adesanya, as expected, defeats Strickland, we're looking at an Adesanya-Chimaev bout next year if Chimaev beats Costa. That would be a huge match that could be put on UFC 300, which is slated to occur early in 2024.
"He's an interesting guy," Adesanya said of Chimaev. "He's looked good [at welterweight] but we'll see what he is all about."
In the UFC, the champion is given great latitude over who he'll fight, and having been at the top so long, Adesanya understands that as well as anyone. He's let Du Plessis know that in no uncertain terms.
Du Plessis hasn't spoken about the significance of his injury or its exact nature. And he did the right thing if he was going to be so compromised that it would severely impact his performance against Adesanya. Adesanya has great movement and he'll pick an opponent who is stationary apart.
But given the way he looked against Whittaker, it's easy to question how serious the injury he suffered was.
The beneficiary, of course, was Strickland, who gets a shot to pull one of the biggest upsets in UFC history.
Du Plessis faces an uncertain future, particularly if Adesanya defeats Strickland and then Chimaev beats Costa next month in impressive fashion.
Du Plessis made the choice he felt was best for his career, but whether it was actually the right move will only be told in part by how Adesanya, Strickland, Chimaev and Costa perform over the next six weeks.