MMA Junkie analyst Dan Tom breaks down the UFC’s top bouts. Today, we look at the main event for UFC 297.
UFC 297 (pay-per-view, ESPN, ESPN+) takes place Saturday at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto.
Sean Strickland (28-5-1 MMA, 15-5 UFC)
Dricus Du Plessis (20-2 MMA, 6-0 UFC)
Point of interest: It don't have to be pretty
The main event in Toronto features a title fight between two middleweights who have proven that you don’t have to fight pretty in order to be effective.
A marauding madman from South Africa, Dricus Du Plessis possesses a style that can be difficult to get a beat on.
Fueled by unbridled confidence and an insane athletic drive, discouraging Du Plessis appears to be a near-impossible task. Whether he’s looking to counter off a high guard or is blitzing forward spastically, Du Plessis always appears to be focused on the task at hand.
Du Plessis is also competent in both stances and will regularly shift to southpaw, which only further flusters opponents who are already struggling to get a grasp of his awkward timing.
Nevertheless, Du Plessis is not beyond being taxed down the centerline for his aggressiveness – which makes me wonder how he’ll approach someone like Sean Strickland.
Fighting to his frame, Stickland does a decent job of staying long with the occasional front teep and a series of stinging jabs. Whether he is circling with his jab off the counter or connecting it to crosses down the center line, the jab is a shot that Strickland has had a nice feel for since entering the organization.
When feeling in stride, Strickland isn’t afraid to shift stances mid-combination to better target fleeing foes. Opposite opponents like Krzysztof Jotko, Strickland was able to utilize said shifts to fuel a steady dose of low kicks that were quite effective.
Still, despite being a fighter who can do his share of countering, Strickland himself is not beyond being countered due to his upright posture and a propensity to sometimes move and follow in straight lines.
However, since teaming up with Xtreme Couture’s Eric Nicksick, Strickland has done a much better job of controlling the cage, which, in turn, helped him turn in one of the biggest upsets of 2023 when he took the title from Israel Adesanya.
Point of interest: Potential grappling threats
Given the potential for chaos on the feet, no one should be shocked if this party touches the floor this Saturday.
Although takedowns from the champion’s side of the equation shouldn’t be overlooked, Du Plessis is the man more likely to engage in the grappling realm on paper.
Coming from a background in both judo and wrestling, Du Plessis is no stranger when it comes to scoring takedowns in mixed martial arts.
Sure, there are certainly some failed lateral drop highlights that aren’t the most flattering for Du Plessis if you dig deep enough, but the 30-year-old has his head in the right place in regards to timing and tactics.
For example, Du Plessis may not prioritize position over submission in the classic sense, but the South African fighter is good about using said submissions to transition into superior positions that allow him to get off damage.
That said, the challenger can’t afford to underestimate the champion’s grappling prowess.
Sure, former UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman was able to largely dominate Strickland to a decision win; but other than that, Strickland has made a solid account for himself within the wrestling realm since stepping onto the UFC scene.
Offensively, Strickland still shows the ability to hit level-changing doubles when he needs to, as well as helpful “shuck-by’s” from the body lock position that allows him to get an angle on his opponent’s back (which are all good signs considering the damage Strickland sustained in a motorcycle accident a few years back).
Although we haven’t had to see much shot defense from Strickland since his return to the middleweight division, the 32-year-old American always has done a decent job of either separating his opposition’s grips or sprawling and shutting down their takedown attempts outright.
Strickland also appears fairly flexible in scrambles, showing a solid sense of hip awareness and leg dexterity to boot.
Point of interest: Odds and opinions
The oddsmakers and the public are slightly favoring the sitting champion, listing Strickland -138 and Du Plessis +108 via FanDuel.
Despite my official pick and admitted bias toward Eric Nicksick-trained fighters, I wouldn’t be shocked to see Du Plessis close as a slight favorite come fight night.
Although I believe that the betting spread above is largely accurate, I have to acknowledge how live of an underdog Du Plessis is in this spot. His style may not make the most sense, but Du Plessis’ durability, athleticism and awkwardness make for a deceptively difficult challenge in practice.
Should Du Plessis follow one of Strickland’s jabs back home with a right hand of his own this Saturday, then no one should be shocked given what “Still Knocks” has been able to accomplish.
However, I can’t help but side with the more proven product in this spot.
Both men arguably get better as the fight goes on, but only one of them has regularly seen championship rounds in recent years. If Strickland can survive the early storms of Du Plessis, then I suspect that his centerline-centric striking (from jabs to teeps to the body) will pay serious dividends for the champion when you consider how allergic the challenger is to bodywork.
It’s admittedly a bit of a reluctant pick, but I’ll side with Strickland to successfully navigate the dangers of Du Plessis to find a semi-surprising finish by the fourth round.