January 21, 2024, 2:35 a.m. ET
The UFC's first pay-per-view of 2024 featured a brutal middleweight title fight and put the spotlight on some of Canada's best MMA stars. Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi, Jeff Wagenheim and Carlos Contreras Legaspi share their thoughts on the night's biggest moments.
Does Dricus Du Plessis' victory set the course for UFC Africa?
Before Dana White became the top promoter in mixed martial arts history, he was a boxing fan. The UFC CEO has long dreamed of organizing unique events for his company that are reminiscent of classic boxing spectacles. Fights like “Rumble in the Jungle,” a historic fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire.
In recent years, White has talked about bringing the UFC to Africa. At one point, the UFC had three African-born champions. None of them currently have titles. But after Saturday night, White could have his ticket to the continent, complete with a new African-born champion and a premier matchup for the region.
Dricus Du Plessis defeated Sean Strickland to win the UFC middleweight title in the main event of UFC 297 in Toronto on Saturday night. Hailing from South Africa, Du Plessis obviously has a large following in his home country and has a strong connection with Nigerian-born former champion Israel Adesanya
“Maybe we'll start looking at South Africa, looking at the arenas and maybe have a fight there this year,” White said at the post-fight press conference.Dricus Du Plessis defeated Sean Strickland to win the UFC middleweight title at UFC 297. Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images
The story with Du Plessis and Adesanya is delicate. Du Plessis said years ago that he wanted to win the UFC title and become the first true African champion. He said it with the context that he was still living and training in Africa while the others had moved away. Adesanya, as well as former champions Francis Ngannou and Kamaru Usman, were outraged by this, particularly given South Africa's complicated history and colonization.
Last July, Adesanya entered the Octagon while still champion after Du Plessis defeated Robert Whittaker. Adesanya, a black man, kicked Du Plessis in the face and shouted racist slurs into the microphone. After winning the title on Saturday, Du Plessis called out Adesanya, who may cut short his planned break from the Octagon following his title loss to Strickland last September.
“Israel Adesanya, get your ass back in the UFC so we can settle the score,” Du Plessis said.
Another potential next title challenger is also emerging for Du Plessis, someone who could be added to the list if Adesanya is not yet ready to return. Just weeks after Strickland defeated Adesanya to win the belt, the UFC offered Strickland a lucrative, short-notice matchup against Khamzat Chimaev, whose original opponent at UFC 294 in Abu Dhabi was injured. Strickland declined the fight because he should have specified the time. But it's clear that the UFC is investing heavily in the fearsome Chimaev, who ultimately defeated former welterweight champion Kamaru Usman via majority decision at UFC 294. So don't be surprised if a fight between Du Plessis and Chimaev is discussed if Adesanya wants some more time for some well-deserved rest.
In any case, the UFC middleweight division continues to evolve – and is fascinating. White said in the post-fight press conference that he fully expects Du Plessis and Strickland to fight again later. But there's little doubt that White would be thrilled to finally make UFC Africa happen in 2024 with a newly christened, African-born UFC champion.
Who is next for Du Plessis?
Okamoto: Khamzat Chimaev
I expect I'll get a lot of criticism for this, but I don't care.
What do we do with Chimaev? He's one of the most exciting prospects the sport has ever seen and it feels like he hasn't gone anywhere in the last two years. It's not entirely his fault, nor is it the UFC's. There's been bad luck, bad weight cuts, injuries, Covid, visa issues… you name it.
But enough is enough. Get this man in a title shot.
Du Plessis wants Adesanya and he deserves to have that say and this is a good next fight. There's nothing wrong with that. But personally I would rather see Chimaev.
Adesanya is a good choice, even if he's not my personal number 1. And for the record, I believe he will face Du Plessis next.
Who is next for Sean Strickland?
Okamoto: Israel Adesanya
Since I would like to see Chimaev next for the title, it makes sense to book an Adesanya-Strickland rematch for both.
Strickland's victory over Adesanya in September was so unforeseen. You can't call it a coincidence, but you can certainly wonder if Adesanya fought too much. Adesanya himself has admitted that he was way too active, and considering he fought Strickland instead of Du Plessis (the fight he really wanted), one wonders what his mindset was going into that first fight.
A rematch between these two would generate a lot of interest and answer any questions anyone has about their first meeting.
Wildcard: Khamzat Chimaev
If the UFC chooses Du Plessis vs. Adesanya, then book this as a No. 1 contender fight. Strickland is one of the hottest commodities in MMA right now. Chimaev looked like a potential star. Put them together and you get a real contender for the No. 1 middleweight spot, and honestly, you're building both names.
The fans would be crazy about this fight and its build-up. Just thinking about these matchups makes me think that the middleweight division is suddenly one of the most interesting in the sport right now.
Pennington never gave up
Wagenheim: Raquel Pennington has been here before. But when she competed for the UFC women's bantamweight championship for the first time in 2018, the woman nicknamed “Rocky” was bloodied by the queen of the division, Amanda Nunes.
Nearly six years later, Pennington is now the heir to the throne long occupied by the GOAT of women's MMA.
The 135-pound title had been left vacant following Nunes' retirement last June, and that vacancy was filled on Saturday by Pennington – the sixth UFC women's bantamweight champion in history – after a tough win over Mayra Bueno Silva. Persistence brought Pennington back to a championship opportunity, and persistence earned her the victory and the shiny belt she had longed for.
At the start, Bueno Silva was the one who looked like she had been here before, attacking confidently and taking strong positions in each of the first two rounds. But Pennington kept fighting, gradually wearing down her opponent and nearly reaching the finish line before settling for a decisive victory (49-46, 49-46, 49-45).
Pennington was the underdog, even though he had a much more prominent resume. She has victories over Miesha Tate, Jessica Andrade and most recently Ketlen Vieira and, in addition to Nunes, has also been in the cage with Holly Holm, Germaine de Randamie and Cat Zingano. In contrast, Bueno Silva came in after an assist against her most notable opponent, Holm, but the July result was changed to No Contest after she tested positive for a banned substance.
Bueno Silva was just four fights into her MMA career and was not yet in the UFC at the time Pennington first fought for the belt.
The Brazilian's lack of experience was evident in Rounds 4 and 5 – the aptly named Championship Rounds. In those two final rounds, Bueno Silva landed just 20 strikes to Pennington's 140.
Although Pennington was a clear winner, neither her performance nor the fight itself will make MMA fans forget the greatness of Nunes. But it's a positive development for the UFC to fill one of its vacant championship spots, and it was especially positive for Pennington, a 35-year-old new mother who was making her 24th professional fight and is now on a six-fight winning streak has. Like a champion.
What's next for the new champion?
Okamoto: Julianna Pena
That's the obvious choice, and Peña has already said she'll be ready to tackle Pennington's first title defense. Without Nunes, this divide would always be wide open. So many of Nunes' former opponents now have their eyes on that belt. It's obviously looking more available than ever.
Hopefully the UFC can make this a very active division and we'll see all of these challengers get their chance. Let's be honest, Nunes felt almost unfair at the top of the division. Even long-established names like Holm and Tate, former champions who are probably at the end of their careers, could force their way into contention. There's plenty of opportunity for some wild stories in this department now that Nunes is watching from the outside.
Next up is Peña. We've known this since this title fight was announced at UFC 297.
On a night where Canadian MMA stars were supposed to be in the spotlight, the best performance came from ___
Okamoto: Gillian Robertson.
I know Jasmine Jasudavicius has set all sorts of records with her 326 goals scored, but if Canada is looking for someone to back it up, it's Robertson. Her career in the UFC was checkered, but that was to be expected. She is only 28 years old and made her UFC debut seven years ago. She is just now reaching her physical and (more importantly) mental prime as a professional fighter.
She has fought a variety of opponents including Bueno Silva, Taila Santos and Maycee Barber. She grew up surrounded by UFC-caliber talent.
Unfortunately for the Canadian fan base, the answer to that question wasn't Mike Malott. Saturday was a big litmus test for Mallott against a veteran in Neil Magny, and he came up well short. That doesn't mean it's time to give up on Malott entirely, but expectations for the 32-year-old were certainly much higher than what he was able to show in his back yard.
Movsar Evloev continues to make progress but may need one more win to secure the title
Contreras Legaspi: UFC 297 presented a great opportunity for Movsar Evloev, who faced tough competition from Arnold Allen. He remains undefeated and provided an opportunity to prove himself as a well-rounded fighter. He had good standing combinations, solid confrontations and managed to avoid the danger that the Englishman posed on several occasions.
He now has eight wins in the UFC, but he still needs to secure a spot, which is crucial to fighting for the championship.
With Max Holloway preoccupied with the BMF dispute at UFC 300, Evloev could have jumped the line with a highlight-reel win, similar to what next featherweight challenger Ilia Topuria did. He is also undefeated, but has only gone the distance in two of his 15 wins.
Evloev and Topuria were scheduled to face off at UFC 270 in January 2022, and they have been engaged in a rivalry on social media ever since. Depending on how the fight goes at UFC 298, their bout could happen in the near future – but there's a lot more at stake. In a worst-case scenario, Movsar could be fighting for the No. 1 spot next.
What's next for Evloev?
Okamoto: Winner of Calvin Kattar vs. Aljamain Sterling at UFC 298
I had problems with that because having to fight Evloev now is certainly not a reward, okay?
If I were a UFC featherweight, I wouldn't want anything to do with Evloev. He's not a big name, but he could legitimately be the best in the division. And even if you beat him, you probably won't look great doing it. The guy is so technical and has such effective grappling.
So I'm sorry to say that the winner of Kattar vs. Sterling should be “rewarded” with this fight, but at the end of the day Evloev will be on top after Saturday's win. And that's the incentive for Kattar or Sterling. The number next to his name.
Evloev has to face some big names – perhaps in a main event. Kattar and Sterling are such names.
Wildcard: Josh Emmett
I think the UFC should rebook Emmett against Giga Chikadze, which is what we were supposed to see last year but Chikadze got injured. However, if they choose a different path, Emmett vs. Evloev is a great matchup.