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UFC 297: Dricus Du Plessis takes middleweight belt by split decision over Sean Strickland

TORONTO, ONTARIO - JANUARY 20: Dricus Du Plessis of South Africa reacts after round two against Sean Strickland in a UFC middleweight championship bout during the UFC 297 event at Scotiabank Arena on January 20, 2024 in Toronto, Ontario. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Dricus Du Plessis is a champion, with no shortage of options for his first title defense. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images) (Jeff Bottari via Getty Images)

Dricus Du Plessis spent most of the UFC 297 main event with a left eye almost swollen shut and at a deficit on the cards. It wasn't enough to stop him from becoming a champion.

The South African challenger defeated UFC middleweight champion Sean Strickland by split decision (48-47, 48-47, 47-48) on Saturday in Toronto, finishing a rapid ascent up the division.

Du Plessis is the first South African champion in UFC history.

The fight opened with Strickland in control, standing tall and calmly working the jab. Du Plessis broke through that defense a few times, including a successful takedown that went nowhere, but the round added up to a clear win for the champion.

"He has a super, super strong jab. It's almost like he doesn't open his hand, he's just got a fist," Du Plessis said on the broadcast. "Every time he hits you with that jab, it feels like someone hit you with a rock."

That would be the last round in which Du Plessis didn't at least have an argument to take the round. Both fighters started showing clear damage in the second round, Du Plessis with that swollen eye and Strickland with a thin trickle of blood coming from near left right eye. Strickland again focused on the jab and Du Plessis again burst through at times.

Du Plessis' corner urged him to up the urgency in the third round and he obliged. He clearly took the round, but the bigger development came in the fourth, when an elbow from Du Plessis opened a big gash on the left side of Strickland's face. Du Plessis ended the round with three more takedowns.

Entering the fifth round, Du Plessis seemed to be up in the scorecards or tied. He had the momentum, but Strickland found an answer. By the final minute, it was Strickland again connecting with combinations, possibly enough to win the fight if more than one judge had the bout tied after the fourth.

The math worked out in Du Plessis' favor, though. Both fighters embraced as the final bell sounded, ending a fight that had seen some bad blood a month earlier when Strickland rained blows down on Du Plessis at UFC 296.

Du Plessis took it as a point of pride that he showed up strong in the championship rounds, which he had never reached before in his career.

"I honestly thought — with the takedowns I wasn't sure — I could feel it was a close one. I definitely gave him the first round," Du Plessis said. "I felt the first three rounds was give and take, but those last two rounds ... who says this guy isn't a five-round fighter? What did I tell you?"

What's next for Dricus Du Plessis?

It's obviously a disappointing way for Strickland to follow up a career-making upset of Israel Adesanya to capture the belt, and now he can only hope the UFC wants a rematch.

The promotion doesn't lack for options though. Adesanya was first on Du Plessis' mind when asked whom he wanted as his next opponent. Not quite a surprise when Du Plessis seemed on the verge of challenging Adesanya until Strickland was surprisingly tapped as the next fighter to compete for the belt.

"Israel Adesanya, get your ass back in the UFC so we can settle the score," Du Plessis said.

There's also the mercurial Khamzat Chimaev, who seemed interested in making an appearance at UFC 300.