The first pay-per-view event for UFC in 2024 produced a mixture of highs and lows on Saturday as the promotion returned to Toronto for the first time since 2018.
In the main event of UFC 297, Dricus du Plessis became the Octagon’s first champion born in South Africa when he edged Sean Strickland in their middleweight title bout. The fans inside Scotiabank Arena weren’t as polite following the co-feature, however, as Raquel Pennington and Mayra Bueno Silva were lustilly booed after five rounds.
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Let’s take a look at the biggest takeaways from UFC 297 in the Great White North.
1. Du Plessis’ two-fight evolution has been something to behold
Through five appearances in the UFC, du Plessis was considered just as dangerous and exciting thanks to four stoppage wins as he was technically raw. But a lot has changed for DDP over the last year, which included a major upset of Robert Whittaker last July where du Plessis simply ran through the former champion. His evolution only continued in his first title shot where du Plessis took home a hard-earned win via split decision over five rounds against Strickland. The fight was intense and technical as du Plessis overcame a stiff jab from Strickland that caused considerable swelling around both eyes and a fifth-round cut below his cheek. But not only did du Plessis power through, he displayed championship cardio in landing the bigger shots against Strickland (opening up a cut on the left eye that challenged Strickland’s vision) and mixing in enough takedowns to get the nod. Du Plessis has always acted the role of future champion in waiting since he first debuted in the UFC in 2020 with nothing but confidence and swagger. But his game caught up quickly to the demands of the middleweight elites. And even though an injury setback prevented him from challenging long-time champion Israel Adesanya (who was upset by Strickland in September), DDP called out his heated rival after the fight in hopes of luring “The Last Stylebender” back into the cage as du Plessis’ first title defense.
2. The vacant women’s bantamweight title bout was an epic disaster
Even though the aftermath of Amanda Nunes’ surprise retirement last year left UFC with few options in a shallow 135-pound division, it seems fair in hindsight to question the matchmaking that brought Pennington and Bueno Silva together for one of the most dreadful title fights in company history. Pennington, who was stopped by Nunes in their 2018 title bout, was showered in boos as she extended her win streak to six following a clinchfest that was only made worse by Bueno Silva’s dreadful stamina. In a fight that was competed on a level that looked anything but championship, let alone elite, both competitors were routinely chastised by their respective corners for showing poor fight IQ. Even though Pennington outlasted her opponent via unanimous decision, likely setting up a fight with former champion Julianna Pena, the damage done to both the division and this card won’t soon be forgotten. This fight looked like it didn’t even belong on the PPV portion of the card, let alone be contested for a title.
3. This night was all about Canada, for better or worse
Long known as one of UFC’s most electric hotbeds, Toronto hadn’t seen the Octagon make an appearance in almost six years. And despite the overwhelming nature of homegrown fighters on the card, it’s fair to argue whether “The 6” deserved better matchmaking overall and more star power than they were given in a PPV card that ultimately fell flat despite a tense main event, which saved the event from full letdown. Yes, the crowd was still treated to breakthrough wins from Canadian-born female fighters Jasmine Jasudavicius and Gillian Robertson. But the men went 0-7 on this night, including some (see below) who endured epic meltdowns. And by the time the crowd began booing the co-main event in the second round, it truly started to feel like Toronto deserved better on this night than it received, especially considering we’re less than two months away from a UFC 299 card in Miami that looks to be deeper at this moment than the historic, round-numbered event a month later in April.
4. Mike Malott learned a hell of a lesson in epic collapse
Unbeaten in the Octagon coming in and the fighting pride of Canada, Malott very much looked like the future of the welterweight division throughout the first two rounds against veteran gatekeeper Neil Magny. But despite chopping up Magny’s legs in the opening round, Malott seemed to abandon the tactic. And despite reaching full mount multiple times in Round 2, Malott gassed out disastrously bad in the final round. But after Magny reversed into full mount in Round 3, the bottom fell out for Malott as the well-respected gas tank of the 36-year-old took over. Magny, in dramatic fashion, poured on the ground and pound to stop an exhausted Malott with just 15 seconds to go. At 32, Malott went from being on the verge of cracking the top 10 at 170 pounds to needing to go back to the drawing board and fix this gaping hole.
5. Movsar Evloev bent but never broke to remain undefeated
In one of the most important fights of the night in terms of future title positioning, Evloev took a major step forward in the featherweight rankings by outpointing Arnold Allen via close unanimous decision. Allen’s third-round rally came up just short despite landing a series of clean knees to the head of Evloev while his hand, which would deem him a downed opponent, struggled to stay down. Allen was given a warning for the borderline blows but couldn’t capitalize on the cuts to the side of Evloev’s head. The 18-0 Evloev showed tremendous poise, strong wrestling and improved striking as the native of Russia won his eighth straight fight, all by decision, since making his UFC debut in 2019. Evloev, whose physique looks like he was chiseled out of rock, was largely unmoved by Allen’s punches and he remained relentless with his grappling despite Allen doing a great job of getting up throughout the fight.