A new year is here, and that means it’s time for Combat Press to take a look back at the best of MMA in 2023. In the coming days, Combat Press will announce its award winners in multiple categories, covering everything from the action in the cage to the biggest stories surrounding the sport.
Every year, there are fighters who start to breakout as future stars. They are the cream that rises to the top. However, in 2023, there was one man who ran through his division right into contention for a title.
It would be remiss to refer to South Africa’s Dricus du Plessis as an up-and-comer prior to 2023. The former KSW welterweight champion and EFC two-division titleholder came into the UFC in 2020 with a 14-2 record and immediately started to stake his claim. His first two Octagon appearances resulted in knockouts of Markus Perez and Trevin Giles in 2020 and 2021, respectively. Then, in 2022, he scored a decision win over Brad Tavares and a submission of Darren Till. He was four fights into his contract with three finishes and two performance bonuses.
Du Plessis came into 2023 with a full head of steam. First, he scored a second-round TKO of Derek Brunson at UFC 285 in March. Only four months later, he took on former UFC middleweight champion Robert Whittaker at UFC 290 in a title eliminator bout. At the midpoint of Round 2, the South African finished the former champ by TKO, which earned him a third bonus in only six UFC fights.
After du Plessis beat Whittaker, all eyes were on the title showdown between champion Israel Adesanya and Sean Strickland at UFC 293 in September. Strickland put on a masterclass in striking against one of the best kickboxers and MMA strikers in history. The Californian wont he belt by unanimous decision, setting up a clash with du Plessis at UFC 297 on Jan. 20. However, at UFC 296, the UFC staff made a big mistake seating du Plessis two rows directly behind Strickland, and with the camera on the two men, they started jawing at each other, Strickland had Gilbert Burns’ son move out of the way, and the champ leapt over the row and started hammering on du Plessis.
Needless to say, the brawl between du Plessis and Strickland put a rubber stamp on the year, and it created a ton of momentum going into 2024, as the two were to meet only three weeks into the new year. Du Plessis had a crazy 2023, which thrust him into the limelight, and because of that, he win the Combat Press 2023 MMA Award for Breakout Fighter of the Year.
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