For its second event of the year, the UFC heads north of the border to Toronto, Ontario for a championship doubleheader to headline UFC 297. Both the main and co-main events will have a belt on the line, with the middleweight championship in the main event, and the women’s bantamweight strap in the co-main event.
At UFC 296, things got personal between middleweight champion Sean Strickland and top contender Dricus Du Plessis, culminating in a brawl in the stands. Strickland took offense to personal insults Du Plessis was making, and, after assuring that Gilbert Burns’ family was out of the danger zone, Strickland leapt after Du Plessis and hammered down punches onto his foe’s back until security stepped in to intervene. This Saturday, the two will square off in a sanctioned contest with Strickland’s title on the line.
Also in play, is the women’s bantamweight championship, which has been vacant since Amanda Nunes retired last year. That all changes in the co-main event, as Raquel Pennington will take on Mayra Bueno Silva with the vacant title on the line. Pennington has rattled off five wins in a row and looks to make good in her second attempt at the belt, after falling to the aforementioned Nunes in 2018. Bueno Silva dispatched former champion Holly Holm the last time she fought, but, after a positive test for prescribed Ritalin, that win was overturned to a no-contest. With the title in hand, and hopefully no more failed drug tests, Bueno Silva will try to cement her legacy as one of the sport’s all time finest competitors.
Rounding out the main card are a highly anticipated battle of top-10 featherweights Arnold Allen and Movsar Evloev, a middleweight war between Chris Curtis and Marc-André Barriault, and a welterweight showdown between veteran Neil Magny and rising star Mike Malott.
The UFC 297 early prelims air live on UFC Fight Pass and ESPN+ starting at 6:30 p.m. ET, followed by the preliminary card on ESPN+ and ESPN at 8 p.m. ET. The main card airs on ESPN+ pay-per-view at 10 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Dan Kuhl and Matt Petela preview the action in this week’s edition of Toe-to-Toe.
Sean Strickland and Dricus Du Plessis gave fans a little preview of their title bout in the stands at UFC 296; which man wins the sanctioned showdown with the belt on the line?
Kuhl: Ask me this question six months ago, and I would have been leaning toward Dricus du Plessis stopping Sean Strickland. The South African kickboxer has shown to have an unusual striking style, while also being very proficient in applying chokes on the ground. He has shown to be a finishing machine, and he has only been to decision once in his 22-fight career. Currently riding a eight-fight winning streak and is 6-0 in the Octagon with his last win being a TKO of former middleweight champ Robert Whittaker last July. However, this is not six months ago.
Sean Strickland is one of the more elusive and methodical strikers in all of MMA, and he has a tremendous takedown defense. In fact, in the last five years, only one man has been able to really find his chin, and that is former world champion kickboxer, as well as former and current UFC champion, Alex Pereira back in Jul. 2022. He suffered a split decision loss to Jared Cannonier in his next outing, but followed that up with a three-fight winning streak that culminated with a complete domination of another former world kickboxing champion, as well as two-time UFC middleweight champion, Israel Adesanya for the belt last September. What Strickland did to Adesanya was mostly unexpected, and largely unheard of, as he outstruck one of the best strikers in UFC history. That entire fight, Adesanya had a big problem when he could not find Strickland on the feet.
So, with where we are at today, I see Dricus du Plessis coming in with his unorthodox striking game to try and pick apart Strickland. However, he will get frustrated when he cannot find the elusive champ, as he burns his gas tank. He will then try repeated takedown attempts, which Strickland will stuff, as du Plessis continues to slow down. It is entirely possible that the American will score a TKO victory over an exhausted du Plessis in the later rounds, but I have the champ retaining his belt after grinding out a unanimous decision victory.
Petela: I don’t know if Dricus Du Plessis has actually ever been tired or if he just looks goofy all the time when he’s fighting because even early on in fights he is throwing strikes from weird angles and is seemingly constantly out of position. No striking coach would ever recommend that fighting style to a new student. However, that is what makes this fight so intriguing.
Sean Strickland’s high volume, precision striking behind that Philly shell squaring off against the lunging, brawling style of Du Plessis is really a coin flip in my opinion. Du Plessis might catch Strickland off guard and be able to secure a takedown just because it is hard to prepare for someone who has his arms outstretched and his head way out in front of his body as he closes distance. In theory it should be easy to shuck him away and circle back to boxing range but Du Plessis has figured out a way to make that style work for him, even if he sometimes looks like a kid pretending to be an airplane flying around in a circle.
I think that Strickland will control the fight for the majority of the twenty-five minutes but I expect it is going to be hard not to get caught by the whirlwind strikes of Du Plessis over five rounds. Late in the fight I see Du Plessis clubbing Strickland with some off the wall, odd angled punch that momentarily stuns the champion and allows the South African to get a takedown. From there, I don’t think Du Plessis will be able to get off enough offense to secure a stoppage, as Strickland is a far better grappler than people realize, he just likes to stand and trade. This one goes the distance and Strickland retains his title but it won’t be a one-sided beatdown like his performance against Israel Adesanya.
The women’s bantamweight championship will be on the line in the co-main event; how does the showdown between Raquel Pennington and Mayra Bueno Silva shake out?
Petela: I don’t think anyone could convince me that these are the two best bantamweights in the world, even with Amanda Nunes retired. Not that they don’t deserve a title shot, but neither one of these two will hold the title very long. Actually, Mayra Bueno Silva might not deserve a title shot since she popped for Ritalin after her last fight, but she was impressive in her submission win over Holly Holm.
Raquel Pennington is fighting better than she has in her entire career. She’s a grinder. She’s not the flashiest fighter by any stretch of the imagination, but she finds a way to get the job done. Her five-fight winning streak is proof of that. I think she grits this one out via decision, as she is just good enough in the grappling department to thwart the submission threat of Silva, and she is a solid volume striker. So, even if she eats a few big punches, the overwhelming number of shots that she lands will sway the judges to score the fight in her favor.
It will probably lead to a showdown with Juliana Peña in her first title defense, where I would bet an amount of money that matters to me on Peña, but, at least for one night, Pennington will be the queen of the women’s bantamweight division.
Kuhl: I will have to agree with my colleague on a few points here. While Raquel Pennington and Mayra Bueno Silva might sit at No. 2 and No. 3, respectively, in the UFC, but this is one of the few divisions where the organization does not have all of the top global talent. That being said, here we are.
Pennington is a true veteran of the sport. I’ve always thought of her as the Donald Cerrone of the women’s bantamweight division. She, like Cerrone, is also a Colorado native, and she holds the most bouts, fight time, significant strikes, and total strikes landed in the division’s history. However, she also holds the most decision wins and only one knockout win. That’s where the two athletes differ. She’s just never had that finishing power, but, as Matt mentioned, she’s the quintessential grinder. She does have four submission wins, but her submission of Macy Chiasson two years ago was only her fifth total finish in 23 fights over 11 years as a pro.
Silva, on the other hand, is three years younger than Pennington, made her pro debut three years later, and has nowhere near the level of experience against the highest level of opponents. That being said, in 14 fights, she has technically finished nine opponents, but her submission of Holly Holm being overturned due to Ritalin brings that down to eight. Therein lies the biggest effect on my prediction here.
Whether or not Silva was intentionally cheating with stimulants, which it appears she was not, for how many of her fights did these quasi-amphetamines give her just enough of an advantage to win? The problem is that we may very well not find out until Saturday night. Ritalin increases norepinephrine and dopamine, which are very much performance enhancing, especially when reaction timing and fatigue are a huge part of the game. Also, Pennington is physically bigger, a crafty veteran, and a very effective striker. However, most of Silva’s finishes are by submission, so there is a skill level and problem solving aspect that may not reduce in the absence of the stimulant.
This is a tough one for me. Had the submission of Holm not been Silva’s third UFC submission in a row, and those fights were all decision wins, I would give this one to Pennington without even blinking. And, if Pennington can keep this standing, she should win a decision quite handily. Silva definitely has the upper hand in the grappling department, and if she gets this one to the mat, she is the better grappler and should pull off a victory. But, all fights start standing, and that’s where the lack of Ritalin, assuming that’s the case, comes into play. Without that additional central nervous system stimulation, she is going to still need to be able to anticipate, react, and counter the striking of Pennington, even as she tries to get the fight to the mat.
I will agree with my colleague on this one. Pennington is a new mother, she’s 35 years old, and this will be her best, and maybe only, chance to capture UFC gold. She’s got momentum on her side, and this truly is the biggest fight of her career. I think she grinds this one out to a unanimous decision victory. However, if she does lose, I would not be surprised to see her move toward retirement.
Who’s the biggest winner at UFC 297?
Kuhl: Brazil will be the biggest winner at UFC 297. Ot, to be more specific, Brazilian female athletes will be the biggest winners.Jessica Andrade has already held the UFC strawweight title for a few months, and Cris “Cyborg” Justino has held the UFC featherweight title, as well as the Bellator featherweight title, which she currently has held for four years. The person who took the UFC featherweight title from Cyborg, and held it until she vacated it in Jun. 2023, was also the longest reigning UFC bantamweight champ, Amanda Nunes. On Saturday night, fellow countrywoman Mayra Bueno Silva will bring the UFC bantamweight strap right back to Brazil, making the country the premier titleholder in women’s MMA.
Petela: I’ll go in the opposite direction, geographically, and say Canadian MMA is the biggest winner. Arguably the greatest fighter of all-time, Georges St. Pierre hails from the Great White North, and we have seen other noteworthy talents like Rory MacDonald and PFL star Olivier Aubin-Mercier make a name for themselves worldwide. But, right now, the talent coming from Canada might be at an all-time high. And, with the opportunity to showcase that talent at home in front of a global audience, it will be a big night for Canada. Fighters like Mike Malott, Marc-Andre Barriault, and Jasmine Jasduvicius, among others, will all make the Canadian crowd explode when they notch wins and will make the audience at home realize that, despite coming from a dictatorial regime, there is a whole lot of talent north of the border that will be making some noise inside the UFC in the coming years.
Who’s the biggest loser at UFC 297?
Petela: Neil Magny. With all due respect to Mike Malott, he isn’t as talented yet, nor does he have the name recognition of Magny’s typical opponents. Magny has alternated wins and losses over his last six fights, and, based on that pattern, he should get a win. But, the 36-year-old has lost a step and isn’t the same caliber fighter he was just a couple years ago. Malott scores the win, and Magny moves a big step closer to irrelevance inside the UFC.
Kuhl: Sean Woodson. And, that choice is in no way a slight to the athlete. Woodson is 10-1-1, and he belongs in the UFC. He is a world-class fighter, and he’s 4-1-1 in the UFC. The fact that he has only fought once in a year and a half is solely due to opponents withdrawing. However, the problem is his weight class.
Featherweight is a stacked division, but not in the way that bantamweight is stacked, where five different current contenders could be champions. Featherweight has a weird make-up in that it is super stacked with gatekeepers – guys who will never be a champion, but are tough outs who won’t go away. It’s already bad enough that the winner between Woodson and his opponent Charles Jourdain may not even get a top-15 fight for his next fight. But, a top-15 fight could mean someone like Alex Caceres, Dan Ige or Sodiq Yusuff, who could all send someone right back to the bottom of the pile.
To make matters worse, the loser of this fight could never see a top-15 fight – at least, not in a couple years – and Woodson is a big underdog fighting a Canadian in Canada. If Woodson loses this one, which all signs are pointing toward, then he will be irrelevant for a long time.
What one fighter’s UFC career is on the ropes at this event?
Kuhl: Jimmy Flick was on a four-fight winning streak, after his UFC debut in Dec. 2020, and then he abruptly retired from fighting. At the time, he was one of the hottest and most unexpected prospects in the organization. After coming back in 2023, he is now on a two-fight losing streak, dropping back-to-back knockout losses. If he loses to Malcolm Gordon, who is also on a two-fight losing streak, even if the UFC keeps him around, I wouldn’t be surprised if he hangs it up for good.
Petela: Outside of Flick and Gordon, the name that sticks out to me is Gillian Robertson. She is 3-4 over her last seven fights and is coming into this weekend off a loss. Another two-fight skid might be the end of the road for her inside the promotion. She relies almost exclusively on her submission skills to win fights, and, as we have seen many times throughout her career, that it is simply not enough to compete against the division’s elite fighters. A loss in front of a friendly audience in Canada might be the last time we see her on the big stage for a while. She could find herself looking for employment on the regional scene for a little while before trying to mount a UFC comeback. Luckily, for her, she is only 28 years old and has some time to round out her skills and return to the promotion as a much better fighter than she is currently.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Petela: As far as name recognition goes, it is no secret that this card is lacking. However, I expect it to exceed expectations and that starts with the opening prelim between Malcolm Gordon and Jimmy Flick. These guys both need a win, having lost two in a row each. There’s no way Gordon doesn’t come out amped up and ready to throw down in front of the Canadian crowd. He and Flick will get after it, and, since they are flyweights, you may need to slow down the television so you don’t miss any of the action.
Kuhl: Charles Jourdain and Sean Woodson should put on a banger. As previously mentioned, these guys are in a division where it is tough to crack into a top-15 spot in the rankings, due to a large number of perennial gatekeepers, and a top half that could be title contenders. Woodson is 4-1-1 since his win on the Contender Series back in 2019, and Jourdain is 7-5-1 since joining the promotion that same year. Both of these guys need a statement win to maintain any form of relevance, so this could be a great fight.
Who takes home the “Performance of the Night” honors?
Kuhl: No. 3 featherweight Arnold Allen and No. 9 featherweight Movsar Evloev could both walk out of UFC 297 with a performance bonus for Fight of the Night. Allen was on a 12-fight winning streak, including 10 wins in the stacked UFC featherweight division, before he lost his last bout to Max Holloway by unanimous decision in Apr. 2023. Evloev is undefeated through his 17-fight career, with the last seven of those wins coming in the UFC. Both of these guys have the potential to put on an exciting fight with an exciting finish, and both men are gunning for title contention. This one should be a war.
Petela: Brad Katona. He is on a five-fight winning streak, and he is going to make it six straight this weekend. That includes his UFC debut where he won The Ultimate Fighter 31 championship in a Fight of the Night showing against Cody Gibson. Not only will Katona pick up his second win in a row back inside the UFC, but he will also get the first stoppage of his second stint with the promotion, as he knocks out Garrett Armfield in front of a friendly Canadian crowd.
Pair this card with…
Petela: For those of us who can’t make it up to Canada for the event, it only makes sense to pair this with one of Canada’s greatest exports, poutine. I don’t care how gross it looks, it’s absolutely delicious and even novices in the kitchen, like myself, can put it together.
Kuhl: With Sean Strickland and Raquel Pennignton in the main and co-main events, respectively, and the fact that both of them are technically proficient, high-volume strikers, I would pair this card with a nice kickboxing session earlier that day. Get in the mindset, and think about precision strikes, combinations, defensive movements, good footwork, feints, fades, and all the other accoutrements while gearing up for a card that has the potential for some fun striking displays.
Main Card (ESPN+ pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)
MW Championship: Sean Strickland vs. Dricus Du Plessis
Women’s BW Championship: Raquel Pennington vs. Mayra Bueno Silva
WW: Neil Magny vs. Mike Malott
MW: Chris Curtis vs. Marc-Andre Barriault
FW: Arnold Allen vs. Movsar Evloev
Preliminary Card (ESPN+/ESPN, 8 p.m. ET)
BW: Brad Katona vs. Garrett Armfield
FW: Charles Jourdain vs. Sean Woodson
BW: Serhiy Sidey vs. Ramon Taveras
Women’s StrawW: Gillian Robertson vs. Polyana Viana
Early Prelims (ESPN+/UFC Fight Pass, 6 p.m. ET)
WW: Yohan Lainesse vs. Sam Patterson
Women’s FlyW: Jasmine Jasduvicius vs. Priscila Cachoeira
FlyW: Malcolm Gordon vs. Jimmy Flick
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