Sport

MIXED MARTIAL ARTS

Dricus du Plessis’s fight to bring the belt back home

Dricus du Plessis’s fight to bring the belt back home
Dricus du Plessis, aka Stillknocks (top), punches Robert Whittaker in a middleweight bout in Las Vegas on 8 July 2023. Du Plessis won with a second-round TKO. (Photo: Steve Marcus/Getty Images)

South Africa’s best mixed martial arts fighter has his eyes firmly set on the middleweight belt. 

South Africa is famous for its representation at the highest level in a number of different sports. Rugby, cricket, soccer, golf and tennis are a few of them. 

But in the space of a few short months Dricus du Plessis has become a household name for his accomplishments in the more niche sport of mixed martial arts (MMA) in the biggest promotion company in the world, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).

Dricus du Plessis of South Africa during a training session ahead of his UFC fight at CIT Performance Institute on September 30, 2020 in Pretoria, South Africa. (Photo by Anton Geyser/Gallo Images)

In fact, his words “Hulle weet nie wat ons weet nie” (they don’t know what we know) have quickly become immortalised in South Africa’s sporting fraternity. They were echoed by several Springbok rugby stars after their triumphant Rugby World Cup final victory over New Zealand’s All Blacks.

And more recently they were repeated by an emotional Erik van Rooyen after capturing the golfing WWT Championship at Mayakoba last weekend.

Du Plessis explained that the words resonate with every South African who attains sporting achievements while defying the odds, like he did when he upset Australia’s Robert Whittaker in the middleweight division at UFC 290 in July this year.

“The words ‘hulle weet nie wat ons weet nie’ … no matter how much of an underdog we are, like we were in the [Rugby] World Cup, like we are in the Cricket World Cup; we don’t care, we do not care,” he told Daily Maverick.

“If you look at a guy like Chad Le Clos, who beat Michael Phelps, the greatest Olympian ever, that was exactly the same situation.

“You look at a guy like Wayde van Niekerk … Just all of the South Africans all over the world [who have] made history. It’s something that’s in our nature as South Africans; we do not care about odds.

“Oddsmakers make odds and I’m a fighter, I fight and believe me [there are] no odds when it comes to fighting.

“There can be all the odds in the world, one shot and all those odds go to hell.”

Whittaker was the No 1 contender for the middleweight belt at that stage, having never lost a fight to anyone in the division except Israel Adesanya, who was the undisputed champion at that stage.

Whittaker was seen as the “gatekeeper” to a title shot, a gate Du Plessis thunderously knocked out halfway through the second round.

Meteoric rise

South Africa has had middleweight fighters competing in the UFC before, such as Garreth “Soldier Boy” McLellan, whom Du Plessis acknowledges for paving the path.

But none as successful as “Stillknocks”, as Du Plessis is known. He entered the octagon of Dana White’s company for the first time in October 2020 and walked away from the bout against Markus Perez with a benchmark after a knockout win.

His rise in the UFC would be rapid from there, defeating Trevin Giles, Brad Tavares, Darren Till, Derek Brunson and, most recently, Whittaker.

“I’ve always manifested this, as I’ve always believed in my own abilities,” he said about his desire to compete in the UFC.

“Every time something happens … then I’m going to be fighting in the UFC, first fight happened, second fight happened … Third fight I’m fighting a ranked guy like, wow.

“All of a sudden I’m fighting Robert Whittaker and beating him, and every time, no matter how much I think about it, how much I try to visualise it and what it feels like, even right now just thinking about it, it’s insane.

“I’m just here for the ride and living my dream and putting in the work and taking it as it comes and bringing that belt home …”

The burly brawler has turned a sport that only a small community in the country tuned in to watch in the early hours of the morning, into a mainstream sport.

Du Plessis attributes the rise in MMA’s popularity in South Africa to having someone like him to support. He had the same thing happen to him watching Brad Binder compete in MotoGP.

Dricus du Plessis, South Africa’s world-famous Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) athlete during the Gerrie Coetzee Press Conference promoting the film Against all Odds at Radisson Blu Hotel Waterfront on January 26, 2022 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo by Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images)

“I’ve always liked MotoGP, but I watched here and there until we had a guy to root for,” Du Plessis said. “Now I’m in it, you know, we’re rooting for our horse.

“And I believe that’s exactly what happened with MMA and the UFC.

“As soon as we had our horse to back in the UFC, everybody said, ‘Listen, South Africa is there’.

“We saw this with the World Cup; we’re watching the cricket guys right now. South Africa, when our boys compete against the rest of the world, we get behind them. And that’s exactly what happened with the UFC and MMA.”

Next fight

After beating Whittaker, Du Plessis was scheduled to fight Adesanya for a shot at the middleweight title at UFC 293, a mere two months later.

Because of a fractured foot, he declined. Adesanya has since surprisingly been beaten by America’s Sean Strickland – who is currently the division title holder.

UFC president White announced on 6 November that Du Plessis will face off against Strickland for the title at UFC 297 in Toronto, Canada on 20 January.

The 29-year-old said he is currently in great shape and ready to fight for the title and become the first South African to grab hold of a UFC belt.

“I’m in good shape. I’m training every day. There’s no missing that, but I’m still battling with a [few] injuries, nothing serious,” he said.

“The big injury, the foot fracture, that’s sorted. I’m a fighter at the end of the day, [there are] always a [few] niggles and pains, but nothing serious.”

SA’s Du Plessis emerges as top dog after defeating Australia’s Whittaker at UFC 290

Dricus du Plessis celebrates after defeating Robert Whittaker in a middleweight bout during UFC 290 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. (Photo: Steve Marcus / Getty Images)

Du Plessis also made it clear that he wouldn’t be chasing fights. He has done the dirty work climbing up the rankings, taking any fight that comes his way, winning his six bouts in the UFC in under three years.

“If I’m the number 10 ranked guy and they phone me and say listen number five just pulled out; you have an opportunity to jump [up the rankings] faster; that’s how it happened with Darren Till, that’s how it happened with Derek Brunson and with Whittaker and for me that’s a no-brainer, yes,” he said.

“I’m fighting when I’m injured – I don’t care – but if you worked your way to become No 1, you don’t have to take those unnecessary risks any more.

“And that is a risk, not being 100% prepared is a risk, so that’s why I said, listen guys, I’ve worked myself to the bone to get to a place where I become the best in the world to fight for the belt and I’m not gonna rush that.”

White has teased a UFC event in Africa for an extended period of time and while Du Plessis dreams of it happening in front of a packed Cape Town Stadium – even though UFC does not do open-air events – his main concern remains bringing the middleweight belt to his home country.

He will now have that opportunity against Strickland.

“That’s the goal, and that’s the only goal, is bringing the belt home to South Africa, like I promised, and raising it in front of our people on our soil. That is the only thing that matters to me right now.” DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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