Dricus Du Plessis was in the Dubai airport, on a layover from his native South Africa to Jacksonville, Fla., when the UFC called to offer him Kelvin Gastelum at UFC 273.
Du Plessis’ previously scheduled opponent, Anthony Hernandez, was a solid replacement for his original one, Chris Curtis. But neither of them had the ranking value of Gastelum, a one-time interim title challenger, or a guaranteed spot on the April 9 pay-per-view event’s main card.
“Damn straight, I’ll take that fight,” Du Plessis said Monday on The MMA Hour. “That’s who I’m supposed to be fighting anyway.”
Unfortunately for the up-and-coming middleweight, the gamble wound up backfiring. This past Friday, he got another call from his promoter. This time, it was to inform him that Gastelum, who originally was scheduled to meet Nassourdine Imavov before visa issues intervened, had sustained an “undisclosed injury” and was unable to fight.
Worse yet, Du Plessis’ previous opponent Hernandez had been booked against another appointment. He’d flown halfway across the world, paid out of pocket for a training camp, only to be marooned in a Jacksonville hotel room.
“I thought it was April Fool’s,” Du Plessis said of his reaction. “You guys are screwing around. What’s happening?”
Gastelum on Sunday told his social media followers that he is “compromised” and unable to fight on Saturday. Du Plessis has his own theory on why the fight suddenly got cancelled.
“Who gets an injury a week before a fight?” he questioned. “What could you possibly be doing to get injured, and if he was injured, you don’t know what the camp was like, but why would he insist on having a new opponent when he had to pull out? ... So he wasn’t injured on Monday, because that’s [when] he insisted on the fight, and all of a sudden, he’s injured on Friday? That sounds very fishy to me.
“I guess they started watching tape and that’s where the problems started, to be honest. ... He really needs a win – let’s not beat around the bush, he needs a win – and this is a great opportunity for him. He’s fighting a guy who’s making some noise, a South African guy, he’s ranked No. 20, and he finds out, let’s get this easy fight and get in the win column. ... Then he watched the tape and realized this is no walkover fight.”
Gastelum’s manager, Ali Abdelaziz, told veteran MMA reporter John Morgan that Gastelum will next week undergo surgery for his knee, indicating the injury was to blame for his removal.
Spoke to @AliAbdelaziz00, who said @KelvinGastelum will undergo knee surgery next week. At that point, he’ll have a better understanding of Gastelum’s timetable for a potential return to action.— John Morgan (@JohnMorgan_MMA) April 5, 2022
For Du Plessis, though, any explanation was secondary to the loss of his fight.
“People say I have nothing to lose – I have everything to lose,” he said. “Losing a fight is everything to me. So it wasn’t that I have nothing to lose. No, I’m above his level. I just needed the opportunity. Once he realized that, he’s a smart guy. Actually, I’ve always been a fan of him. But I think at the end of the day, he realized this wasn’t the fight to get him back in the win column.”
Gastelum has targeted his octagon return to take place in his native Arizona at UFC 274 in May. Du Plessis feels “The Ultimate Fighter 17” owes him a fight.
“I’m not angry at the UFC; it’s a little bit out of their control, to be honest,” he said. “I’m angry at Kelvin. No disrespect, I’ve always been a fan, but right now, what he did was he literally took food off my table. I don’t even care about the money. I was in there to become a champion as soon as possible, to get in that top-10, and he took my opportunity to perform. He took it away from me – he took the eight weeks of hard, intense training, my 12 weeks in camp – he took all that away from me, all the hard work, everything that was spent from coaches to nutritionists, everything that put in some sort of effort to get to this point. He took that away because he didn’t feel like fighting. He didn’t like the risk, and he made me give up my opponent.
“It’s his fault. He postponed to cancel the fight. Nobody wants to take a fight on a week’s notice. It’s hard to take a fight, especially on a week’s notice. And here Gastelum comes and waits until a week before the fight to all of a sudden say, ‘No, I’m injured,’ when he insisted on a new fight. It’s frustrating and a little bit disrespectful toward opponents and the sport as a whole.”
Du Plessis will make the best of the misfortune by staying in Florida for the next four weeks to cross-train at several MMA gyms in Florida. He is open to a bout with Andre Muniz, whom he turned down to face on April 9, when he has time to properly cut weight and peak in his training (he added the UFC declined a catchweight meeting on April 16 or April 23, which both host Fight Night cards, due to lack of spots available). But now, he is tied to the idea of facing an opponent who could have a real impact on the trajectory of his career.
After a 2-0 start in the UFC, Du Plessis is ready to make a big leap at middleweight.
“I do believe the Kelvin Gastelum is more the fight that’s going to be a more exciting fight, and right now, I feel like it’s the fight that [makes] sense,” he said. “To put me back in a fight with a [No. 30] ranked opponent, or [No. 25] ranked opponent doesn’t make sense if you were just willing to give me a fight at No. 9.
“I’ll fight Kelvin at any time. Maybe he can heal as fast as he got injured.”