Du Plessis and Adesanya were supposed to face each other this past weekend at UFC 293 following du Plessis’ win over Robert Whittaker at UFC 290 in July. Ultimately, an injury prevented du Plessis from making the quick turnaround, so Sean Strickland stepped in to the title shot. Strickland ultimately shocked the world by in a masterclass, outstriking Adesanya over 25 minutes to upset the apple cart and claim the UFC middleweight title.
In the aftermath, Strickland and his coaches have received high praise for their performance. But du Plessis believes that an equal amount of criticism should be leveled at Adesanya.
“The first thing I thought, in the first round, even before the fight started, I told everybody, ‘Izzy looks off,’” du Plessis said on The MMA Hour. “You have to know, I get obsessed when I’m about to fight somebody. I’ve been studying Izzy for a very, very long time. I know his mannerisms, I know the way he moves, I know the way he looks, I know his facial expressions, I know everything he does when he walks out, I know everything he does when he gets in the cage, the way he looks, his eyes, his everything. And I told them even before the fight started, ‘Izzy looks weird.’ I don’t know what it is, I don’t know if it’s extra motivation, but it’s different. Something’s weird. And when the fight started, I said, not even a minute in, ‘Izzy looks off.’
“Some people saying it was just Sean Strickland shutting him down. That’s not the fact of the matter. Izzy didn’t fight the way that Izzy can fight. That was the worst Izzy we’ve ever seen in the cage.”
Heading into the fight, Adesanya was a massive betting favorite with many fans suggesting that Strickland had almost no chance to win. Du Plessis himself admits he gave Strickland a chance of “less than 1 percent” to pull off the upset.
Instead, Strickland shined, outworking Adesanya with his striking and nearly scoring a finish in the first round when he dropped “The Last Stylebender” shortly before the final horn. While du Plessis gives Strickland credit for the win, he said that were he the one facing Adesanya, the bout would have been over in that first round.
“He wouldn’t have gotten up after that flurry when Strickland dropped him,” du Plessis said when asked what would have happened had he been there. “One-hundred percent [I would have finished him in the first round]. One-hundred percent. If I fought that version of Israel Adesanya, that fight — do you think Robert Whittaker would have beaten that version of Israel Adesanya? Yes. That fight went a round and a half with me and Whittaker. There’s no way Izzy would have seen the second round.
“Sean Strickland, I have to add this, I’m not taking away from him,” du Plessis continued. “Stepping up to a big, big, big opportunity the way he did, you’ve got to respect that. The pressure, the traveling, everything. Going to enemy ground...talking so much and going out there and actually doing it. I don’t think people understand the pressure that he had on him. What it takes, especially a big fight like Adesanya, going out there, I have to respect that. He went out there and he fought exactly the way Sean Strickland fights. He didn’t do anything special, he fought the way he fights, and he did it extremely well.”
Now Strickland is the UFC’s middleweight champion, and the future is murky for du Plessis. Though the South African fighter was ostensibly next in line heading into UFC 293, the ground is shifting rapidly at 185 pounds. UFC CEO Dana White said after the fight that a rematch could be in order for Strickland and Adesanya, and there are a few other contenders in the mix for the first crack at Strickland, as well. For du Plessis, there’s only one path forward: the one that leads to the title.
“The belt is what interests me,” du Plessis said. “After that we can do the Izzy fight. Right now, Sean Strickland is the goal. I want to fight Israel Adesanya, but not as bad as I want to fight for the belt. So I’ll make the promise that when I win that belt, he’ll be my first defense, 100 percent. But right now, Israel Adesanya is irrelevant to me. Right now, the guy with the title is irrelevant. All my focus is on the guy with the title, and that’s who I want to fight next.”
Unfortunately for du Plessis, he might not get that. But for the time being at least, he’s going to remain hopeful that he’s next in line, and that by the end of the year, he’ll be hearing “and new” after a fight.
“In my perfect world, I’m fighting Sean Strickland in December,” du Plessis concluded. “I’ll be ready for December. And if possible, fighting Israel Adesanya, defending my title at UFC 300.”