With the announcement of Robert Whittaker vs Dricus Du Plessis which is now set to take place at UFC 290, the middleweight division is at a crossroads depending on the end result.
— Robert Whittaker (@robwhittakermma) April 21, 2023
A win for Du Plessis sees a new contender, with an extremely credible win over a fighter that has looked unbeatable in every fight except his two with Israel Adesanya. It creates a new story for the division, a new face and ultimately will be able to sustain the middleweight title picture and generate interest for many months leading up to a fight with Adesanya.
A win for Whittaker, however, may not have such a positive outcome. After fighting Adesanya in their rematch at UFC 271, The Reaper has fought once since, absolutely dominating Marvin Vettori in an impressive display back at UFC Paris. Yet this single win over Vettori and a win over Du Plessis will likely not be enough to convince fans that a third fight with Adesanya is warranted. We have seen it twice already and the performances displayed have not left a huge desire to see the trilogy. Yet if not Whittaker then who else.
The current top five consists of Whittaker, Jared Cannonier, Paulo Costa, Vettori and Du Plessis. Cannonier has lost to both Whittaker and Adesanya, Vettori has lost to Whittaker and Adesanya twice. Costa has lost to Adesanya and has not fought a single middleweight currently inside the top 15. For the sake of progressing the division Du Plessis has to beat Whittaker at UFC 290. This is assuming, of course, that Alex Pereira moves up to 205bls.
A False Dawn for the Middleweight Division
The problem of the middleweight division, of course, is the dominance of both Israel Adesanya and Robert Whittaker eliminating any sort of competitiveness in the division. A division that looked destined to see these two battle over and over again with Whittaker never able to pick up the victory.
Whittaker went through a phase of defeating contenders but never managing to get one over Adesanya. Then later that year it appeared that the problem was solved. Alex Pereira emphatically starched Sean Strickland at UFC 277 and would immediately be granted a title shot in his next fight. This would prove to be the injection of excitement that the middleweight division so sorely needed.
In a shocking turn of events, Pereira came back from the depths of defeat to finish Adesanya in the fifth round. Finally, the middleweight division had a new champion and a new story to tell. The division would remain exciting for the next few months as Adesanya was given an immediate rematch. This fight would be one of the most anticipated of the year and was far and away the most hyped middleweight title fight in a long time.
In a short yet extremely entertaining contest, Israel Adesanya would regain his title with an emphatic second round Knockout over Pereira. The outcome immediately had fans clamouring for a trilogy fight. A fight that would finally settle the score between the two.
But this doesn’t look like it’s on the cards. Pereira announced shortly after that he would be moving up to light heavyweight, for now, closing the door on the trilogy and leaving us back where we were almost a year ago in the middleweight division. Adesanya on the top, Whittaker just below him and the rest of the division getting picked off by each of them.
The burst of excitement surrounding the division those months while Pereira was champ have gone and we have faded into more of the same. Does anyone truly want to see Cannonier rematch Adesanya, a trilogy with Marvin Vettori or another rematch with Costa? It’s highly doubtful. This is why it is so important for Du Plessis to pick up the victory at UFC 290. Especially because there is already a potential story to make a fight between himself versus Adesanya great.
What Du Plessis vs. Adesanya could mean for UFC Africa
First of all, a win over Whittaker immediately legitimises Du Plessis as a very credible threat. It would be the 6th victory of an impressive streak that has seen Du Plessis pick up wins over Brad Tavares, Darren Till and Derek Brunson so far. Adding Whittaker to that list would bolster his credibility in the eyes of fans and pundits alike and would really prove that he is a threat to Adesanya.
The main reason that Du Plessis vs. Adesanya works so well, however, is purely down to the controversies that Du Plessis has found himself in outside of the cage. The South African has repeatedly come under fire from fans and other fighters alike for questioning the ethnicity of other fighters and stating that he will be the first African champion in the organisation.
Dricus du Plessis: "I'm the African fighter. Me and Cameron. WE breathe African air, WE wake up in Africa every day. " pic.twitter.com/7xWfyfhvem
— MMA Mania (@mmamania) March 1, 2023
Of course, the likes of Adesanya and Kamaru Usman were born in Africa but moved away as children as well as Francis Ngannou who no longer resides on the continent and last fought out of Xtreme Couture. This all enforces Du Plessis’s claim that he will be the first “real” African champion who fights out of Africa.
Naturally in the current political and social climate, race and ethnicity have proven to be extremely sensitive issues and his comments have attracted widespread criticism as well as some smaller levels of support. It is clear what the move to make is. The long talked about but never finalised UFC Africa event.
The organisation missed a beat when they failed to book this event while Ngannou, Adesanya and Usman were all reigning. For a while, all three had lost their belts but with Adesanya now back, the opportunity to have him defend it against another African on the continent either in Nigeria or South Africa should not be wasted again. The event would be massive and an excellent way for the promotion to break into African territory. An undercard which could contain the likes of Kamaru Usman, Sodiq Yussuf, Manel Kape and if possible a return for Francis Ngannou would be among the biggest events in the history of the organisation.