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UFC 297 takeaways: What’s next for the new champions?

The UFC's first pay-per-view of 2024 featured a brutal middleweight title fight and put a spotlight on some of Canada's top MMA stars. Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi, Jeff Wagenheim and Carlos Contreras Legaspi offer their thoughts on the biggest moments of the night.

Does Dricus Du Plessis' win set the table for UFC Africa?

Dana White, before he became the top promoter in the history of mixed martial arts, was a boxing fan. The UFC CEO has long dreamed of putting together unique events for his company reminiscent of the classic boxing spectacles. Fights like the Rumble in the Jungle, a historic bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire.

For the last few years, White has talked about bringing the UFC to Africa. At one point, the UFC had three African-born champions. None of them currently have titles. But after Saturday night, White might have his ticket to the continent, complete with a new champion born in Africa and a prime matchup for the region.

Dricus Du Plessis beat Sean Strickland to win the UFC middleweight title on Saturday night in the main event of UFC 297 in Toronto. Du Plessis hails from South Africa, clearly has a huge following in his home country and has a built-in beef with Nigerian-born former champion Israel Adesanya

"Maybe we start looking at South Africa and start looking at arenas and possibly do a fight down there this year," White said at the postfight news conference.

Dricus Du Plessis defeated Sean Strickland to win the UFC middleweight title at UFC 297. Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

The history with Du Plessis and Adesanya is a sensitive one. Du Plessis said years ago that he wanted to win the UFC title and be the first true African champion. He said it with the context that he still lives and trains in Africa, while the others have moved away. Adesanya, as well as former champions Francis Ngannou and Kamaru Usman, took offense to that, especially considering the complicated history of South Africa and colonization.

Last July, Adesanya, when he was still champion, came into the Octagon after Du Plessis beat Robert Whittaker. Adesanya, a Black man, got into Du Plessis' face and shouted racial expletives into the microphone. After he won the title Saturday, Du Plessis called out Adesanya, who might be shortening his planned break from the Octagon following his title loss to Strickland last September.

"Israel Adesanya, get your ass back in the UFC, so we can settle the score," Du Plessis said.

There is another potential next title challenger looming for Du Plessis, as well, someone who could be tabbed if Adesanya isn't ready to return just yet. Just weeks after Strickland beat Adesanya to win the belt, the UFC offered Strickland a lucrative, short-notice matchup against Khamzat Chimaev, whose original opponent at UFC 294 in Abu Dhabi fell injured. Strickland turned the bout down, as he should have given the timing. But it's clear the UFC is heavily invested in the fearsome Chimaev, who ended up beating former welterweight champion Kamaru Usman via majority decision at UFC 294. So, don't be surprised if a Du Plessis vs. Chimaev bout gets discussed if Adesanya wants some more time for a well-deserved rest.

In any case, the UFC's middleweight division is evolving -- and fascinating. White said in the postfight news conference that he fully expects Du Plessis and Strickland to fight again down the road. But there's little doubt White would be excited to finally make UFC Africa happen in 2024 with a newly christened, African-born UFC champion.

Who's next for Du Plessis?

Okamoto: Khamzat Chimaev

I assume I will get a lot of flack for this one, but I don't care.

What are we doing with Chimaev? He's one of the most exciting prospects the sport has ever seen, and it feels like he's gone nowhere the last two years. It's not entirely his fault, nor the UFC's. There has been some bad luck, bad weight cuts, injuries, Covid, visa problems ... you name it.

But enough is enough. Put this man in a title fight.

Du Plessis wants Adesanya and he deserves to have that say and that's a fine fight to do next. Nothing wrong with it. But personally, I'd prefer to see Chimaev.

Wild card: Adesanya

Adesanya is a great choice, even if he's not my personal No. 1. And for the record, I do believe he will end up fighting Du Plessis next.

Who's next for Sean Strickland?

Sean Strickland, left, lost a split decision in his first title defense at UFC 297. Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Okamoto: Israel Adesanya

Because I would like to see Chimaev next for the title, booking a rematch between Adesanya and Strickland is the obvious one to make for each.

Strickland's win over Adesanya in September was so unforeseen. You can't call it a fluke, but you can certainly question whether Adesanya was fighting too much. Adesanya himself has admitted he was way too active, and the fact he fought Strickland instead of Du Plessis (the fight he really wanted), you wonder what his mindset was going into that first one.

A rematch between these two would draw massive interest and answer any questions anyone has about their first meeting.

Wild card: Khamzat Chimaev

If the UFC decides to go with Du Plessis vs. Adesanya, then book this as a No. 1 contender fight. Strickland is one of the hottest commodities in MMA right now. Chimaev has looked like a potential star. Put them together and you get a bonafide No. 1 contender at middleweight and frankly, you build both of their names.

Fans would go nuts for this fight and the buildup of it. Just thinking about these matchups makes me think middleweight is suddenly one of the most interesting in the sport right now.

Pennington never gave up

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Raquel Pennington wins UFC women's bantamweight belt

Raquel Pennington defeats Mayra Bueno Silva in the co-main event of UFC 297 to win the women's bantamweight title.

Wagenheim: Raquel Pennington had been here before. But the first time she competed for the UFC women's bantamweight championship, back in 2018, the woman nicknamed "Rocky" was on the wrong end of a bloody beatdown by the queen of the division, Amanda Nunes.

Nearly six years later, Pennington now is the successor to the throne long occupied by the GOAT of women's MMA.

Following Nunes' retirement last June, the 135-pound title had been left vacant, and that vacancy was filled Saturday by Pennington -- the sixth women's bantamweight champion UFC history -- after a tough-it-out victory over Mayra Bueno Silva. Perseverance is what got Pennington back to a championship opportunity, and perseverance is what earned her the victory and the shiny belt she had coveted for so long.

Early on, Bueno Silva was the one who looked like she'd been here before, attacking with poise and gaining strong positions in each of the first two rounds. But Pennington kept fighting, and gradually she wore down her opponent and nearly got the finish before settling for a decisive win (49-46, 49-46, 49-45).

Pennington came in as an underdog, despite having a far more star-studded resume. She owns victories over Miesha Tate, Jessica Andrade and, most recently, Ketlen Vieira, and she's also been in the cage with Holly Holm, Germaine de Randamie and Cat Zingano in addition to Nunes. By contrast, Bueno Silva was coming in off a submission of her most notable opponent, Holm, but that result from July was changed to a no contest after she tested positive for a banned substance.

Bueno Silva was just four fights into her MMA career and not yet in the UFC at the time Pennington first fought for the belt.

The Brazilian's lack of experience showed itself in Rounds 4 and 5 -- the aptly named championship rounds. In those two final rounds, Bueno Silva landed just 20 strikes to 140 by Pennington.

Although Pennington was a clear victor, neither her performance nor the fight itself is going to make MMA fans forget about the greatness of Nunes. But it's a positive development for the UFC to fill one of its championship vacancies, and it was especially positive for Pennington, a 35-year-old new mother who was in her 24th pro fight and now is riding a six-fight winning streak. Like a champ.

What's next for the new champ?

New women's bantamweight champion Raquel Pennington has won her last six fights. Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Okamoto: Julianna Peña

It's the obvious call, and Peña has already said she'll be ready to go for Pennington's first title defense. With Nunes gone, this division was always going to break wide open. So many of Nunes' former opponents are now eyeing that belt. It obviously looks more available than ever.

Hopefully, the UFC can make this a very active division and we'll get to see all of these challengers get their shot. Let's be real, Nunes at the top of the division almost felt unfair. Even the long established names like Holm and Tate, former champions presumably at the end of their careers, could work their ways into contention. There's a lot of opportunity in this division for some wild stories, now that Nunes is watching from the outside.

Wild card: Nothing

It's Peña next. We've known that since the moment this title fight at UFC 297 was announced.

On a night that was supposed to spotlight Canadian MMA stars, the best performance belonged to ___

Okamoto: Gillian Robertson.

I know Jasmine Jasudavicius set all kinds of records with her 326 strikes landed, but if Canada is looking for someone to get behind, it's Robertson. She's had an up-and-down career with the UFC, but that was to be expected. She's still only 28, and made her UFC debut seven years ago. She's only now entering her physical and (more importantly) mental prime as a professional fighter.

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Gillian Robertson puts a finish to the fight vs. Polyana Viana

Gillian Robertson dazzles the Canadian crowd with a finish vs. Polyana Viana at UFC 297.

She has fought an absolute wealth of opposition, including the likes of Bueno Silva, Taila Santos and Maycee Barber. She's grown up against UFC-caliber talent.

Unfortunately for the Canadian fanbase, the answer to this question wasn't Mike Malott. Saturday was a big litmus test for Mallott against a veteran in Neil Magny, and he came up well short. Now, it doesn't mean it's time to bail on Malott entirely, but expectations were certainly much higher for the 32-year-old than what he was able to show in his backyard.

Movsar Evloev keeps progressing, but might need one more victory for a title shot

Movsar Evloev defeated a tough Arnold Allen at UFC 297. Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Contreras Legaspi: UFC 297 presented a significant opportunity for Movsar Evloev, who faced tough competition in Arnold Allen. He remains undefeated and offered a showcase to demonstrate himself as a well-rounded fighter. He had good standing combinations, solid grappling and he managed to escape danger that the Englishman applied on several occasions.

He now has eight victories in the UFC, but he has yet to secure a finish, something that is crucial to promote a championship fight.

With Max Holloway busy with the BMF dispute at UFC 300, Evloev could've skipped the line with a highlight-reel victory, similar to what the next featherweight challenger, Ilia Topuria, did. He is also undefeated, but has gone the distance in only two of his 15 wins.

Evloev and Topuria were scheduled to face each other in January 2022 at UFC 270, and since then, they have engaged in a social media rivalry. Depending on how the fight goes at UFC 298, their bout could happen in the near future -- but with much more at stake. Worst-case scenario for Movsar could be in a No. 1 contender fight next.

What's next for Evloev?

Okamoto: Winner of Calvin Kattar vs. Aljamain Sterling at UFC 298

I struggled with this one, because having to fight Evloev right now is certainly not a reward, OK?

If I were a UFC featherweight, I would want nothing to do with Evloev. He's not a huge name, but he might legitimately be the best in the division. And even if you do beat him, you're probably not gonna look incredible doing it. The guy is so technical, with such effective grappling.

So, I feel bad saying the winner of Kattar vs. Sterling should get "rewarded" with this fight, but at the end of the day, Evloev is going to be highly ranked after Saturday's win. And that's the incentive for Kattar or Sterling. The number next to his name.

Evloev needs to face some big names -- perhaps in a main event. Kattar and Sterling are those kinds of names.

Wild card: Josh Emmett

I think the UFC should rebook Emmett against Giga Chikadze, which we were supposed to see last year but Chikadze got injured. If they choose to go another route, though, Emmett vs. Evloev is a great matchup.

    

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