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Strickland and Du Plessis take hostilities into octagon for middleweight title at UFC 297

When Sean Strickland went after Dricus Du Plessis last month outside the octagon during UFC 296, jumping over a row of seats to throw a series of haymakers, it would have been easy to dismiss that as a publicity stunt to promote their main event at UFC 297.

Du Plessis insisted this week what happened was real.

“Anybody who thinks that was fake or staged, I wasn’t informed of that because I took some real punches,” Du Plessis said.

More real punches will be thrown Saturday night when Strickland (28-5) makes his first middleweight title defense against Du Plessis (20-2) in Toronto.

The hostility between the two began at a news conference in December when Du Plessis referenced Strickland's abusive relationship with his father. Strickland warned that Du Plessis had crossed a line and not to do it again, threatening violent action if he did.

Both acknowledged that Strickland later sent Du Plessis a private message saying both sides should temper such talk. Du Plessis said he didn't care what Strickland might say and took issue that he was out of line in bringing up the champion's childhood.

“That’s (Strickland) putting it out there. That’s (him) joking about it," Du Plessis said. "I wasn’t joking about it. ... Do I think it’s good? No, I think it’s terrible what happened to him. I was completely respectful to Sean Strickland that whole press conference.”

Strickland has been an equal-opportunity offender leading up to this weekend, be it hurling expletive-laced insults at the LBGTQ community or women. It's quite a different look from 2018 when a much more subdued Strickland showed up to fight in Canada.

“I came from being such a piece of (trash), so whenever I got in front of the camera, you look at your peers," Strickland said. "I wanted to fit that image. Any time I wore a suit, I ... hated it. I tried to fit that image.

“It’s way more freeing not trying to fit the mold of a superstar. It’s way better.”

Oddsmakers expect a close fight, with FanDuel Sportsbook making Strickland, 33, a slight favorite at minus-125. Du Plessis, 30, is listed at minus-102.

Strickland, who was born in Anaheim, California, and lives in Las Vegas, claimed his belt with an upset of Israel Adesanya at UFC 293 on Sept. 9 in Sydney. Strickland won by unanimous decision over the crowd favorite from nearby New Zealand.

While putting down Du Plessis' recent victories, saying they came against inferior competition, Strickland also expressed respect for the South African's ability to give him a tough fight.

“I think it's going to be a harder fight than Izzy," Strickland said. "The thing about Dricus is he just likes to fight. Is he the best? Probably not, but he goes in there and ... fights to win. That's a hard fight.”

Strickland said he wouldn't be surprised if the fight goes the maximum five rounds.

“I think mentally I'm prepared to die in there as always," Strickland said. "That's my mindset. I never really game plan. Just go in there and do work.”

Du Plessis said he has his game face on, but also openly wondered about Strickland's motivation leading into the fight.

“Am I scared that he self-sabotages this fight? Sure," Du Plessis said. "That is something I’ve thought about it, maybe trying everything to get out of it. For me, the last press conference was winning on the mic. This week, I’m not doing that. I’m here to be the middleweight champion of the world, not making jokes. The battle that needs to be won is coming Saturday and that’s where my mind is at.”

The vacant women's bantamweight championship will be the co-main event when second-ranked challenger Raquel Pennington (15-9) of Colorado Springs, Colorado, takes on No. 3 Mayra Bueno Silva (10-2-1) of Brazil. Silva, 32, is minus-174 favorite. Pennington, 35, is listed at plus-136.

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