Dricus du Plessis will look to soar to historic heights when he takes on 12th-ranked Brad Tavares in a must-watch middleweight match-up at UFC 276 in Las Vegas on Saturday night (Sunday morning SA time), writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
The hard-hitting Hatfield-born fighter scored stunning knockouts in his two trips to the Octagon thus far and a win over American veteran Tavares will see him become the first South African to break into the top 15 of any division in the UFC.
The much-anticipated fight forms part of the prelims of the stacked event at the T-Mobile Arena. The pay-per-view main card is headlined by the champion of Du Plessis’ division, Nigerian-born superstar Israel Adesanya, who defends his title against Jared Cannonier.
A second title will also be on the line with featherweight king Alexander Volkanovski and former champion Max Holloway facing off for the third time.
Prelims (from 2 AM Sunday SA time)
Dricus du Plessis (1.74) v Brad Tavares (2.10) (Middleweight)
Du Plessis (16-2) has had to roll with the punches on the road to his third fight in the world’s leading mixed martial arts promotion. Firstly, he was forced to withdraw from his bout with Andre Muniz, scheduled for last December, due to injury and ended up undergoing minor shoulder injury.
When his next scheduled opponent, Chris Curtis, was forced out with a wrist injury in April, the game Pretoria-based pugilist pivoted by accepting to face Anthony Hernandez at UFC 273 later that month. Then opportunity knocked. Tenth-ranked Kelvin Gastelum was suddenly left without an opponent for the event after Nassourdine Imavov was left stranded due to visa issues.
Du Plessis pounced on the golden opportunity and it was made official that he’d been elevated from the prelims to the main card to collide with Gastelum. Days later, however, the former interim middleweight title challenger pulled out with an undisclosed injury and just like that, Du Plessis was left in the cold and fuming.
His willingness to fight anyone the UFC puts in front of him didn’t go unappreciated, though, as he’s been given a similar chance to shoot up the rankings, albeit not on the main card where he feels he belongs.
The 28-year-old’s unquestionably the most gifted and well-rounded mixed martial artist South Africa’s ever produced. He started judo and wrestling at the age of five and went on to become South Africa’s first-ever WAKO K-1 kickboxing world champion in 2012.
Prior to joining the UFC in 2020, Du Plessis had established himself as one of the most promising prospects at 170 and 185 pounds, making history as a two-division champion in the South African-based EFC and capturing the welterweight title in Polish promotion KSW.
When he finally got the call from the UFC, he set his sights squarely on the middleweight division (185lbs/84kg) and hit the ground running, starching Markus Perez in the first round and following up his dream debut with another knockout win over Trevin Giles last July to extend his current win streak to four.
A sensational athlete, his skills are superseded only by his uncanny killer instinct, which has earned him the moniker “Stillknocks.” He’s never been to a decision, his 100% finishing rate consisting of seven knockouts and nine submissions.
Tavares (19-7) is a definite step up in competition, but the test the tenured UFC veteran presents comes at the right time for Mzansi’s fighting pride. Tavares will be ultra-motivated as well as he can put himself alone in second place for most middleweight wins in UFC history with a 15th triumph inside the Octagon this weekend.
Much like I’ve followed Du Plessis’ career, I’ve watched Tavares ever since he was a contestant on season 11 of The Ultimate Fighter back in 2010. He made his UFC debut in style the following year, knocking out an MMA OG in Phil Baroni, while the highly revered Nate Marquardt is also amongst his notable victims.
He’s fought the very best in the division including former champion Robert Whittaker and reigning king Adesanya. He got knocked out by “The Reaper” in 2015 and went five full rounds with “The Last Stylebender” in 2018, a victory in defeat if ever there was one.
Overall, Tavares is 13-6 in the UFC and is chasing his third consecutive win after picking up a pair of decision wins last year, the first over Antonio Carlos Junior and the second – a split decision – over Omari Akhmedov at UFC 264, the same card on which Du Plessis starched Giles.
Not blessed with the power of middleweight big hitters like Du Plessis and Cannonier, Tavares is a tactician. He’s a technically sound striker who’s proficient at scoring points and doesn’t take many risks, while he uses his jiu-jitsu more on a defensive basis (he’s never been submitted). A dozen of his 19 career wins are by decision, five are by knockout and two by submission.
He’ll undoubtedly be Du Plessis’ toughest test to date and the 34-year-old’s vast Octagon experience had him instilled as the favourite up until the start of the week. As they seldom go for takedowns, this should primarily be a stand-up battle and Du Plessis has advantages across the board.
He’s faster, a by-product of being the younger man by six years, and much more dynamic and while they’re both 6’1″, Du Plessis will have a two-inch reach advantage. Being the rangier striker, on top of having substantially greater punching power, South Africa’s superstar is set to take the fight to Tavares and I see him breaking new ground with a TKO in the second half of the fight.
Watch for him to call out Gastelum in his post-fight interview.