South Africa’s apex predators, top-10 middleweight Dricus du Plessis and his protégé Cameron Saaiman, are back on the prowl at UFC 285 in Las Vegas on Saturday night (Sunday morning SA time), writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
The Pretoria-based Team CIT pair form part of one of the most stacked cards of the year and return to their happy hunting ground of the T-Mobile Arena, where they reigned supreme in their previous fights in December.
Du Plessis seeks to continue his surge up the ladder and break into the top five at 185 pounds against perennial top contender Derek Brunson on the prelims, while Saaiman plans to build on his triumphant promotional debut when he meets Mana Martinez in a bantamweight bout on the early prelims.
Two title fights headline the pay-per-view main card with Jon Jones returning to face Ciryl Gane for the vacant heavyweight championship and Valentina Shevchenko defending her flyweight title against Alexa Grasso.
Prelims (from 3 AM Sunday SA time)
Dricus du Plessis (1.44) v Derek Brunson (2.90) (Middleweight)
Du Plessis (18-2) has consistently made history with every step he’s taken to and inside of the Octagon since he joined the world’s leading mixed martial arts promotion in 2020.
“Stillknocks” has gone 5-0 in the UFC with four finishes. In doing so, he went from becoming the first South African to break into the top 15 – following a thrilling three-round war with Brad Tavares – to the first to enter the top 10 with his epic submission victory over former welterweight title challenger Darren Till last December.
Tavares remains the only man who’s gone the distance with the fighting pride of South Africa. The hard-hitting Hatfield-born fighter has seven knockouts and 10 submissions to his name. Brunson (23-8) boasts a dozen knockouts and four submissions but only has two finishes since 2019. He’s more of a tactician and a crafty one at that.
As much as I rate Du Plessis, the line is a bit steep here. Brunson isn’t the most dangerous fighter around but his elite-level experience and complete skillset make him a much bigger threat than the line suggests.
He’s fought legends like Anderson Silva and Jacare Sousa and former champions Israel Adesanya and Robert Whittaker and holds a victory over ex-light heavyweight titleholder Lyoto Machida.
A five-fight win streak, capped off by a submission win over Till, had put Brunson one fight away from a title shot last year. It was a case of so close, yet so far as Jared Cannonier – primarily a striker – took him down and left him unconscious with nasty elbows on the ground.
It was the sixth time in his career that he was knocked out but the first since he was stopped by then-rising star Adesanya in 2018. He hasn’t fought since that loss to Cannonier last February and is 39 now, a full decade older than Du Plessis.
That age gap is mainly why the odds are stacked so heavily in Du Plessis’ favour. Make no mistake, though, conditioning is one of Brunson’s biggest strengths and in this case, his best possible path to victory. Du Plessis’ hazards came on in both of his gruelling last fights and the American will see that as a potential weakness he could exploit in the third round.
For his part, Du Plessis pushed through those adrenaline dumps to win in style and he’ll continue to do him, which is to come out firing and look for the finish from the jump. He lands almost twice as many significant strikes per minute as Brunson – 6.62 to 3.5 – who’s more of a sharpshooter and catches him at a good time as he’s the second straight southpaw he faces.
Du Plessis should be the stronger man, which will come in hand in the grappling department as Brunson’s a tough man to take down. As a wily veteran with good balance, he boasts an 89% takedown defence and has never been submitted.
Therefore, I expect the fight to mostly play out on the feet where the power and pressure of Du Plessis will lead to a TKO win.
Early prelims (from 1:15 AM Sunday SA time)
Cameron Saaiman (1.32) v Mana Martinez (3.55) (Bantamweight)
Don’t blink when Saaiman (7-0) puts his undefeated record on the line against fellow finisher Martinez (10-3). The South African prodigy boasts an 85% finish ratio (five knockouts and one submission) while his American adversary has an 89% knockout ratio.
One of the most exciting prospects in all of MMA, Saaiman was hailed as “the future” by none other than UFC president Dana White after he knocked Josh Wang-Kim out cold on the Contender Series last August to become the then-youngest fighter ever signed by the promotion at 21.
He lived up to the hype in his UFC debut in December, stopping fellow newcomer Steven Koslow – a late replacement for Ronnie Lawrence – with strikes in the third round.
Martinez has been less commanding inside the Octagon. He’s 2-1 with all three fights going the distance. A successful debut against Guido Cannetti was followed by a loss to Lawrence before he bounced back with a win over Brandon Davis last October.
Saaiman gives up size to his opponent. At 5’10”, Martinez is two inches taller and will have a three-inch reach advantage. As a tall bantamweight, he uses his range well with an educated jab being his biggest weapon from which everything else flows. As his record suggests, “Manaboi” has good power as well.
That said, Saaiman is the more sophisticated striker and as a southpaw, the former EFC bantamweight champion will pose plenty of questions on the feet. His speed and footwork will give him an added advantage, while head movement will be key to ensure Martinez doesn’t establish rhythm with his jab.
“MSP” is the better grappler as well and as such, he’ll dictate where the fight takes place. Expect a mainly stand-up battle, though, where takedowns are only attempted late in frames to cement rounds or in desperation after a big shot had landed.
South Africa’s baby-faced assassin has the edge across the board and should notch up another knockout win.