IT HAS BEEN almost a year since South Africa's Dricus Du Plessis (16-2), entered the Octagon -- a successful UFC 264 outing last July that only lasted two rounds, knocking out Trevin Giles. But his quest to return has been a prolonged battle, complete with injury, opponent changes, fight cancellations and incredible frustration.
The wait ends on July 2 when he'll face his toughest opponent yet -- Brad Tavares (19-7) -- at T-Mobile Arena at UFC 276, a card headlined by the middleweight title fight between Israel Adesanya (22-1) and Jared Cannonier (15-5).
Despite Saturday's challenge, Du Plessis remains forward looking, intent on a fight against Kelvin Gastelum, someone who he was previously scheduled to face. "He owes me that fight. He took the food off of my table."
But this is about more than just one fight. It's about being the best in a sport where every single fighter believes they are the best at what they do. The only difference is, Du Plessis is ready to prove it.
PUTTING FOOD ON tables is in Du Plessis's blood, and it's personal. Raised on a farm outside Pretoria, Du Plessis' agricultural upbringing is not unfamiliar to many South Africans.
Nevertheless, Du Plessis says he stands out for how his father raised him, his brothers' achievements, and the impact that farm life had on his career outlook.
"Growing up as a South African, farming has been part of my whole life," he said. " My dad, my brothers, and my whole family come from that background. [A farmer's] work ethic is something that was instilled in me. The work ethic to work for what you want.
"You grow up with the mindset that 'nothing just comes to you'. If there's a problem, you have to create a solution... and whatever it is, you will work hard every day, no matter what. You don't really have a choice in the matter.
"That's something that was instilled in me. That's a way of life as a South African. That's how my dad raised me and I can't be thankful enough."
As a result, Du Plessis, who holds a second degree black belt in kickboxing, believes in his abilities.
"If you don't have that hunger, and you're not willing to work to be the best, you will always be second, and nobody knows who second-best is."
THE WORK THAT Du Plessis put in during his fledgling years as a combat athlete is the reason he's excelling today. As a WAKO junior K-1 world champion, KSW Welterweight champion, EFC welterweight and middleweight champion, who graduated to the UFC in 2020 -- it's no surprise that Du Plessis made himself at home during his opening two UFC bouts.
"Getting my first two victories via knockout was absolutely amazing," he said. "We always knew that I had power in my hands, especially at 185lbs. [It was great] to finally get those knockouts and see the hard work on the stand-up paying off."
He was on a roll, starting to turn heads in the middleweight division. An untimely shoulder injury then required surgery, and pulled Du Plessis out of his third outing, set for December 11 2021 against Andre Muniz (22-4).
This was the first of many hurdles to come.
A successful injury recovery set up Du Plessis's third fight, an undercard UFC 273 bout versus Chris Curtis (28-8). However, just short of a month before the fight on April 9, the American pulled out due to injury and was replaced by countryman Anthony Hernandez (9-2).
Having shaken off the opponent change and adjusted to a Hernandez battle, Du Plessis was then offered an irresistible main card opportunity against 10th-ranked middleweight, Gastelum (17-8) -- an offer confirmed just 10 days before fight night.
A week before their clash, at the Dubai International Airport, Du Plessis received a phone call telling him that Gastelum had pulled out of the fight due to an undisclosed injury, per UFC officials, and Du Plessis would be pulled off the card entirely.
"I was on my way to the United States already when they phoned me for the Gastelum fight," Du Plessis recalled. "I felt in the best shape of my life. I knew that whoever stepped in on that night would get a beating.
"[When I got the fight] with Kelvin, I was so happy and I felt like the stars aligned, but I guess they didn't...."He was a hero for me in the MMA world, but he's not a hero anymore, he's my competition.
"That doesn't mean that I don't respect him. It just means my vision shifted from looking up to him to somebody that's on my level now and somebody that I have to overcome to get to the top, and that's something I will do."
While Du Plessis has a healthy amount of respect for Gastelum, the late withdrawal left a sour taste in his mouth, and he says he has unfinished business with him.
DU PLESSIS HAS managed to see the silver lining in the fight cancellations and turned the setback into a training camp advantage.
He's stayed in America to stay focused, able to train with, and test himself against the UFC's elite.
"The amount of skill I've gained and the amount of work I put in, that's only going to play a role in this camp. We just took all that hard work [for UFC 273] and put it right into this camp. We're not starting at zero, we've basically had ten more weeks to prepare."
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Du Plessis had trained at Sanford, but spent nearly two years away from the gym. Prestigious coach Henri Hooft saw significant improvement in Du Plessis' ability during that hiatus.
"He is doing a great job back home in Africa at his gym," Hooft said. "His trainers are obviously doing the right thing because he is getting better every time I see him.
"Our gym is at a very high level and we have a lot of really good fighters. But everybody likes to work with him. He is really good and really strong, so I'm always happy when he's around."
With a perfect UFC record that includes a first and second-round knockout to his name, Du Plessis has shown no lack of power in his standup game. Although many considered him more of a grappler in his EFC days, the middleweight has clearly added to his attacking arsenal.
"He has power. He only needs to touch you once," Hooft said. "He's an explosive guy with a lot of experience... Dricus himself is a different kind of athlete. You have someone who is an athlete and someone who is a fighter. There is a big difference between the two -- but he's both."
On paper, Tavares is Du Plessis's toughest career fight so far. Yet, fitting with his character, Du Plessis is confident in his ability to get past him. He understands the challenge that the American presents, but is sturdy in the belief that his hand will get raised as a result of a spectacular win.
"I think Brad Tavares is a much harder fight than Kelvin Gastelum. I think Tavares is an extremely great athlete. He is tough as nails. He has great striking. He has very good takedown defense," Du Plessis said.
"He went the distance with Yoel Romero (15-5). He went the distance with Adesanya (22-1). He is such a tough fighter who can take punishment. My game plan is to go out there and finish Brad Tavares and do within three rounds what the champion couldn't do in five. And that should be making a good statement."
In preparing for this bout, the headstrong fighter still sometimes finds himself battling thoughts of doubt and another potential cancellation. However, with a mental coach by his side, he's aimed to push those concerns out of his mind.
"A big part of my mental training and mentality is keeping your wits about you," he said. "You can't think about what happened, you have to eliminate that."
"I always feel like the only thing that I can control is how prepared I am. I can't control anything else. [The fight cancellations] were very frustrating and a massive letdown. Especially after a long camp, especially after being called to go out there. I had a whole country behind me, it was so exciting."
Having an undisturbed mindset that has a clear goal and ambition is one of Du Plessis' key attributes. Adversity is familiar to him, and knowing that it will be a part of his UFC journey keeps him committed.
"The important thing is becoming a champion," he said. "That's always my mindset. No matter what happens, no matter how it happens, you deal with it. There's going to be adversity in all aspects of life. I will deal with that adversity, and I will come back stronger from it.
"I use that frustration as fuel, something to make me stronger mentally and physically. [All of this time off] makes me hungrier to get in there. The longer they wait to fight me, the better I'll be.
"I have the ultimate goal, which is to be the greatest fighter to ever walk the Earth. And to be able to do that, I have steps to follow....
I want to be the kind of champion that gets that pound-for-pound number one spot, and holding that spot and doing so in spectacular fashion so that nobody can deny that I'm the greatest of all time."