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In the promotion's first visit to Toronto in over five years, the UFC returns to Canadian soil on Saturday for the first pay-per-view card of 2024, featuring a pair of title bouts atop the marquee. 

Newly crowned middleweight champion Sean Strickland will make the first defense of his title against Dricus du Plessis in the main event of UFC 297, which emanates from Scotiabank Arena. In the co-feature, the vacant women's bantamweight title is at stake as top contenders Raquel Pennington and Mayra Bueno Silva square off. 

As we draw closer to this weekend's event, let's take a closer look at the biggest storylines. 

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1. Don't look now but the middleweight division is on fire

It's crazy to imagine the current lot at 185 pounds for the UFC, where former kings Israel Adesanya and Robert Whittaker find themselves temporarily out of the title picture after each have lost two of their last three fights. But the division is turning over at a crazy pace, not just evidenced by the rise of red-hot and future prospects like Khamzat Chimaev, Bo Nickal and Joe Pyfer. Yes, the rivalry between Saturday's main eventers, Strickland and du Plessis, should come with a warning label for the obscene language that is constantly exchanged between the two (which fueled their brawl in the crowd at UFC 296 in December). But this weekend's matchup is a wild one, with the betting odds indicating just how close this title bout is to a pick 'em at the moment. Strickland, who upset Adesanya for the title in September following a near-perfect five rounds of striking brilliance, will need to deal with the physicality of du Plessis, who showcased that -- along with his improved technique -- in his own lopsided upset of Whittaker last year to earn No. 1 contender status. Buckle up.

2. Watch closely for Adesanya's whereabouts at UFC 297

An early fight week report speculated that Adesanya, who previously said he was taking an extended absence from the sport after the loss to Strickland, could be in attendance cageside for Saturday's main event. The significance of said rumor is potentially huge, especially with UFC 300 right around the corner in April, and the ongoing lack of an acceptable main event for such a historic card. If one imagines a scenario in which the winner of Strickland-du Plessis does so without taking serious damage, which could facilitate a short turnaround for April, don't be surprised to see Adesanya standing across from them late Saturday for a pre-planned staredown. A fight matching the former champion against whomever comes out with the title at UFC 297 could lead to big business for the promotion. It's not just the sellable nature of Adesanya attempting to regain his crown for the third time but because of the fireworks between he and DDP over their debate surrounding who the "real" African UFC champion truly is. 

3. There is (justifiably) no buzz for the co-main event

As the greatest female fighter in MMA history, former two-division UFC champion Amanda Nunes' sudden retirement from the sport in 2023 turned out to be one of the year's most memorable moments as she walked off on top, on her own terms. It also left a pair of women's divisions in disarray (135 pounds) and outright despair (145 pounds) with no clear answer as to what the next moves would be. Finally, the promotion announced a vacant bantamweight title bout for UFC 297, yet did so with one of the least heralded pairings for a title fight since Nicco Montano defeated late replacement Roxanne Modaferri for the inaugural flyweight title at "The Ultimate Fighter" finale in 2017. Both Pennington and Silva are good fighters operating in an incredibly shallow division where aging former champions like Holly Holm, Miesha Tate and the woefully inactive Julianna Pena remain the faces. But the idea to pair both contenders together in a title bout, some seven months after Nunes laid down her title in the center of the cage, did anything but ignite excitement. In one sense, it's good just to have the division back in working order, especially since it doesn't appear as if women's featherweight has a future of any kind. But this simply isn't a fight, even with the title at stake, that is worthy of co-main event status on a PPV. 

4. It's time for Canada's Mike Malott to show what he's made of

A PPV return to Toronto after such a lengthy absence, not surprisingly, led UFC to pack the undercard with an overflow of Canadian MMA talent. Among the most promising of the group is the 32-year-old Malott, a muscular welterweight whose 10-1-1 record is a bit deceiving. Malott stepped away from the sport for nearly four years in 2017 to focus on grappling after brief stints in Bellator and World Series of Fighting (which later became PFL). But he returned with a newfound determination and a dangerous ground game, going 6-0 with six stoppages entering Saturday's test against division stalwart Neil Magny. Malott, who is 3-0 with two submissions since his 2022 UFC debut, fought in Vancouver last June and earned a performance of the night bonus for a submission of Adam Fugitt that sent the adoring crowd to a fever pitch. One should expect the same in Toronto should Malott record the biggest victory of his career to date against the 36-year-old Magny, who has split wins and losses against top competition over his past six fights. 

5. Arnold Allen-Movsar Evloev could be the fight of the night

This featherweight bout between top-10 contenders is set to open the PPV, with the unbeaten Evloev (17-0) opening up as a slight betting favorite against the battled tested Allen. Evloev is 6-0 since making his 2019 UFC debut, with all six wins coming by decision. But with respect to some of his more decorated UFC opponents like Dan Ige and Diego Lopes, Evloev has yet to face someone as talented as the No. 4-ranked Allen (19-2). Although the native of England saw his 12-fight win streak snapped in a close five-round decision loss to Max Holloway last April, Allen proved he was worthy of the division's true elite. Injuries have certainly plagued Allen's activity level but haven't slowed his resolve. Not only is the fight expected to be contended at an extremely high level, the winner will likely catapult themself into a huge matchup atop the rankings.