South African middleweight contender Dricus du Plessis knows he stands as little as one win away from a shot at the undisputed UFC middleweight championship. And, as he prepares to face former champion Robert Whittaker in Las Vegas at UFC 290, “Stillknocks” said he’s embracing the challenge, and the occasion.

“Yeah, absolutely this is definitely the biggest fight of my career,” he told reporters at media day at the UFC Apex.

“But so was the one before that, and the one before that, and the one before that. So that feels familiar.

“My fight week’s exactly the same. I’m doing a little bit more talking to folks, but it feels great. The atmosphere and finally seeing myself on not on the undercard … Being on the main card of this, just before the title fight, and seeing myself on the Countdown show, and seeing myself in the promotional video. It’s something special, and I’m taking it in. I’m loving it.”

Ahead of the bout, du Plessis underwent a procedure to open up his nasal passages to allow him to breathe more clearly through his nose. A feature of his past fights has been Du Plessis fighting open-mouthed, taking deep breaths of air in through his mouth. To those watching, it looked like he was gassing. But, in fact, it was simply a necessity, with the 29-year-old unable to take in air through his nose.

“It’s just a nose surgery. It’s definitely making a difference in how I look when I fight, because, you know, breathing through your mouth definitely looks crazy, and you definitely start hyperventilating when you’re breathing heavily,” he said.

“During my rest rounds, that’s when the big difference really comes in. In my recovery, my sleep, everything has been better.

“But how big of a difference? Am I gonna get tired? Most certainly, because if you look at the output that I bring, anybody in the world will get tired from that. But maybe I’ll look a little better doing it!”

The South African contender has battled past a host of tough names to get to this point, but freely admits that facing Whittaker represents a step up in competition as he looks to book himself a shot at the 185-pound crown. And he gave an interesting take on his preparation for the former champion as he revealed an acceptance that the Australian’s skillset is as comprehensive as you’ll find in the UFC’s middleweight division.

“Yes, most certainly (he’s) he best opponent I’ve faced in my whole career. But I can say the same to him. He’s an incredible, incredible fighter,” he said.

“People would say, ‘Where do you see holes in his game?’ and to see a hole in the game of somebody like Whittaker is extremely, extremely hard. And I don’t think that’s the way to go.

“I’m not looking for holes in the game. I’m looking to force mistakes and capitalizing on those and that’s exactly what I’m going to do when I go out there – enforce my style.

“Whittaker, shot for shot, is extremely fast, and he’s very calculated, and when he gets his style going, when he’s in his comfort zone, he’s very, very dangerous. (I need) to make sure he doesn’t get to that comfort zone and make sure I’m taking him out of that comfort zone into my world, where it’s a dark place and I feel at home.”

While the bout between du Plessis and Whittaker has been tagged as a number-one contender fight, champion Israel Adesanya’s next title defense is likely to take place in the main event of UFC 293 in September, which would mean a relatively swift turnaround for Saturday night’s winner. If Du Plessis gets the win at UFC 290 and is in shape to jump back into a fight camp to face Adesanya in Sydney, he’s down for that.

“I think this is my third fight in seven months. So I’ve been turning around and getting these fights in to climb this ladder. And if I’m physically capable, if there is no problem for me to start my fight camp and be ready for that title fight, no problem at all. I’ll be ready,” he said.

“But I’m not even considering that when I get into the cage with Robert Whittaker. I’m willing to take a limb off, and this be the last fight of my life to beat Robert Whitaker with that piece of limb. I’m not even thinking about this title fight right now. I’m thinking about Robert Whittaker. I guess they’ll decide if I’m the number one contender, or not.”

But, despite the championship stakes at play on Saturday night, there is another factor in the title discussion. Sean Strickland also inserted himself into the championship discussion with an impressive TKO finish of Abus Magomedov at the UFC Apex, then called for his own shot at Adesanya in Sydney. It means that the UFC has the option of booking Adesanya vs. Strickland for Sydney, with the winner of du Plessis vs. Whittaker lined up to face the winner.

Du Plessis accepts that he has no control over who the UFC books to fight for the title next, but insists that, whether or not he’s physically good to go in September, he’ll have proved his case as the division’s top contender by the end of this weekend.

“At the end of the day, it’s not my call. It’s the UFC’s call,” he admitted.

“But there won’t be any denying me as the number one contender after I beat Rob.

“But yeah, if that’s the way they want to do it, if it’s not possible for me physically to fight in Sydney. If there’s an injury, or if you get extremely bad cuts, there’s no way. Then you’re out for a couple of days. You never know what happens in this sport.

“But it doesn’t bother me. At the end of the day, I don’t want to fight Izzy, I want to fight the guy with the belt. So whether it’s Izzy, whether it’s Strickland, I don’t care. For me, it’s about fighting whoever has that title to become the champion.”