Sean Strickland was never meant to be the UFC middleweight champion.
But you’d be sorely mistaken in believing this was in any way a critique of his skillset or talent. Because after what he accomplished this past weekend at UFC 293, neither can be denied.
You’d also be mistaken in believing this was a simple dissection of the Vegas odds. While the 7-to-1 payout many are kicking themselves for not taking advantage of certainly makes for a compelling headline, it’s simply the icing on the layer cake.
Sean Strickland was never meant to be the UFC middleweight champion — and the reason just so happens to be a perfect explanation for why millions adore the sport of mixed martial arts.
Fans of the world’s leading MMA promotion will no doubt be familiar with Sean Strickland’s less-than-ideal upbringing.
As a self-proclaimed product of inter-generational white trash who were addicted to drugs and good old-fashioned child abuse (oh yeah, also a reformed white supremacist), the early chapters of the brawler’s story have been largely informed by unprocessed trauma.
“I used to sleep in my mom’s bed a lot because I thought — we’re talking like elementary school — because I thought my dad was gonna f***ing kill my mom,” he explained during his recent appearance on The Joe Rogan Experience.
“So every night I would go to bed thinking, like, my mom’s gonna die tonight. You know?”
“One night, in third or fourth grade, I went to go sleep in my mom’s room, my dad’s like, ‘Fuck that!’ They’re having a bad fight… like I just don’t feel good about this tonight.”
“So I crawl under the bed, we had like dogs fleas everywhere. I’m hiding under the bed now, there’s fleas, I think there’s a dildo next to me, I remember this.”
“My dad gets on top of my mom and he starts f***ing strangling her, right? And he says, ‘I’m gonna fucking kill you tonight.'”
“The only thing I see is a guitar, my sister’s guitar — she’s still mad at me about it — I grab the guitar and smack him over the head, grab the phone, call the cops, and run down the hill. My mom, her dumb ass, bailed him out of jail the next day.”
Rought a decade later, when the 18-year-old high school dropout was already a veteran of three professional fights (plus God knows how many other unsanctioned bouts), he’d definitively put an end to his father’s reign of terror.
Strickland recounts: “I f***ing wake up to them fighting, my mom and my dad fighting… He was holding my mom in the room saying crazy s**t like, ‘You’re probably banging your boss, your mom’s banging her boss, your mom’s doing this or doing that.’”
“I f***ing headbutt him, break his nose. He falls down like f***ing crying and I’ll never forget the monster, the boogeyman of my life, just watching him fall to the ground crying, holding his nose, f***ing bleeding. It was almost disappointing. It was disappointing. I expected so much more from him.”
Soon after that, his mother finally found the courage to leave his father; while his father would eventually succumb to cancer.
On several occasions, Sean Strickland has admitted the much-needed structure of training had prevented him from either a lifetime of incarceration with a swastika tattooed on his arm — something he’d have his “Nazi” grandfather to thank for — or the equally probable outcome of an early grave.
Thankfully, the prospect of making a living as a mixed martial artist and the catharsis offered by rigorous hours in the gym kept this ne’er-do-well on the straight and narrow.
“My first training day was the first time I ever felt happiness because it was like, ‘This is what it feels like not to be angry,’” said Strickland.
“MMA to me is more than just, ‘Oh yeah, I want to be a UFC fighter’ — it literally saved my life.”
The Middleweight Grind
After making a name for himself as the King of the Cage middleweight champion who’d successfully defended the title on five separate occasions, Sean Strickland answered the call every mixed martial artist waits by the phone for.
Debuting at UFC 171 in 2014, he faced The Ultimate Fighter alum Bubba McDaniel and serviced a submission victory via rear-naked choke, improving his then-undefeated record to 14-0. Along the way, however, there would be a few missteps.
During his three-year experiment in the welterweight division, Strickland had the misfortune of facing dominant future champion Kamaru Usman only to lose via unanimous decision, as well as being served an L by Santiago Ponzinibbio (unanimous decision) and Elizeu Zaleeski dos Santos (KO). This would mark the first three losses of his professional career.
Then, just when he was beginning to regain momentum, terrible misfortune struck once again.
On December 11, 2018, a little over a month after he stopped Nordine Taleb with an impressive TKO performance, Strickland’s motorcycle collided with a turning van. Many, including the man himself, thought this was the end of the road for his days as a mixed martial artist.
“I woke up in the hospital, going into surgery with the doctor telling me, ‘You got hit by a car and you’re going into knee surgery.’ And I just started crying because all I could think about was my career. It was just, ‘I’m not a UFC fighter anymore; my dream is over. This sucks,'” recalled Sean Strickland.
“Every doctor I spoke to told me, ‘Hey Sean, you probably can fight again, but it’s probably not a good idea.’ My surgeon said, ‘You left part of your kneecap on the road.'”
“I had doctors telling me I shouldn’t fight again, but at the end of the day, this is all I wanted to do.”
Two years of intensive rehabilitation and countless hours in the gym later, Strickland returned to both the Octagon and the middleweight division — without a sizable chunk of his left quadriceps — stringing together five consecutive notches in the win column against the likes of Brendan Allen, Uriah Hall, and Jack Hermansson.
This hot streak would be punctuated by back-to-back losses at the hands of fast-tracked rising star (and future training partner), Alex Pereira, who would go on to win the belt from Israel Adesanya before losing it himself; as well as what was then the latest failed title challenger in Jared Cannonier.
Despite not even being remotely in the conversation for a title fight against Israel Adesanya, Alex Pereira, or Israel Adesanya upon reclaiming the middleweight throne, Sean Strickland remained a dutiful employee of the UFC, accepting the call to put the gloves on and “do the man dance” whenever President Dana White required.
Which is precisely how he found himself in the prime position to make history.
After UFC 290 (International Fight Week), the middleweight division was in absolute chaos.
In what was considered a major upset, Australia’s Robert Whittaker crumbled to Dricus du Plessis by way of a second-round TKO during their title shot eliminator.
Ordinarily, pitting the South African against Israel Adesanaya — who’d been giving each other plenty of grief regarding who should be deemed “more African” — would be the stuff of UFC marketing gold.
There was just one problem. Actually… there were two.
Dana White wanted the title fight to headline Sydney’s UFC 293, the inaugural event of a multi-million-dollar three-fight/four-year deal with the NSW government, which had already been scheduled for a concerningly brief two months after UFC 290.
With little to no time for recovery or an adequate preparation camp, Dricus du Plessis pulled out, leaving the title fight without a willing challenger.
As UFC 293 fast approached, the organisation was left with extremely limited options — a consequence of unexpected circumstances, poor planning, and the fact that a reigning champion as active as Israel Adesanya had essentially lapped the division. Enter: Sean Strickland.
“UFC brass didn’t want to book this fight. Dragged their feet. Tried to book at least two other main events because they didn’t think Strickland was game,” revealed notable MMA journalist Ariel Helwani.
“Booked it a month ago because there were no options left. What a sport.”
If there’s one detail I cannot emphasise enough, it’s that Strickland was truly (truly) never part of the plan in any sense of the phrase.
In the lead-up to Adesanya and Strickland’s encounter at Qudos Bank Arena, the latter’s professional demise was pretty much a foregone conclusion (hence the ludicrous 7-to-1 Vegas odds); the unifying rationale being that his rather unorthodox employment of the Philly shell would be easy pickings for an elite striker of The Last Stylebender’s calibre.
But easy pickings he was not.
After coming within inches of finishing Israel Adesanya towards the end of Round 1, Sean Strickland would spend the remaining four rounds showcasing a masterclass of economical striking: constant forward pressure, automatic counters in every exchange, and almost effortless distance control.
The incumbent, on the other hand, was uncharacteristically flat-footed, anaemic in presence, and while he’s previously been known to proceed with caution in spaces, at UFC 293, Adesanya seemed altogether unwilling to engage. Outside of that, he was mainly pawing ineffectually at the air.
By the time the final buzzer sounded off, a new champion had been crowned. Another historic upset was in the books. Sean “Tarzan” Strickland had, after a long and arduous life, arrived at destiny’s doorstep.
Considering the current socio-political landscape, it’s completely understandable why corporate entities from just about every walk of life/every conceivable sector would choose to distance themselves from a potential ambassador as unhinged and publicly volatile as Sean Strickland.
He isn’t media trained. What you see is what you get. And short of slurs, what you get is often an unsavoury reminder of his troubled past. But the UFC would do well to embrace him, flaws and all — because in Sean Strickland we have an athlete who embodies everything that’s possible against all odds.
From the day he opened his eyes and drew his very first breath, nothing was ever guaranteed for him; his birthright was the dirt and broken glass on the ground, along with whatever aching bruise his father was kind enough to gift him.
Yet through sheer determination, the Californian pauper has risen to the immortal heights of middleweight king. That’s what this is ultimately about. That’s what makes mixed martial arts, the misunderstood haven for fringe misfits who dare to dream, such a beautiful sport.
And I won’t hear otherwise.
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