Five years after he was involved in a life-threatening motorcycle accident, five years after doctors told him he’d never be able to fight again, Sean Strickland had the UFC middleweight championship belt wrapped around his waist.
“What is this thing?” he asked multiple times, beaming, after UFC president Dana White put the belt on him in the Octagon after he scored a clear but stunning unanimous decision victory over Israel Adesanya in the main event of UFC 293 on Sunday in Sydney, Australia.
Adesanya closed as a -675 favorite but still went down to defeat in a bout that was never in doubt. Strickland nearly finished the fight at the end of the first round after dropping Adesanya with one of the best straight right hands you’ll ever see. It landed squarely on the chin and dropped Adesanya hard. Referee Marc Goddard could easily have stopped it, but he gave the legendary champion plenty of leeway and the fight continued to the second round.
Strickland only got stronger as the fight went on and took Adesanya completely out of his plan. Strickland moved forward relentlessly, while Adesanya seemed stiff and slow. Adesanya is one of the sport’s great counter strikers and has an almost magical way of drawing his opponent out and making him overcommit. At that point is when Adesanya usually is at his best.
He never really did much of anything, though, and his coach, Eugene Bareman, credited Strickland and a brilliant game plan.
“What Sean did was he made Israel very hesitant and that’s all credit to him,” Bareman said. “He bit down and threw every time Israel threw. He countered no matter what. Was there going to be a counter when Israel came in 50 percent of the time, 65 percent of the time? One hundred percent of the time, Sean was going to bite down and counter.
“And when you’re faced with that proposition, that’s very, very difficult. There’s a mental block that’s put up. You have to find a way to get around that mental block and [Adesanya] and I struggled with that all night.”
What the fight proved more than anything is that in mixed martial arts there is no such thing as a sure thing. No matter how expert one is, no matter how much film one has studied or how many fights one has watched, this sport is confounding to even its greatest experts.
You never know. It’s a reason why the sport has soared in popularity. No matter how bad things look, there’s always still a chance.
If there is one thing about Strickland, it’s that he’s never going to stop trying. But he’s a realist. Even though he referred to himself at the post-fight news conference as “one of the best strikers in the world,” he later admitted he had plenty of doubts.
Asked if it felt good to prove the naysayers wrong, Strickland didn’t take the bait.
“I think I proved myself wrong, you know?” Strickland said, grinning. “You watch Izzy go and f*** everybody up and then you walk through him pretty easily, it’s kind of weird.”
His coach, Eric Nicksick, had said before the fight that Strickland needed to be on his game and Adesanya needed to be off his.
The architect of the win, he said the plan was simple.
"We wanted to stay in the pocket, with Izzy on the fence line," Nicksick told Yahoo Sports. "We had to eliminate his ability to pull counter."
The unpredictability Strickland spoke of is what White has been selling ever since he and his partners closed on the UFC in January 2001 and became its principal owners.
He always gets frustrated when others question a match by saying one fighter has next-to-no chance. Experience has taught him otherwise.
“How f***ing crazy is this game?” White asked rhetorically at the post-fight news conference. “How crazy is this game? [For] 23 years, when I’m looking at the internet and reading all the bulls*** and all these people who think they know about fighting — and I’m not sitting here acting like this is what I thought was going to happen here tonight — but what do I always say? Never judge a fight until it happens. You never know what is going to happen in this bats***, nutty sport.”
Strickland is loud, not shy with his opinions and often outrageous. He took the fight on short notice when Dricus Du Plessis withdrew with what he said was a foot injury, and he expressed confidence 100% of the time when he spoke in public.
Behind the scenes, in his private moments, he had doubts. There are always doubts. The greatest who ever did it have had doubts, so why wouldn’t a guy like Strickland have doubts?
He’d watched Adesanya plenty of times. He knew why there was talk heading into the fight why many were saying Adesanya was closing in on the legendary Anderson Silva as the greatest middleweight in MMA history.
He admitted as much in the Octagon after it was over.
But he also recounted what he said was a weird conversation in the Octagon with Adesanya, who objected before the fight to comments Strickland made about his dog, who had died.
Strickland then said that he'd once killed a dog. He said he wouldn't talk about it because people would get angry at him on social media, but without prompting, he told the story.
He was hiking in the mountains with his dogs when a couple of pit bulls came after them.
"These vicious f***ing pit bulls came running at my dog," Strickland said. "I had a gun so, boom, I f***ing plugged one. ... But it was self-defense, guys."
Adesanya wasn't so cheery or in a joking mood, but he has been through this before. He was 20-0 in 2021 when he chose to move up to light heavyweight and challenge then-champion Jan Blachowicz for that belt. Adesanya lost a close decision. In November, he faced long-time kickboxing rival Alex Pereira at Madison Square Garden in New York, and was knocked out in the final round after carrying the lead into the fifth.
And then, on Saturday, he closed as a -675 favorite and was expected to cruise, but something happened.
He appeared briefly at the post-fight news conference, though he didn’t take questions. He said, “I had a different plan for this, but life throws curveballs at you. Win or lose, I wasn't going to say much anyway but right now I lost tonight to the better man on the night. And I just want to go be with people who care about me, my team, and they’re waiting for me.”
And that was it. He seemed as shocked as anyone about the result.
Strickland reveled in the win, but had no plans to party or be outrageous. He was tired and hungry.
“I just want to get to my room and get something to eat,” he said.
He’ll do so now with a much brighter future, with far better economic outlook. He’s good at self-deprecating humor, and said in answer to one question, “What do you expect? I’m a guy with a GED. I can barely f***ing write. Give me a pen and paper and tell me to write some s*** and I can barely … Come on.”
When it ended, he headed to his room to eat, the same guy in a lot of ways but with a different life forever.
Scoring one of the biggest upsets in UFC history will do that.