After competing in the middleweight division for two bouts following his UFC signing in 2014, Sean Strickland dropped to welterweight in a bid to chase championship contention at 170 pounds. But it wasn’t until he returned to 185 in 2020 that his fortunes started to trend upward as he made it all the way to the top of the world. Simon Head looks back at five of the key matchups that propelled Strickland to championship gold at 185 pounds.
After his move up to middleweight, Strickland picked up wins over Jack Marshman and Brendan Allen, then outpointed the notoriously tricky Krzysztof Jotko. His reward was his first UFC main event, but he was given another difficult style matchup.
Uriah Hall carried the sort of striking power to end a fight in an instant, but also fought in a very reserved, compact style that offered very few openings for his opponents. But Strickland’s controlled pressure proved to be very effective as he boxed from range and defeated “Primetime” with superior volume to claim a shutout win on two of the three cards as he earned scores of 50-44, 50-45, 49-46 to extend his win streak to five and secure victory in the biggest fight of his career to that point.
A win in his first main event saw Strickland given another headlining assignment, and once again he used all five rounds to defeat another difficult opponent in former Cage Warriors champion and longtime contender Jack Hermansson.
Strickland earned scores of 49-46, 49-46, 47-48 to claim a split-decision victory and make it six wins in a row inside the Octagon, but he admitted after the fight that he wasn’t at all happy with his display.
“I’m sorry guys,” Strickland told reporters after his win.
“I was being a pansy. I should have stayed in the pocket and thrown. Maybe I let the pressure get to me. I was fighting like a b***h. I think I just let the win bonus get the better of me. I should have stayed in the pocket and thrown more.”
He may not have been a huge fan of his performance against Hermansson, but Strickland’s win showed that he was progressing up the ranks of the UFC’s middleweight division and. And, with back-to-back wins in UFC main events, the UFC brass had seen enough to convince them that he was ready to be thrust into a serious contender fight, and a bout with former two-division Glory kickboxing world champion Alex Pereira, during UFC International Fight Week 2022.
Strickland’s star was growing, and his larger-than-life performance during the set-piece press conference ahead of UFC 276, where he beefed with Israel Adesanya on stage, gave a glimpse of a rivalry that was to come. But first, he had to deal with Pereira. It didn’t go well.
Ahead of the bout, it seemed like the whole MMA world knew that Strickland’s best path to victory over the elite kickboxer was to take him off his feet by utilizing his well-drilled, but rarely-used, wrestling. Even his teammate at Xtreme Couture, Chris Curtis, told me during fight week that he had no idea what Strickland would actually do once the cage door closed on fight night.
As it turned out, Strickland opted to “do the man dance” with Poatan, as he chose to stand and strike with the Brazilian. It proved to be a catastrophically bad decision. Pereira flattened Strickland mid-way through the opening round to score a vicious knockout and move on to a fight with Adesanya, who defeated Jared Cannonier on the same card. It may have been a defeat, but the entire week in Las Vegas showed that Strickland had turned into something of an anti-hero among a section of the UFC’s fanbase. An unlikely star had been born and, despite his defeat at the hands of Pereira, all eyes would be on Strickland when he made his Octagon return.
Strickland returned and fell to a second defeat as he lost a split-decision verdict to Jared Cannonier at UFC Fight Night: Cannonier vs. Strickland in December 2022. But he bounced back with a strong showing on short notice as he stepped in to replace an injured Kelvin Gastelum against Nassourdine Imavov at the UFC Apex.
The short notice nature of the bout meant the matchup was contested at 205 pounds, and Strickland controlled the majority of the action to run out the unanimous decision winner with scores of 49-36, 49-36, 48-47.
The win might not have delivered any highlight reel moments, but the fact that he stepped in on short notice to save a main event would have been particularly well received by the UFC brass, who gave him another UFC Apex main event, this time with a full run-up to prepare, as he faced German prospect Abus Magomedov.
The fight appeared to be set up for Strickland to go out and stake his claim for a shot at the UFC middleweight title, and he delivered, right on cue.
Strickland was simply too sharp, too slick, too good for Magomedov as the American looked levels above a man who had lost just once in his previous 14 outings and headed into the matchup off the back of a 19-second knockout of Dustin Stoltzfus on his Octagon debut.
In the end, it wasn’t even close, as Strickland worked an opening, then overwhelmed his man with punches before dropping him, then finishing him with ground strikes in the second round.
The level of opponent may not have been the highest, but the clinical way in which Strickland put him away made him a compelling option to face Israel Adesanya for the undisputed title.
Adesanya was riding high after bouncing back from his title loss to old rival Pereira by knocking out the Brazilian in their UFC title rematch. Many expected Adesanya to claim an easy win over Strickland, but those people didn’t include Strickland or his coach, Eric Nicksick.
Strickland got his shot as a result of an injury to South African contender Dricus du Plessis, and the American stepped up and produced the best performance of his career to win four out of the five rounds on all three scorecards to claim a sensational victory and capture the undisputed UFC middleweight championship in Sydney, Australia.
After the fight, Strickland, overcome by emotion, asked Daniel Cormier, “Am I dreaming? Am I going to wake up? Somebody hit me!
“Never in a million years did I think I would be here. I don't f*****g cry much but I'm trying to keep my s**t together right now.
“You don’t fight that guy with that many highlight knockouts. He’s beaten the majority of my friends pretty easily. I was even kinda doubting myself at times, but I’ve gotta say, the fans in Australia, you guys motivated me. I’m not even joking around. When I heard you guys yelling, it fueled me.
“I worked my ass off. I give up so many brain cells to the MMA gods every day. I thought I'd be walking away a little bloody, a little broken up, I'm a little shocked that didn't happen. This is the first time I'm lost for words, guys!
“Just remember, this gold around my waist doesn't mean s**t. Your home life, how you live your life, matters way more than any f*****g title. And I'm living better for you guys, through you guys, thank you!”...