It was a disconcerting sight: Sean Strickland, with his hands low and a sheepish look across his face, shuffling towards one of the most devastating punchers in the UFC. There is no ‘but’ to follow; Alex Pereira swatted the American down to a knee with a signature left hook, Strickland’s arms flailing helplessly before he stood up into a right cross, which sent him cascading dangerously to the canvas.
The manner of this demise at the heavy hands of the Brazilian brought to mind a mythical image: that of a lemming wandering mindlessly off a cliff. Yet Strickland’s approach until that point had actually been understandable – not as understandable as grappling with Pereira, as most expected him to, but sensible in a certain sense. The southpaw was pressing forward relentlessly with constant output, fighting behind a jolting jab, trying to prevent Pereira from setting his feet to muster power.
Pereira, however, exploited Strickland’s reflexes. With kicks and jabs to the body, Pereira gradually lured Strickland’s habitual parries away from his head. Then, with one subtle, feinted crouch, Pereira created space to curve a left hook onto the chin of the American.
With that, Strickland was undone – as was his six-fight win streak, which had stretched from 2022 back to 2018. In his next fight, the 32-year-old was again beaten, losing a split decision to Jared Cannonier. Just a few weeks prior, Pereira had stopped champion Israel Adesanya against the fence, moving to 3-0 overall against his old kickboxing rival, despite the latter’s vast experiential advantage in MMA.
Adesanya would bounce back five months later, regaining the middleweight title at the first attempt with his own knockout of Pereira, who would make a quick turnaround with a successful debut at light-heavyweight in July. All the while, Strickland followed the examples set by Adesanya and Pereira, bouncing back with a victory; two, in fact. First, the controversial, outspoken American would outpoint Nassourdine Imavov in January, stepping in as a late-notice replacement. Then, in July, Strickland proved wrong many fans by stopping Abus Magomedov in the second round, before making an impassioned callout of Adesanya – whom he has mocked regularly in recent years, from a distance and from mere metres away.
Still, the UFC seemed set to overlook Strickland, who once expressed his desire to ‘kill’ an opponent someday (not that they would have overlooked him because of that or any kind of controversial comment, based on past cases). “If I killed somebody in the ring, it’d f***ing make me very happy,” he said in 2021, demonstrating that he is better at employing his fists – and he is often criticised for that ability, even – than using any filter.
“Like, if Uriah [Hall] hits me and maybe I have a brain aneurysm and die, you’ll hear me saying: ‘I’m okay, that’s a good death.’ We’re all going to die sometime. You know, might as well end in a good way. We’re all going to the same place, man. It’s either gonna be then or now. Just enjoy it.” Meanwhile, his teasing of Adesanya, who is as flamboyant outside the ring as he is in it, has relied heavily on outdated jibes with an uncomfortable undertone. In response to one recurring slight, Adesanya has vowed to knock out Strickland with fists adorned with painted nails.
And the Nigerian-New Zealander, 34, will get the chance to do that on Saturday, when he defends his middleweight title in the main event of UFC 293 in Sydney. For Strickland’s campaign to fight Adesanya eventually paid off, specifically when Dricus Du Plessis – towards whom the champion holds a grave grudge – was taken out of the title picture due to injury. Adesanya vs Du Plessis may yet come to pass, and if it does, Adesanya will likely have more harsh words for the South African, at whom he has already lashed out viciously. It is worth noting at this point that Adesanya himself has gotten away with distasteful comments before, and that many fans believe he has misconstrued certain points made by Du Plessis.
In any case, first up for him is Strickland. Adesanya has been the betting favourite in all but one of his UFC bouts, even his rematch with Pereira, and that is no different against Strickland. The “Last Stylebender” is expected to dissect and damage his challenger at will. While Adesanya possesses less power than Pereira, he is an even more dynamic striker than the Brazilian, and he can employ the kind of counter-strikes that Strickland risks walking straight into – if the latter’s approach against Pereira is anything to go by.
Adesanya’s fans are excited by that prospect. Many of Strickland’s fans have been more enthused by the verbal warfare than the impending physical warfare. Some have forgiven Strickland for certain comments due to his recollections of a concerning, upsetting relationship with his late father. Adesanya, who lives for nights and atmospheres like Saturday’s in Sydney, will not allow himself to forgive Strickland for a single word. The champion has always harnessed anything and everything to hype himself up for a title showdown.
The build to UFC 293 has already threatened to turn ugly. Adesanya, famed for his beautifully destructive performances, will hope to turn things ugly for Strickland when the cage door closes.