Strickland defeated Israel Adesanya this past Saturday at UFC 293 to claim the middleweight title, defying long odds in the process and winning in a way that few thought possible. Not only did Strickland stand and strike with “The Last Stylebender,” he soundly beat Adesanya at his own game en route to a clear decision victory.
Adesanya’s coach Eugene Bareman suggested that his fighter had an “off night” while still giving Strickland credit for his performance, but Curtis explained on The MMA Hour that everyone is thrown off the first time they go toe-to-toe with Strickland.
“If you watch Sean spar anybody, it goes very similar to that,” Curtis said. “I’ve seen him spar a bunch of people. You can get better fighting against Sean, but every time someone has their first rounds with Sean, it goes exactly this way. Where people are like, ‘What the hell is going on?’ So everybody’s like, ‘Izzy looked off.’ I’ve seen this a thousand times. You can get better at fighting him, but when you initially run into him you are just confused.
“Everything he does is, on paper, wrong. It’s not the way you’re supposed to move. He moves weird, he throws weird, he kung fu blocks, he’s really good at shutting down the things you’re supposed to be good at. You hear at one point Izzy say, ‘I can’t find my jab.’ It’s hard to find your jab against Sean because he creates so much random traffic with his jab or when you start jabbing he’s parrying weird, he’s kung fu blocking.
“In most combat sports, especially kickboxing and boxing, everything is predicated off of your jab. Everything sets up with your jab, so when he just takes that away from you, no, it’s not there, you can’t out-jab Sean. He’s going to win that battle. He’s either going to counter you or just make your jab pointless. Look at Izzy, he’s throwing jabs, he’s getting his arm blocked up high, a few times he’d throw and Sean just bats his arm up and away. … So all that bulls*** about Izzy looked different, no, you look confused like I looked confused and everyone else looks confused when they spar Sean because it’s like, ‘What are you doing?’ No, that’s bulls***, I’ve seen this happen for seven years and this is what he does.”
Though Strickland was not the first option for the UFC 293 title fight—No. 1 contender Dricus Du Plessis and Adesanya have been trending towards a clash for months, but injuries prevented Du Plessis from taking the booking—his work at 185 pounds put him on the short list and when the matchmakers came calling, he pounced on the opportunity. Strickland is 8-2 since returning to the division in 2020.
Curtis, a training partner at Xtreme Couture in Las Vegas, has been with Strickland for much of his journey, but even he was surprised that Strickland pulled it off in the manner that he did.
“Sean is probably the toughest human being that I’ve met when it comes to fighting,” Curtis said. “I love fighting, he’s probably the only person I genuinely know who enjoys fighting more than I do. I knew he could win this fight, I didn’t think he would make it look that easy. I don’t think he thought that he would make it look that easy.
“We all knew he could win, we were like, ‘Sean’s tough as nails, he’s patient, he’s aggressive, he can do this. He’s got to make it an ugly war and get Izzy to fight a dumb fight.’ No one ever thought that he would out-kickbox Izzy. I’m watching and I’m like, ‘This is not what you trained, oh my God.’”
Curtis credits coach Danny Davis Jr. with having Strickland emphasize checking Adesanya’s low kicks and hand fighting, two aspects of the fight that allowed Strickland to dominate the action. Adesanya struggled with establishing any sort of offense or establishing range, while Strickland rarely appeared to have any difficulty setting up his attacks.
According to Strickland, wrestling was also an important part of the game plan, not that one could tell from how the fight played out.
“Honestly, the pressure, yeah, but we really hoped he would wrestle,” Curtis said. “Watching Sean spar, he would shoot, but he was still just kickboxing people, fighting like Sean, so you knew that was going to be a part of it but you’re hoping that he’d mix in wrestling. Make it hard, drag him down, wear him out.
“Everybody’s like, ‘Is he going to wrestle?’ I was like, ‘He’s trained to wrestle, but it’s Sean, so he’s going to get in there and…’ I said he’s probably going to in there and have a kickboxing match. Lo and behold, he went in there and he freaking won a kickboxing match against Izzy. I don’t think anyone saw that coming.”
Strickland didn’t just beat Adesanya, he almost finished him in the first round. After walking Adesanya down for much of the frame, Strickland landed a crisp 1-2 combination that dropped Adesanya and followed with a flurry that the now-former champion managed to survive.
Curtis was part of a UFC watch party during the main event and his stunned reaction was streamed live to the world. Like, everyone else, he’s not sure what he would have done had Strickland actually ended the contest so quickly.
“People don’t realize, Sean actually hits hard,” Curtis said. “It’s not like “he’s going to knock you out in one punch” hard, but it’s enough thudding to where it stuns you. So when Izzy went down I went, ‘OK, he’s down, he’s landing shots’ and part of me was like ‘Oh my God if he finishes Izzy in one round, the world’s going to implode.’
“You’re excited and it’s crazy but then you’ve got to remember the Pereira fight and I’m like, ‘Bro, don’t take a bad risk here.’ You’re kind of like, ‘Win the fight, win the fight, but please don’t screw up here.’ And it’s crazy because I’ve never seen someone bat a thousand like that, he just did everything right. I don’t think he made a mistake that fight.”