Monday Mailbag: Welcome to the Upside Down, Sean Strickland is UFC middleweight champion

Big news in MMA this week! Enormous news. Frankly, it’s Earth-shattering stuff. So insane that if you asked me a week ago, I would have said you were crazy, that it could never happen, and that there would be riots on the streets were it to come to pass. And yet, here we are: We changed the name of this column.

That’s right, I’ve been informed that “Hot Tweets” is not a suitable name for such a recurring piece of posting. The words “incredibly stupid” and “gratingly incoherent” may have been used. I’ll admit, I was taken aback. Feelings were hurt, shouting was done, and in the end none of it mattered, this is our new reality, one where this column is simply called a mailbag. I never thought I’d see the day.

Oh, and Sean Strickland whomped Israel Adesanya for 25 minutes to become the new UFC middleweight champion on Saturday. Let’s talk about it

Sean Strickland, UFC middleweight champion of the world

Dude, I don’t know. Two days later and I’m still not entirely sure what I just witnessed. Strickland didn’t beat Adesanya through some fluke or lucky punch or divine intervention, he whipped his ass. This is a guy who 14 months ago was staring up at the lights after Alex Pereira obliterated him and at the start of this year was on a two-fight losing streak! A man who two months ago was only a -150 betting favorite over Abus Magomedov! And he went into Sydney and wailed on Izzy like a rented mule. I’m befuddled. I’m confused. My flabber is gasted. 2023 is the strangest timeline.

Upset of the Ever?

As things stand right now, I view Strickland’s win over Adesanya as the second biggest upset in MMA history (behind Matt Serra over Georges St-Pierre, which has all other upsets in a stranglehold and probably always will). Nobody was giving Strickland a chance to win this one. I myself wrote an elaborate article saying Strickland had a snowball’s chance in heck of pulling off the upset (whoops!) and I was far from the only one. Even Strickland’s own coach, Eric Nicksick, said Adesanya was a terrible fight for them! And then they turned around and whomped him. For me, this is a bigger upset than just about anything I’ve ever seen.

That being said, things like this are viewed historically, and there is a very real chance that the perspective around this one changes dramatically over the next few years. For starters, Strickland looked incredible in the fight and there’s every possibility he’s turned a corner in his career. He’s only 32 years old after all, and he’s working with one of the best camps in the world. And again, this wasn’t an accidental win. Strickland put Adesanya in a box and never let him out, cutting the cage brilliantly, taking away his weapons, and beating him to the punch over and over again. Strickland straight up gave the best striker in MMA a boxing lesson. Maybe he’s just good now, and if that turns out to be the case, this will drop down the list of great upsets.

On the other side of things, there’s an equally strong possibility that Adesanya is past his prime and we’re about to find that out. “The Last Stylebender” is only 34 years old but he’s been fighting professionally for 13 years. That’s around the time you start to see the wear and tear of combat sports start to take hold, and Adesanya has been particularly active over his career. Across boxing, kickboxing, and MMA, Adesanya has 113 professional fights, not to mention countless hours sparring and training in the gym. That’s simply a ton of mileage on the body, and at some point, the bill comes due. Is Adesanya starting to decline? We won’t know for a few more fights, but the first thing to go on aging fighters is the ability to pull the trigger and Adesanya looked stuck in the mud all Saturday. That could just be Strickland putting on the fight of his career, or it could be indicative of something larger. If it’s the latter, then this upset will become a little less impressive over the ensuing years.

More upset talk

Considering I’m taking a major L with regard to my prediction of this fight, now is a great time to remind everyone that I called Julianna Peña upsetting Amanda Nunes. Because of that, obviously my answer is that Strickland’s win is a bigger upset, but also, I think it bears out across the board (at least for now, see above question). Just about everybody was picking Nunes to beat Peña, but even those people picking Nunes could envision a path to victory for Peña. That’s not the case here. I’m sure someone picked Strickland to win because of the law of large numbers, but I saw some of the smartest people in the space come up with blanks as to how Strickland could actually win. And absolutely no one thought he could pull off the upset by just out-boxing him for 25 minutes. Wild times.

Immediate rematch?

In the aftermath of UFC 293, Dana “I don’t matchmake on fight night” White said that a rematch between Strickland and Adesanya makes the most sense. Respectfully, that’s the dumbest s*** I’ve ever heard.

There are two instances where immediate rematches of fights are acceptable: The fight was an actual robbery, or after a rematch where the fighters split the first two encounters. That’s it. Long-reigning champions don’t deserve automatic rematches for fights they lose, because they lost! Fighting has stakes! That’s the whole point of this! You’re only as good as your last fight and your last fight is a freaking L. Wear it, get back on the horse, get a win, and then you can run it back. Allowing champions immediate rematches makes it so that any fighter trying to win a title now has two beat someone twice. That’s bulls*** and it cheapens the entire endeavor.

Compare Julianna Peña and Holly Holm. Peña and Holm authored two of the biggest upsets in MMA history. Peña was forced to immediately rematch Amanda Nunes, got massacred, and is widely viewed as a fluke champion — a speed bump in the story of Nunes. In contrast, Holm upset Ronda Rousey, dropped the title to Miesha Tate in her next fight, and now is just generally thought of as a former champion and her upset is looked at as the momentous occasion. If instead she ran it back with Rousey and got armbarred in the first round, things would be entirely different. That’s why immediate rematches suck. The new champion earned their flowers, making the former champion earn their spot back atop the line.

More rematch talk

Standing by everything I said above, if I’m Strickland, I am for sure lobbying for the rematch. For one, a rematch with Adesanya does the best business, and for two, the other top middleweight contenders would appear to be harder fights for Strickland.

I’m extremely doubtful that Strickland is the best middleweight on Earth, but after Saturday, I’ve got a fair amount of confidence that he’s better than Adesanya. That’s wild to say given how adamant I was before UFC 293 that Strickland had no chance, but hey, we learn from our mistakes. Again, Strickland didn’t land a lucky punch and Adesanya didn’t roll an ankle bouncing around; Strickland thumped him comprehensively. Heading into a rematch, Adesanya would need to make wholesale changes or it would probably happen again. Could he do it? Of course! He’s an exceptional fighter. But we now know Strickland can beat Adesanya so I’d put my trust in that. Dricus du Plessis, Khamzat Chimaev, and Paulo Costa are all the devils you don’t know, and less marketable fights. Take the money.

Dricus du Plessis

Unfortunately, and through no fault of his own, DDP is a massive loser. In any rational, meritocratic world, du Plessis is the No. 1 contender with a bullet. He manhandled Robert Whittaker, who was the keeper of the title-contender keys at middleweight, and he should have been the man to fight Adesanya. Instead, promotional interests intervened and now here we are.

DDP is already lobbying for his shot at the crown, but it seems exceedingly unlikely that he’s going to get it. Adesanya appears to be getting his rematch, and heading into UFC 293, Dana White not so subtly suggested that he was going to give Khamzat Chimaev a title shot (purely out of spite for DDP having the audacity to not turn around and fight again in two months). That puts du Plessis as third in line for a shot despite clearly being the most deserving. The MMA Gods (and UFC brass) can be cruel masters.

As for the future of the middleweight division, I’m not sure. I doubt Strickland holds onto the title for long, but much of my thoughts come down to how Chimaev looks against Paulo Costa. If Chimaev keeps doing Chimaev things, then he’s going to win the belt and defend for at least a few fights. But if Chimaev struggles with Costa’s physicality and pressure, then maybe DDP is the future standard bearer of the division. In the immediate future, I doubt anyone holds the belt for five or six defenses, but that’s because doing so is nearly impossible. The best bet for a truly dominant title reign is probably Bo Nickal, but we’re still a few years away from that.

Thanks for reading, and thank you for everyone who sent in Tweets! Do you have any burning questions about things at least somewhat related to combat sports? Then you’re in luck, because you can send your Tweets to me, @JedKMeshew, and I will answer my favorite ones! Doesn’t matter if they’re topical or insane, just so long as they are good. Thanks again and see y’all next week.

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