No, this is not a dream. Yes, that actually happened. Sean Strickland is the UFC middleweight champion of the world. In one of the most shocking results in MMA history, the brash American seized the belt with a clear-cut decision win over Israel Adesanya at UFC 293, befuddling the now-former champ at Qudos Bank Arena in Sydney, Australia.
Strickland’s stunning coronation headlined a violent night filled with explosive finishes, so with much to discuss, let’s dive right into our seven biggest takeaways from UFC 293.
1. If ever you wonder whether we’ve slipped into a simulation and are living out a real-life version of Idiocracy, how’s this for a fun fact: Sean Strickland is the new front-runner for Fighter of the Year. And it’ll take a mighty effort from one of the greats to unseat him off that perch.
Perhaps it’s only appropriate that in a year defined by chaos, the on-paper worst pay-per-view of 2023 wound up being the pay-per-view we’re most likely to remember once 2023 is over. Because somehow, implausibly, Strickland actually did it. The man who was a distant Plan B, the man who the UFC had to be convinced over and over again to give a shot at the belt, who entered the year on a two-fight losing streak low-lighted by one of the more embarrassing knockouts in recent memory, and who 10 weeks ago was fighting in an empty UFC APEX against an unranked unknown who still doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page — that man is now 3-0 in 2023 and flying home to Las Vegas with 12 pounds of gold snugly wrapped around his waist. How can we even begin to put this into context?
At the beginning of this past week, my colleagues on this wonderful website posed a simple question: Where would an Israel Adesanya loss at UFC 293 rank among the all-time great upsets? It was one of those topics you mull around in your brain for fun but don’t give any actual credence to, because why would you? We all have eyes and we all knew the score. Everyone understood what UFC 293 was supposed to be. So I responded that Strickland winning the strap would be a top 10 upset in MMA history, but nothing more. In a pre-Saturday world, I believed there was no chance Strickland could do anything to rival the kind of shock Matt Serra, Julianna Peña, and Michael Bisping delivered when they assumed their unlikely thrones. Of course, I said that assuming the method of a potential Strickland victory would be a wrestle-fest or flash knockout a la what nearly happened at the end of Round 1.
After watching Strickland thoroughly outclass one of MMA’s best-ever kickboxers on the feet while shooting for zero takedowns over the course of 25-minute striking clinic?
Yeah, I’m amending that. What we just witnessed last night is easily one of the top 5 biggest upsets in UFC history, and it may cross into top 3 territory once I get a few days of separation to let this all simmer in my brain, if only because literally zero people on Earth saw a roadmap quite like THIS coming. Sean Strickland out-struck Adesanya to the point where this post-fight quote — “There’s moments where he’s throwing punches where I’m like, ‘Am I fighting an amateur right now?’” — doesn’t even come off like trash talk, but rather just cold reality. Altogether, it’s one of the wildest outcomes MMA has ever seen.
Endless congratulations are in order for Strickland and Xtreme Couture’s Eric Nicksick, the latter of whom has long been one of the best coaches in the MMA world (and happens to have another widely dismissed long shot readying to box Tyson Fury in seven weeks). Regardless of what happens from here, those two authored a moment that will outlive them well beyond their years, a performance destined to forever be discussed in the same breathe as some of the most unexpected in the sport’s history.
On that note, though… what does happen from here?
2. Unsurprisingly, Dana White wasted little time on Saturday night announcing that he likes the idea of Strickland vs. Adesanya 2 next.
Perhaps this is an unpopular opinion, but I have no interest in seeing that. Adesanya has now lost two of his past three championship bouts, and unlike UFC 281, this one wasn’t a Hail Mary fifth-round comeback. It was the farthest thing from that — a pillar-to-post domination. Even Strickland himself couldn’t have dreamed up as thorough and convincing of a one-sided beatdown as played out in real life, because the truth of the matter?
The new champ broke Adesanya.
Rewatch that final minute again. Strickland marched forward doing whatever he pleased in there, taunting, and screaming and hurling obscenities at the supposed king of the division, daring him to make a move, all while Adesanya quite literally did *nothing* in return. The Izzy who swore to himself that he’d rather die in the cage before losing to Kelvin Gastelum ahead of the final round at UFC 236? Nowhere to be found.
Now we’re just supposed to forget that? No, this matchup is decided in my eyes. At least in the interim, I don’t need to see it again. Middleweight is suddenly a brand new world and every possible scenario has been thrown back onto the table. The entire top 10 are viable contenders to the throne overnight. This could go a hundred different directions — Paulo Costa and Robert Whittaker both have new life, Khamzat Chimaev has an even clearer path to the belt, etc. — but the scenario that’s suddenly the most intriguing to me? Dricus Du Plessis takes the strap from Strickland at some point down the line, then Adesanya returns to fulfill the grudge match in South Africa — only as challenger rather than champion. Can you imagine the scenes? The switch in dynamic once DDP is the one calling the shots?
However you slice it, middleweight is more interesting today than it was yesterday. I’m sure the UFC will do the UFC thing and give one of its biggest stars another chance at revenge, (even if this one feels more undeserved than most) but here’s a case where it wouldn’t hurt to let the division breathe for a second following the unexpected loss of a dominant champ.
3. I don’t ask for much, dear friends, but can Saturday’s result please, please, please be the final coffin nail the MMA world needs to stop prematurely proclaiming every single longtime champion as the greatest of all time? Call it an early Christmas present for your boy, because it’s a phenomena we can’t seem to escape over the past five or so years.
It’s pervasive everywhere. Remember the brief flicker in the timeline when people were starting to call Tyron Woodley the new welterweight GOAT? How about the Kamaru Usman GOAT moment? How’s that looking? It’s just silly. Israel Adesanya is 13-3 over his first 16 UFC bouts. He’s undoubtedly the second-most accomplished middleweight to ever do it. He’s authored some of the most memorable moments of his era. And that’s OK! That’s a better résumé that 99.9 percent of athletes who lace up a pair of four-ounce gloves! But this omnipresent rush to anoint every new hotness as The Best Ever not only disrespects the history of our sport, it disrespects the athletes still penning their own legacies, placing undue tribute on their laps only for that tribute to inevitably be ripped away when they lose in their fourth or fifth title defense. It’s almost as if — and bear with me here — we don’t know how these stories are going to end when they’re still in their middle chapters.
That’s all I’m saying. That it’d be lovely if we tried to keep this lesson in mind next time a new champ strings together a few impressive title defenses in a row. Pretty please?
3b. Y’all, Sean Strickland is the middleweight champion of the world.
Sorry, I know we already covered this. Just needed to write that sentence again to see how it looks. The verdict: Still looks pretty weird! MMA really is the wildest sport on Earth.
4. It’s a time-honored combat sports tradition for every era to have its super-sized heavyweight who’s more fun than good, but still manages to surprise you once in while.
You know exactly what I mean. The thiccboi who cuts weight to reach 266 pounds, gets dropped every other bout, survives off superhuman toughness and nuclear punching power, is never — ever — out of a fight, ultimately turns in some of the most vicious knockouts the human race has ever seen, and maybe even stumbles into title contention once or twice if that ol’ heavyweight volatility falls in his favor. It doesn’t hurt if they have a lovable gimmick too — think Mark Hunt’s laissez faire walkoffs or Derrick Lewis’ obsession with taking off his shorts. Tai Tuivasa seemingly inherited that mantle when he beat “The Black Beast” at his own game in 2022, but it’s been a precipitous fall for the Lord of the Shoey ever since.
Saturday’s setback against Alexander Volkov made it three straight losses for Tuivasa since that Lewis stunner, all of which ended in fairly gnarly stoppages. The last time “Bam Bam” dropped three straight in the UFC, joked that he lost his job. To be clear, that’s not what’s going to happen, nor should it. People simply love Tuivasa and the vibes he brings to a card too much, and it’s not as if losing to Volkov, Sergei Pavlovich, and Ciryl Gane is the same as losing to the 2023 version of the Arizona Cardinals. That being said, it’s also clear Tuivasa probably needs a brief respite before he continues taking on every terrifying monster on the UFC roster. Lewis did this all the time — he’d venture deep down into the rankings and face a Viktor Pesta or Chris Daukaus to reclaim his mojo before being thrown back at the elite.
5. We tend to obsessively fixate so much on the negatives anytime it comes to commission officials, it’s only fair to give credit where credit is due whenever the opposite arises.
To that point, oodles of credit are deserved for Marc Goddard and Herb Dean for the way they handled the final seconds of Carlos Ulberg vs. Da Un Jung. The veteran officials recognized something was amiss, appealed to a rare replay review, spotted the late Jung tapout and overturned what was originally going to be a decision into the first submission win of Ulberg’s career.
By any measure, it was the right call. It was also an encouraging example of how replay review can be applied to reach a correct result when cageside officials actually know what they’re doing, rather than some of the local jamokes we tend to get on these shows.
Bravo, to all involved.
(And an extra bravo to Ulberg. The impossibly handsome City Kickboxing product may actually be blossoming into a potential contender at 205 pounds. That’s five wins in a row now, the last four of which were finishes. And that Dominick Reyes callout? An up-and-coming fighter calling for a winnable and attainable fight against a ranked opponent who has a well-known name? Perfection. Can’t do much better in that spot. Book it, UFC.)
6. Look, I know we all wish “The Pleasure Man” was a better fighter so we could lob out hundreds of “Pleasure Man” innuendos every few months, but alas, even in this hour of great non-pleasuring, I think we can agree: Tyson Pedro’s brutal knockout and even more brutal post-fight celebration was cold as hell. Now THAT’S how you open a pay-per-view.
7. It was long overdue for the UFC’s powers that be to give Laura Sanko a shot on the commentary desk for a big pay-per-view, but good lord am I glad they finally did. Not only was Sanko a tremendous boon to the broadcast all night, her sharp eye and attention to detail also kept Daniel Cormier locked into his best self rather than the meandering, beers-with-the-bros style commentary we tend to get on UFC pay-per-views these days.
This is undoubtedly a sentence that’ll ruin my Twitter mentions for the next week, but feed me a steady diet of more Sanko and less Joe Rogan on these shows and I’ll be a happy man.