Unapologetic: Sean Strickland teammates, coaches detail what it’s like to have the UFC champ in the gym

Love him or hate him, Sean Strickland never puts on a show for the cameras.

The brash and often outlandish demeanor that the UFC’s reigning middleweight champion carries during press conferences, interviews, and over social media is exactly the same person who spends the majority of his time training at Xtreme Couture in Las Vegas, according to teammates and coaches who spoke to MMA Fighting. The gym, founded by UFC Hall of Famer Randy Couture, serves as home to dozens of professional fighters, including Strickland after he officially relocated there full-time in recent years.

Prior to that, Strickland was almost nomadic with his training, bouncing from gym to gym and working with a variety of coaches and sparring partners. At least part of the reason for that was because he got booted out of Dan Henderson’s Team Quest facility in Temecula, Calif.; the UFC and PRIDE FC legend claimed in October that Strickland was “too disrespectful to teammates” to allow him to continue training there.

Sam Alvey got to know Strickland during those days at Team Quest and maintains a good relationship with the UFC middleweight champion today. He admits that Henderson’s words, while harsh, were also true — at least as far as some people were concerned.

“When he was training at Team Quest, he was a wonderful teammate to me and the people that trained with him,” Alvey said. “The people that refused to train with him, [it’s because] Sean goes hard. There’s no, ‘We’re going to go 50 percent.’ No, it’s 100 percent or nothing.

“To the people that didn’t want to go 100 percent, which is understandable, he was a bit of d*** to them. He would probably admit it, too, and he would probably add in a few more adjectives as well.”

Concerns over Strickland’s behavior prompted Henderson to reach out to Xtreme Couture head coach Eric Nicksick before he began training there.

Henderson wasn’t trying to sabotage Strickland, but rather he wanted to offer Nicksick a word of warning — along with a healthy a dose of cautious optimism about the positives Strickland could potentially add to the team under the right set of circumstances.

“He’s like, ‘I just wanted to give you the heads up, we had to kick him out because of X,Y, and Z,’” Nicksick said. “But to Dan’s defense, he was like, ‘I think you can help him, and if you can give him the right type of guidance, he could be a very good teammate to you guys.’

“I had known Sean well before that. He was more cross-training with us rather than being full-time. I think, if anything, Dan was calling me in regards to, ‘I’m warning you how to handle him, but these are the things to kind of look out for,’ and then he gave me the opportunity to learn how to coach him and how to approach him, really.”

Since relocating to Las Vegas and calling Xtreme Couture home, Strickland has been a fixture at the gym on a daily basis. He never seems to call in sick and rarely misses an opportunity to get into a fight.

His attitude about relentless training sessions hasn’t changed much either, but Xtreme Couture team captain Brad Tavares promises that’s a welcome addition to the gym, especially for fighters who need that extra push. Tavares said Strickland remains just as unfiltered as ever and never bites his tongue when it comes to how he feels. That may rub some people the wrong way, but the 23-time UFC veteran is quick to point out that they’re not competing in the Ultimate Feelings Championship.

“I think he’s a great teammate,” Tavares said. “If you’re sensitive and your f****** feelings get hurt, then you’re not going to like Sean. Simple as that. If you’re not a p**** and you can get past what he’s saying — not even what he’s saying, but how he’s saying it, that’s just how he is — if you can get past that, then you really see he’s actually trying to help you. He really is an addition and a plus for the team.

“If you can get past that, you’ll like Sean. If you’re sensitive and your feelings get hurt, you’re not going to like it. That’s just how it goes.”

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UFC and Bellator veteran Max Rohskopf promises his experiences with Strickland have always been productive. While the UFC champ may be quick to offer his unabashed opinions before or after training sessions, Rohskopf claims Strickland isn’t mean-spirited or hateful, but rather just a little unconventional compared to a lot of other fighters in the gym.

“He would say something crazy and wild, and someone next to me would be like, ‘He’s being mean.’ No, he’s trying to push you,” Rohskopf said. “Sean has a big heart. He probably won’t admit it all the time. He’ll say, ‘That stuff’s for p******,’ but I can see right through him. He has a big heart. It’s just how he shows it is not typical and normal. There’s nothing wrong with that.

“I could see if you’re a little insecure and you don’t like to train hard, you’re going to get ran out. Growing up wrestling, especially wrestling at NC State, that’s how we were, so I just relate to it really, really well. I loved training with Sean. We’d get into shouting matches, but that’s fine. That’s normal. That’s how you grow as a team.”

The complementary words from teammates at Xtreme Couture don’t mean that Strickland ends every practice with high fives and hugs. Fighters rarely want to give an inch, especially in sparring, and Strickland is no stranger to getting drawn into extracurricular battles.

“He and Chris Curtis are best friends — I’ve seen them full-on fight in the gym before, two or three times,” Alvey said of Strickland. “They just rub each other wrong that day, and they’re like, ‘Screw it, I’m getting a knife!’ Then they’re best friends.

“Sean would kill for Chris Curtis. Sean would do whatever he could for his friend, and that’s how Sean has always been.”

Toxicity in the gym can sometimes fester and spiral out of control, however. Look no further than former UFC interim welterweight champion Colby Covington and his relationship with the coaches and fighters at American Top Team in Florida.

Many praised Covington as an ideal teammate in the gym, but his constant talk trash eventually spread to more and more people working alongside him everyday. The battles with past training partners such as Jorge Masvidal and Dustin Poirier grew so nasty that he eventually had to leave the gym and permanently split with the only team he’d ever known.

Unlike Covington, Strickland doesn’t specifically target teammates, though those altercations have unfolded in the past. He ripped fellow UFC veteran Khalil Rountree during an appearance on Joe Rogan’s podcast and then came face-to-face with Rountree when the light heavyweight contender visited Xtreme Couture.

The confrontation didn’t end in bloodshed. It doesn’t sound like the two fighters will be exchanging Christmas cards next year, either, but eventually cooler heads prevailed. Rohskopf doubts things would ever get ugly enough that the behavior could negatively affect the team.

“I’d be super surprised if anything like that ever happened to Sean,” Rohskopf said. “Because if there’s a legitimate issue or problem with something he said, or how he’s acting or whatever, it can normally be talked out with him.

“At the end of the day when it comes to fighting and being on a team, he’s one of the best teammates you can have, and the only way you’re going to get mad, or it’s going to get toxic is if you’re being a little too soft about something. I don’t see it being [that way], at least at Xtreme Couture, where it’s going to get toxic.”

Even his head coach tries not to pay too much attention to what Strickland says, because in Nicksick’s opinion, actions always speak louder than words.

“He says outlandish s*** all the time,” Nicksick said. “Half the stuff, I don’t even listen to or look at. They’ll say, ‘Did you see what Sean tweeted?’ And I’ll say, ‘Hell no, I’m not trying to follow him on Twitter!’

“But at the end of the day, I judge a man’s character by what I see in the room and how he treats his friends and family and teammates, myself included, and he’s been nothing but a dream to have.”

For all the attention Strickland gets for his punishing sparring sessions, and the verbal brutality he’s happy to dish out, those closest to him still speak his praises.

According to Nicksick, when the Xtreme Couture headman had to travel to Saudi Arabia to help Francis Ngannou during the final weeks of Ngannou’s training camp for Tyson Fury, it was Strickland who picked up the slack among the team in his absence.

“He ran all my practices while I was gone,” Nicksick said. “He kind of took over my role, and everybody for the most part loved his practices and loved his energy. He upholds the standard that we ask at Xtreme Couture. I couldn’t ask for a better teammate and a better guy to have in the room.

“We had four or five guys coming up that had fights, Sean had no fight, he had no reason to be in here, but he’s in here every day helping his teammates get ready and get prepared, because these guys helped him prepare for his title fight. It just goes to show you what kind of guy he is.”

Alvey has personally seen that growth in Strickland after first working with him solely as a training partner and then witnessing him lead practices at Xtreme Couture. Alvey adds that Strickland is fiercely loyal — the champ may not talk about it often, but there’s no doubt in Alvey’s mind that Strickland would go to war for anyone crazy enough to cross his friends.

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“I spent the last part of my camp at Xtreme Couture, and he changed,” Alvey said. “Five years ago, he would never done what he is doing now, and it’s so cool to see it. It’s so much fun to see him get guys together and shout, ‘Xtreme on three,’ and start jogging, doing everything a coach would do. It was so much fun to see him mature in that role.

“To those people that are in his wolf pack, he would die for them. He may not even believe it, but he is a good dude. I’ve known him for a long time now and I know every time he gets on the microphone, he says, ‘I’m an a******, I’m this, I’m that.’ You’re really not, Sean. You’re a pretty good dude.”

Chances are Strickland won’t pat himself on the back after hearing that his coaches and friends showed him support and showered him with compliments. It’s more likely he’ll throw out some self-deprecating humor mixed with a few choice expletives and make a few jokes about his fellow Xtreme Couture fighters.

Tavares already knows he’ll take no offense to anything Strickland says. In his eyes, there’s something to appreciate about that kind of brutal honesty.

“He f****** has a weird way of saying s***, and people that are easily offended aren’t going to want to listen, but other than that, if you’re not a p****, you’re going to f****** like the guy,” Tavares said.

“With Sean, the person that you see is exactly who he is. If he is going to f****** say something, he is going to do it. I think everybody saw that at the fights a couple of weeks ago. Dricus [du Plessis] is right behind him, probably yapping, talking s*** — and talk s***, get hit. It is what it is.”

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