"If I didn’t think I could be a UFC champion, I would quit fighting - I would do something else." - Sean Strickland
Despite earning a first-round submission win over Ultimate Fighter veteran Bubba McDaniel in his promotional debut back in March, Sean Strickland still doesn’t necessarily identify himself as a UFC fighter.
At least not on Facebook.
“I’ll be honest - I’m really hard on myself with everything I do in fighting,” begins the unbeaten Riverside, California native. “I haven’t changed my Facebook status - my occupation - to Ultimate Fighting Championship yet because I feel like I have such a long road to go to prove to myself that I belong there and that I am a UFC fighter. It was a good fight, but to me, that was just a baby-step. I have such a long way to go.”
That statement reveals a great deal about Strickland’s approach to his craft and his mindset heading into his sophomore appearance inside the Octagon.
Tabbed to replace Tor Troeng on two weeks’ notice at UFC 171, Strickland showed looked at home under the bright lights in Dallas, stepping in and pushing his winning streak to 14 consecutive victories by forcing McDaniel to tap to a rear naked choke in the waning seconds of the opening frame.
While some emerging talents that experience rapid success on the biggest stage in the sport might get an inflated sense of self following that kind of performance, Strickland comes at it from the opposite angle. Even though he’s earned 11 finishes in 14 fights and is yet to suffer a defeat, the laid-back middleweight says there is a long way to go before he’ll be pumped up on his place in the 185-pound ranks.
“I don’t want to take anything away from Bubba McDaniel - he’s from a great school with Greg Jackson - but there are so many amazing, tough middleweights out there, and compared with the top guys, I’m at the bottom. I’m trying to move to the top, but there is a ladder to climb that is ridiculous.
“Until I climb that ladder, I won’t be satisfied with myself.”
This weekend, the undefeated Strickland gets an opportunity to skip a couple rungs on his climb up the middleweight ladder, jumping into the cage with fellow unbeaten prospect Luke Barnatt as part of Saturday’s main card in Berlin, Germany.
Barnatt, another member of the Season 17 cast of The Ultimate Fighter, has earned three consecutive victories since coming off the long-running reality TV competition. Most recently, “Bigslow” posted a first round technical knockout win over newcomer Mats Nilsson in March, pushing his record to 8-0 in the process.
Following the win, the 26-year-old Cambridge, England native laid out his plans to be the last unbeaten middleweight standing, setting his sights on Strickland and his unblemished record.
“You know what’s funny? I didn’t even know he said that,” says the 23-year-old known as “Tarzan,” who defeated another former TUF contestant, Josh Bryant, on his journey to the UFC. “I get people telling me, `He said this,’ but I don’t care. He’s like a child to me. He just sits there and he runs his mouth - everything you say, I don’t hear it. I’m in the gym, doing my thing training and if you want to act like Mr. Rockstar and Superstar, go for it.
“Luke Barnatt loves the superstar (life),” opines Strickland. “I didn’t know who he was, to be honest - I just thought he was some tall, goofy guy in a suit and then I find out that I’m going to fight that guy. You can tell guys like that love the rockstar life - they love the attention - but that’s not me. I love to train.
“I’m an MMA fighter - I’m not going to sit there and run my mouth. I fight, that’s what I do. It’s funny - people will send me a text message with a clip of what he said or something and I really don’t care. As you can tell, he watches WWE a little too much.”
Though he’s not impressed by or interested in Barnatt’s approach to his career outside of the cage, Strickland is complimentary of his impending opponent’s performances to date in the Octagon, acknowledging that a win Saturday night will help him climb the divisional ladder a little faster.
“I give him props - he’s an exciting fighter,” he offers of the six-foot, six-inch tall Barnatt, who has gone 3-0 in his first year in the UFC. “I’m my toughest critic and Bubba was tough, but I think Luke Barnatt will be a good challenge. He has a good chin. He stands. He bangs. He has kicks. He’s tall. He’s a mountain to climb. This is going to be a tough fight, but I want that tough fight to prove to myself (that I belong).
“I want to go in there and have a tough fight. Once I’ve proven to myself that I’m a UFC fighter - this is what I do and I belong here - then I can say I’m good.”
However, don’t expect Strickland to make that declaration any time soon.
Even though he’s already accrued 14 victories, made his way to the UFC, and collected a first-round win on short notice - all before the age of 24 - the emerging middleweight prospect says there is only one way he’ll give himself credit and reaching that goal is still a few years away.
“Become a UFC champion,” Strickland says when asked to identify his personal marker for declaring himself a successful fighter. “Go big or go home. If I didn’t think I could be a UFC champion, I would quit fighting - I would do something else.
“I have a really long road to go and if I do accomplish that goal, it will probably take me three years just to climb the ladder to get there, but that’s the goal - climb the ladder, get better, and hopefully be UFC champion.”
In order to get there, he’s got to get through Barnatt, and there is no part of him that anticipates that being easy.
And Strickland wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Of course I’d love to say that I hit the guy and he falls down,” he laughs, “but my prediction is a long, three round fight. I’m not training for an easy fight; I’m training for a battle.
“I don’t predict easy fights because when you do and it doesn’t happen, something in your brain is like, `Oh, that wasn’t supposed to happen.’ I always tell myself that I’m going to get in there, I’m going to get bloody and it’s going to suck for 15 minutes, but I’m going to fight every f@#$ing minute of it.”