Sean Strickland doesn’t like talking about himself very much.
More specifically, the surging UFC middleweight who carries a six-fight winning streak into his UFC 276 main card showdown with Alex Pereira on Saturday night isn’t too good at accepting praise or affording himself any either.
The 31-year-old Californian who describes himself as “a white-trash a****** with ADD” is currently stationed at No. 4 in the middleweight rankings, brandishing an unbeaten record when competing at 185 pounds, a 25-3 record overall, and a five-fight winning streak since returning from a two-year hiatus following a grizzly motorcycle accident that nearly ended his career and left him with a permanently compromised leg.
Ask him about taking pride in his performances and where he’s at in his career, and Strickland will deflect the search for a genuine moment with a self-deprecating counter.
“Sometimes I’m the best in the world, and sometimes a guy punches me in the face and I’m bleeding and I wish I was better at this,” he said dismissively when I asked him about his current run of success and position in the middleweight hierarchy.
We both laughed, but when I pressed the issue, Strickland offered a brief glimpse behind all the walls he’s built up around himself.
“Well, I work my a** off,” he said, the begrudging acknowledgement of the effort he puts in the closest he’ll come to giving himself any kind of praise. “If anybody knows me, they know that I’m one of the hardest working guys in the gym.
“I don’t lift weights and do all the other s*** they do, but as far as when I’m on the mat, we grind.”
Rise Of Sean Strickland
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Rise Of Sean Strickland
Lately, a lot of that grinding has been done with Magomed Ankalaev, the streaking light heavyweight contender who has once again returned to Xtreme Couture to finish out his training camp in advance of his bout with Anthony Smith at UFC 277.
“Ankalaev has been in the gym, and me and this guy, we don’t give an inch; the first minute to the last minute is a battle,” said Strickland, who followed up his twin fall victories in 2020 with a pair of decision wins in 2021 before getting the nod over Jack Hermansson earlier this year to keep his winning streak intact. “When me and Ankalaev spar, the moment the round is done, we’re both like, ‘Thank God that I don’t have to do this anymore.’
“We did four rounds straight the other day, MMA grappling, and the round was up, so we both kind of walk to a separate mat to get away from each other, and then no one wanted to go with either of us, we were left without partners, so we looked at each other like, ‘I guess we’ve got to go again?’”
Strickland laughed at the recollection, seemingly pleased to be able to affirm his outcast status, but also because he genuinely loves battling with the indefatigable Russian monster.
“It sucks because we both — me and him, we don’t stop,” he said, picking back up. “No one wins, no one loses; it’s just a non-stop progression of suck. When you’re going with somebody that high level, you’re not going to win. He’s not going to win with me, so it’s just back-and-forth trying to see who is going to slow down, and when you’re going with a guy like Ankalaev, who, in my opinion, is going to be a world champion, there is no slow down, there is no quit; it’s just miserable.”
And Strickland loves the misery.
While some people can be described as “rough around the edges,” the 31-year-old middleweight is rough around the edges and all points in between; a high school dropout who grew up in an incredibly toxic and abusive environment and genuinely struggles with every day social interaction.
He lives a relatively Spartan existence, famously taking viewers on an MTV Cribs-like tour of his barren apartment that included a broken toilet, some woodworking materials, and a mattress tossed on the floor in the bedroom. It looked more like a flop house than a place where a successful UFC fighter lived, but that’s by design, by choice because the only thing Strickland truly likes and enjoys is the misery that comes from preparing for a fight and getting to step into the Octagon.
How else do you explain his decision to step into the cage against the unranked two-division former Glory kickboxing champion Pereira on Saturday night?
UFC 276 FREE FIGHTS: Max Holloway vs Yair Rodriguez | Israel Adesanya vs Robert Whittaker 2 | Alexander Volkanovski vs Max Holloway 2 | Jared Cannonier vs Derek Brunson | Alexander Volkanovski vs Korean Zombie
“Who else is my shot at a title shot? Whittaker? I think Whittaker is a harder fight,” said Strickland, laying out the circumstances that prompted him to sign on to face the dangerous Brazilian this weekend.
Whittaker is former middleweight champ Robert Whittaker, of course, who came up short in his second clash with current champ Israel Adesanya earlier this year but remains stationed at the top of the middleweight Top 15.
“Whittaker would be my only option, and he got Marvin (Vettori), so let’s say I wanted to wait. I would have to wait for (Jared) Cannonier, and — I’d have to wait too long! I’m 31 years old — I want to fight! I want to make money!”
So the only other option was Pereira, who debuted with a second-round knockout win at UFC 268, followed it up with a decision win over Bruno Santos in March, and holds a pair of victories over Adesanya from their kickboxing days.
He’s a menacing presence focused on sharing the Octagon with “The Last Stylebender,” and the exact type of threat that makes Strickland dive into the misery during training camp because of what he brings to the table this weekend.
“The thing that sucks about Alex is he’s f****** scary; he’s a scary f****** guy,” Strickland said of his UFC 276 opponent. “Whittaker is a bad-*** fighter that does everything correctly, but he’s not scary.
“Alex is a dude where you’re like, ‘This m*****f***** touches you and you go to sleep.’ That’s the thing that makes Alex scary is that he has the ‘Oh s***!’ factor, as opposed to Whittaker, who just does everything well.
“If this man touches me, I might go to sleep and bones in my face may potentially break, but at the end of the day, I’ve sparred better,” added Strickland, who ventured to American Top Team at one point during his training camp to work with Russian kickboxer Artem Levin, who defeated Pereira earlier in their kickboxing careers. “I’ve trained with so many Glory world champion kickboxers, like Joe Schilling, Artem Levin, Raymond Daniels; I’ve been sparring these guys my whole life.”
Even in acknowledging the years of high-level training he’s done, Strickland maintains his dismissive tone, like what he’s accomplished, what he’s pushed himself through, isn’t all that big a deal.
He won’t allow himself to be proud of his achievements — maybe at least not publicly — or all that he’s overcome to reach a point where he’s one of the best middleweights in the world, and arguably could be fighting for a championship opportunity on Saturday.
When I asked him about being in this position given that just a couple years ago, where his ability to walk normally was in question, let alone his career in the UFC cage, he jokes about how hobbled he’ll be when he’s older and the difficulty he has with warmups at the gym.
“There will be warmups like frog hops or sprints on the mat, and people make fun of me (for how poorly I do), and it’s like, ‘I’m missing a major muscle in my leg. One of my legs is destroyed.’”
He laughed, but it’s clearly a means of avoiding the real emotions and feelings tied up in the experience.
“I can’t frog hop, but I can fight,” he added, almost defiantly, like he needed to hold up something he is good at.
And he really is good at fighting.
Maybe one day he’ll be able to just say that.
UFC 276: Adesanya vs Cannonier took place on Saturday, July 2, 2022 live T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass!