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Sean Strickland poses for a portrait after his victory during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on October 31, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC)
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Sean Strickland, The Real Deal

Streaking Middleweight Talks About The Road To His Second Straight Main Event

Even if there are times when he doesn’t believe it, Sean Strickland is one of the best middleweights in the sport.

Saturday night, the 30-year-old California native squares off with Jack Hermansson in a clash of Top 10 fighters that serves as the main event of this weekend’s return to action in the UFC Octagon. It’s his second consecutive main event after headlining opposite Uriah Hall last July, when he picked up his fourth straight victory since returning to the sport following a two-year injury-induced hiatus.

“You hear ‘potential title shot’ and ‘one more win, two more wins away,’ and don’t get me wrong — it would be an accomplishment just to fight for the f****** belt in the UFC,” said Strickland, who suffered a major knee injury in a motorcycle accident soon after defeating Nordine Taleb in October 2018. “I never thought I would be anywhere near the UFC because I’ve always had a negative outlook on myself. I never thought I would be a UFC fighter. I never thought I would stay in the UFC, so it’s weird to me.

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“Some days it’s a trip,” he added, laughing. “The other day I was like, ‘Oh s***, man — I’m a ranked fighter! I’m pretty highly ranked!’ It’s weird when you start thinking about it like, ‘I’m a professional athlete.’”

The streaking contender quickly makes a comment about that not being true, suggesting he’s “just a redneck that likes to fight.”

It feels like a comment designed to deaden any discussion about his success, about his ascent up the middleweight rankings, or the fact that he’s undefeated when competing in the 185-pound weight class.

Talking about those things and acknowledging that they’re real without adding the cutting remarks isn’t something Strickland seems particularly comfortable doing, in part, I would wager, because doing so runs contrary to the ideas about who and what he is that were drilled into his head growing up in an abusive household and bouncing around from school-to-school.

It’s evident in the way he talks about attention, and the counsel he’s given fellow middleweight Chris Curtis, who burst onto the scene after an extended career on the regional circuit with a pair of impressive stoppage victories towards the end of last year.

What Makes Sean Strickland Tick?
What Makes Sean Strickland Tick?
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“I try not to get too caught up over attention,” began Strickland, who is engaging and articulate, but presents himself as a misanthrope.  “I was telling Chris Curtis — he’s a good friend of mine, he’s on a roll — ‘It only takes one f*** up before all these people that are (blowing you up) look at you like you’re a f****** bum, dude.’

“Attention is a drug, especially when you start getting it. It’s toxic. I love my fans — the ones that hate me and love me — and I appreciate them, but attention is toxic.

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“It’s not real,” he added. “Whatever people say, it’s not real. Don’t read the comments. Just enjoy your life and have a good time in the process.”

The reality that there might be some validity to that assessment shines through when we start talking about an Instagram video he posted a few weeks back of him hitting pads with Xtreme Couture head coach Eric Nicksick.

It’s a straightforward video — Strickland going through a light mitt workout with Nicksick, who is changing up his hand placements and moving around the cage as one does during such a drill — but it’s the caption attached to the video that is surprising.

Sean Strickland: "I Know Who I Am And What I Am"
Sean Strickland: "I Know Who I Am And What I Am"
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“25 minutes of fun!” Strickland wrote. “First time I’ve hit pads with 2 other coaches watching giving adjustments.”

Strickland turned pro in 2008, and has bounced around through a number of established gyms throughout California and Las Vegas, yet this session on January 12 was the first time he’s had other coaches offering up insights as he’s hit mitts?

“It was Nick (Eric Nicksick), Giff (Jimmy Gifford), and another guy, Eddie (Barraco), and they were just all in the cage, holding pads for other people, and I had a couple of them throw some pointers at me,” recalled Strickland, discussing the post and its caption. “I was like, ‘Oh s***!’

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“I don’t experience that too often in gyms. I’m not really a coachable guy — I’m kind of stubborn, I’m hard-headed, so when someone tells me some s*** — and it was good advice…”

Strickland hesitated, straightening out what he wanted to say in his head before continuing, the direction he went underscoring that there haven’t been a lot of people in his life looking out for anyone other than themselves.

“It wasn’t even the fact that they told me good s***, it was more the fact that, ‘Wow — this is a legit community where you actually care about each other getting better,’” he said, sounding genuinely amazed to have witnessed and experienced such selflessness. “You go to a lot of gyms, and usually pad men are competing because they’re personal trainers in a sense, where (they’re all talking about each other), but this was a really supportive community, where I was like, ‘Well that’s weird.’”

It’s a point that is driven home when he speaks about the relationship he’s forged with Nicksick, and the high amount of respect he carries for the Xtreme Couture leader.

Rise Of Sean Strickland
Rise Of Sean Strickland
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“You watch him corner Francis and that m*****f***** is in the fight!” he said with a laugh. “When Francis is fighting, he’s talking deep s***, not about fighting, but about belief in him, and I respect that. That’s not something I need, but I respect a coach who is in the fight with their fighter.

“He gives me a lot of freedom and I appreciate that,” Strickland added. “We’ll do drills and I’ll ask him, ‘Can I go more live?’ and he’ll say, ‘Get in the cage and go live’ because he understands that I don’t want to drill.

“It’s nice to have a coach that understands this is what you like, this is how you get better, so have at it.”

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What’s ironic — or perhaps evidence that the community he’s found at Xtreme Couture is having a greater impact on him that he realizes — is that as soon as you get Strickland talking about his fight with Hermansson on Saturday, all those tendencies to put himself down and deflect praise disappear, and he talks like a man that knows and believes he’s one of the absolute best fighters on the planet.

“He fought my buddy Marvin, and I watched him with Khazmat,” said Strickland when asked about Hermansson, who lost to his former teammate Marvin Vettori in December 2020 and dropped a wrestling match to Khamzat Chimaev earlier this year. “The guy’s tough, he’s good, but I’m better than him.

“If me and him are at our best, I destroy him. If it’s him at his best and me at my okay, I beat him. I lose by completely f****** up.”

Asked to elaborate on what qualifies as “completely f****** up,” Strickland points to Hermansson’s two more recent victories — a submission win over Kelvin Gastelum and a unanimous decision triumph over Edmen Shahbazyan.

“Look at when he fought Kelvin Gastelum. Kelvin s*** the bed — he took him down and got leg locked. What about Edmen Shahbazyan? I like him, but he’s soft. He pulled guillotines. C’mon, man.

“It’s s*** like that — don’t take the guy down and get leg locked, and if he shoots on you, don’t go for guillotines. With these four-ounce gloves, sometimes s*** happens, but you’ve got to try not to think about that.”

Talking with Strickland, you get the feeling there is a lot that he tries not to think about, plenty of which are probably things that are better left alone until he’s ready to sit down and unpack it all.

But the community that is taking root around him has clearly had a positive impact on his career and seems to be chipping away at his hard exterior.

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And if Strickland ever reaches a point where he believes in himself the way those around him believe in his talents, watch out, because whether he feels comfortable saying it or not, “rednecks” that just “like to fight” don’t put together five-fight winning streaks in the UFC and win 19 straight middleweight fights.

Those kinds of results are reserved exclusively for guys that are the genuine article; the real professional athlete types that truly love what they do and excel at their craft.

Guys like Sean Strickland.

 

UFC Fight Night: Hermansson vs Strickland took place on Saturday, January 15, 2022, live from the UFC APEX in Las Vegas. See the Final ResultsOfficial Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses — and relive all of the action on UFC Fight Pass.