Sean Strickland grew up in a poisonous, abusive household, the impact of which turned him into an angry adolescent who got bounced from a handful of high schools and spent his evenings holed up in his garage, hitting a punching bag and watching old PRIDE and UFC fights.
He was a self-described social reject who struggled to contend with the powerful emotions that coursed through his body growing up in such a toxic environment.
“When you grow up the way I grew up — I grew up in a pretty abusive household — you’re so angry, you’re so filled with hate that you have to hate something,” begins the 29-year-old Strickland. “I got kicked out of every school I had been in, but the first time I walked into a gym and got hit, got my ass kicked — it brings me to tears every time I talk about it.”
“My first training day was the first time I ever felt happiness because it was like, ‘This is what it feels like not to be angry,’” he adds. “MMA to me is more than just ‘Oh yeah, I want to be a UFC fighter’ — it literally saved my life.”
Two years ago, the sport that saved Strickland’s life was nearly taken away from him.
On December 11, 2018, just 45 days after he registered a second-round stoppage victory over Nordine Taleb to earn the 20th victory of his professional career, a van turned out in front of Strickland while he was riding his motorcycle.
“I woke up in the hospital, going into surgery with the doctor telling me, ‘You got hit by a car and you’re going into knee surgery’ and I just started crying because all I could think about was my career,” recalls the Californian, who owns a 20-3 record that includes a 7-3 mark in 10 UFC starts. “It was just ‘I’m not a UFC fighter anymore; my dream is over. This sucks.’
“Every doctor I spoke to told me, ‘Hey Sean, you probably can fight again, but it’s probably not a good idea.’ My surgeon said, ‘You left part of your kneecap on the road.’
“I had doctors telling me I shouldn’t fight again, but at the end of the day, this is all I wanted to do,” he adds. “I dropped out of high school to be a UFC fighter. This is all I’ve done since I was 14 or 15.”
Saturday night, Strickland ends his 735-day absence from the Octagon when he returns to the middleweight division in a preliminary card clash with Welsh veteran Jack Marshman.
“There were some ups and downs, but credit to Heather (Linden) and the staff at the UFC PI — they were such a guiding light for me,” says Strickland, who has prepared for his return at various gyms in Las Vegas and the Los Angeles area, including Syndicate MMA and Kings MMA, along with making frequent stops at the UFC Performance Institute. “I was at the PI and I couldn’t even walk up the stairs without a weird limp, but Heather and all the people at the PI were like, ‘Don’t worry — you got this; your body is going to adjust.’ They were the only ones that were really supportive of me coming back.”
Going through a horrific accident like Strickland did is going to have an indelible impact on your life, physically and mentally.
While his body carries the scars as a constant reminder of the violent crash, mentally, the 29-year-old believes the gruesome wreck helped give him a different outlook on life.
“I don’t want to say that it’s a good thing that I got into the accident, but mentally, it kind of changed me to a degree,” says Strickland. “Going through that, I feel a lot more at peace with myself and my life as opposed to being all ‘I need to be a UFC fighter; I need to do this and that.’
“When that was gone, it helped me become more at peace with who I am as a person outside of fighting.”
He’s also experienced a shift when it comes to how he views his career inside the cage as well.
“I’ve accepted the fight,” begins Strickland, who was a highly regarded middleweight prospect when he arrived in the UFC and sports a perfect 15-0 mark when competing in the 185-pound weight class. “Instead of being all ‘I don’t want to get hit, I don’t want to lose,’ I’m at a point in my life where it’s just ‘let’s scrap and see what happens.’
“At this point in my life,” he continues, “I feel really good because I don’t have pressure to win. I can go in there and throw haymakers and maybe I get a cool knockout or maybe I get knocked out.
“It feels good to be at this point in my life.”
Originally scheduled to face Wellington Turman, the 30-year-old Marshman stepped in when the Brazilian was forced from the matchup due to the lingering impact of having contracted COVID-19 earlier in the summer.
An aggressive pressure fighter who has gone 3-4 in seven UFC starts, but who can always be counted on to leave it all in the cage, win or lose, Marshman should serve as a stern test for the returning Strickland, who is eager to share the cage with the fighting paratrooper.
“I know Jack’s a pressure guy and I want more than anything to put him back,” he says of Saturday’s showdown with Marshman. “I want to be able to say after the fight that he was a pressure guy and he didn’t pressure me.”
Two years removed from his last appearance, back in a division where he’s experienced nothing but success, and just days away from stepping back into the cage, Strickland sees nothing but good times on the horizon.
“One of the reasons I’m back at middleweight is because I want to fight more,” he says. “At welterweight, I had to kill myself. When I fought (current UFC welterweight champion Kamaru) Usman, I was at 3.8-percent body fat to make weight and the cuts still killed me.
“This fight? Shoo — I feel good. I could go spar right now, where at welterweight, I would be in my room, grumpy and mad.
“If I get knocked out, whatever, man; I’m cool with that,” he adds, sounding every bit like a guy who is just happy to be back doing what he loves. “I feel like you’re going to get a lot of good fights out of me over these next four fights; some fan favorite fights.”
Given what he’s come through, the fact that Strickland is fighting at all is impressive enough, so any entertaining performances he delivers from this point forward will just be a bonus.