While it’s been obvious in practice for years, the UFC has never had a more clearly tiered product than they do right now. What was once a fuzzy line between a PPV event to a network TV Fight Night card to a standard Fight Night has now become a series of hard divisions. PPVs have title fights, network TV cards get top contenders and fan favorite action fighters, ESPN+ gets misc. There are even event tiers for UFC-adjacent talent scouting shows, with DWCS getting top honors over TUF—which at least still gets more love than Road to UFC.

In that ecosystem of octagonally-branded fighting fixtures, Sean Strickland’s place couldn’t be clearer. The Xtreme Couture talent has locked down his role as ‘King of the Third Tier’ through a combination of skill and personality that makes him exactly notable and talented enough to headline something, while not enough of either to break out into the main stream. There are a couple of very simple reasons for all this, and unfortunately (fortunately?) for Strickland, they’re probably not going to change.

Sean Strickland is a weird fighter

First and foremost, any conversation about an athlete and their ability to perform has to start with a discussion of their ability to perform as an athlete. Whatever else might be said of Strickland both in and out of the Octagon, the man is where he is today because he knows how to win fights. But, his journey to becoming one of the UFC’s most consistent talents has been anything but clear and obvious.

Jump all the way back to Strickland’s time in King of the Cage and a fairly typical vision of an athletic ‘MMA native’ prospect emerges. He looked stiff and uncomfortable on the feet, drove for takedowns whenever he started getting plugged, and had a solid BJJ game to fall back on as the fundamental core of his training. It’s where most fighters find themselves when their first experience of combat sports comes from joining their local MMA gym.

Even in those old fights, however, the framework of what would become Strickland’s modern game could be seen in flashes. The insistence on a pawing jab, the swatting attempts at hand parries. While the confidence and consistency wasn’t there, the tools were at least in play.

Unlike most fighters in his position—who tend to lean, insistently on a well-rounded jack-of-all-trades style for the entirety of their career—by the time he took his first knockout loss (against Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos back in 2018) Strickland’s interest in being the guy that does everything had seemingly vanished. Over his first eight fights in the Octagon, Strickland shot for 19 takedowns. In the ten bouts that followed? 9 takedown attempts—and 6 of those came against Uriah Hall.

Instead, Strickland began leaning increasingly on a weirdly bastardized version of the modern MMA meta-game (which calls for large amounts of high-volume kickboxing at the top levels of the sport). With his feet close together and his chin high, Strickland has been walking opponents down with near robotic consistency, pushing out a constant stream of low power jabs and winging hooks. Pushing the jab down the middle of the guard, while trying to fit his followup strikes around it.

When it comes to defense, while he can slip and counter once he commits to fighting on the inside, he mostly focuses on pulling straight back and parrying punches to chase followup strikes. Long fighters who aren’t afraid to pull the trigger on him, find his chin square on the center line, but his tendency to keep his eyes on his work, means he doesn’t usually get caught so off guard that he gets knocked down by much.

On offense, at least, it’s not dissimilar to some of the striking form that Colby Covington has fallen into. But without a clinical wrestling game to go with it, Strickland finds himself living and dying entirely on his ability to be unbreakable and indefatigable. To his credit, he’s largely been both.

The result, however is a long series of battles that feature function over form. He’s so continuous and one-note in his approach that he can rarely surprise anyone enough to knock them out, and he shows little interest in controlling anyone enough to truly break them down. It’s death by 1000 cuts, but with time only for 750 of them. Sean Strickland wins rounds, but he doesn’t make highlights or win fans. At least not inside the cage.

Sean Strickland is a weird dude

The other part of this equation, then, is the person Sean Strickland is outside the Octagon. Even terribly boring fighters who are successful enough for long enough tend to bring in some kind of following, and Strickland’s certainly won enough fights for that. But, much like he’s placed a firm cap on the excitement he creates in a fight by insisting on volume and persistence over form or power, he puts a firm cap on his public image with a personality shipped straight out of a 4chan forum.

It’s no secret at this point that Strickland’s got his past traumas to deal with. A childhood filled with abuse and trouble, a short stint in prison, some dabbling in white supremacy; it’s a cocktail that could skew anyone’s view of the world. It probably doesn’t help that, by all appearances, the 32-year-old seems to be battling through all his demons with MMA alone.

“[Fighting] gives me purpose,” he admitted in a 2021 post-fight interview. “If I wasn’t in the UFC, I’d probably be cooking meth in a trailer in prison. I’m grateful for the fans, to the UFC, you guys that gave me purpose. And I appreciate that.”

Listen to Strickland talk long enough about anything and it becomes pretty clear that all the functional parts of his life are trafficked purely through his fights and his training. His ‘celebrity cribs’ style tour of his apartment was equal parts hilarious and sad.

In another, more recent interview, Strickland was asked about his favorite food, leading to a rant about how “good food” like “sushi” and “pizza” was only something guys eat to “get pussy” or if they’re “a gay” and that he only eats “cheap shit.” It’s a perfect distillation of the man’s personality, which comes off as unflinchingly honest, and occasionally even funny, while also totally sad and unmarketable all in the same breath.

In the lead up to his UFC on ESPN headlining fight against Abus Magomedov, Strickland used his media day press conference to go on an extended rant about why women shouldn’t be allowed to vote and are generally responsible for the downfall of society.

“We need to go back to taking women out of the workforce, and maybe that’s where we f—d up,” Strickland told the assembled media (transcript via the Daily Mail). “We let women vote, no offense. Think about America prior to women voting. They tried to ban alcohol, I don’t even drink but I’m not trying to ban alcohol. So, what you did, man, you let these women come into the workforce, now we make less money, you got kids raising themselves on TikTok, we need to go back to like 1942, maybe 1958 after we f—d up the Germans.”

After he finished his screed one member of the media asked if Strickland had ever considered going to therapy. That’s more or less where his personality has left people, though; willing to give him the time of day for his ability to fight, but quickly running out of ways to interact with him that produce anything more than a stark reminder of why he’s best left to fighting.

The end result

Where does all this leave Sean Strickland? Or, more importantly, us as fans? With another headliner upcoming that, for better and worse, promises predictability. Strickland will always show up and fight his fight, he’ll always show up and speak his terrible truth. He is a fighter that can be entirely relied up on to hit all his marks at a very specific level.

For the UFC, that’s just exactly the right level of a Fight Night headliner; someone that wins enough to be considered really very good, but never demands a PPV audience. And who, if we’re being real here, wouldn’t know what to do with one if he got it all to himself.

Maybe Abus Magomedov can provide a bump in the road, and throw Strickland off his game enough to get a win and push his own profile higher up the UFC ladder. But win or lose for Strickland, it seems likely fans will see more of him filling high spots in low places.

Note: H/T to Andy Hickey on Twitter for coining the ‘Mr. Apex’ nickname.

About the author
Zane Simon
Zane Simon

Zane Simon is a senior editor, writer, and podcaster for Bloody Elbow. He has worked with the website since 2013, taking on a wide variety of roles. A lifelong combat sports fan, Zane has trained off & on in both boxing and Muay Thai. He currently hosts the long-running MMA Vivisection podcast, which he took over from Nate Wilcox & Dallas Winston in 2015, as well as the 6th Round podcast, started in 2014. Zane is also responsible for developing and maintaining the ‘List of current UFC fighters’ on Bloody Elbow, a resource he originally developed for Wikipedia in 2010.

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