The Underdog Story

When Sean Strickland made his UFC debut in March of 2014, Israel Adesanya was still mostly fighting regional level kickboxing in New Zealand. Fast-forward four years to when the dynamic kickboxer arrived in the UFC middleweight division with considerable fanfare, Sean Strickland was a struggling welterweight.

Despite a few losses to notable fighters Santiago Ponzinibbio, Kamaru Usman, and Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos, Strickland was still able to avoid the treacherous position of back-to-back losses by knocking out Nordine Taleb in the second round. This moved his record with the promotion to a not-too-shabby 7-3. Already a ten-year veteran of the sport at the time, Strickland was poised to make an attempt at ranked opposition.

That was until he got into a motorcycle accident in December of 2018 that left him unconscious for three hours and put him in a neck brace. To top it off, the accident left him with knee damage the required surgery, taking him out of competition for two years.

By the time Strickland was ready to return to MMA, this time as a middleweight, Israel Adesanya had already blown through the division, racking up nine victories in two and a half years. He dethroned Robert Whittaker emphatically and defended his title against the two biggest threats in the division. Strickland likely was one of the last people on his mind.

Both fighters would experience ups and downs, but Israel Adesanya remained at the very pinnacle of the sport throughout while Strickland seemed destined to play the role of gatekeeper. It seemed like Strickland was almost content to forgo any shrewd career management and instead opted to fight whomever the UFC put in front of him.

However, this worked in his favor when the UFC decided to return to Sydney and the new number one contender Dricus du Plessis was unable to make the two-month turnaround to fight the champion on what can be considered home turf.

In an absolutely shocking upset, Sean Strickland not only beat Israel Adesanya, but did it seemingly without much difficulty over the course of five rounds. Did everyone miss the stylistic difficulties Strickland presented or did Israel Adesanya just have an off night from an overly active schedule as champion?

The Błachowicz Blueprint

After Adesanya lost a surprising unanimous decision in his bid to become a two-weight world champion against Jan Błachowicz, many credited the size of Israel Adesanya’s Polish opponent as the primary source of difficulty. Close observers though recognized that it was actually Błachowicz’s watertight kick defense that neutralized the offense of Adesanya.

Kick defense played a big part in the success Alex Pereira had in their first MMA fight, so it’s no surprise that Strickland and his coaches came into the fight ready to thwart Adesanya’s primary range weapons. Furthermore, the upright and rather square stance of Strickland, something that has caused him issues in the past, actually made the task easier for him.

Strickland was well prepared to defend the kicks of Israel Adesanya. Catching, checking, or just pulling away from kicks stymied Adesanya’s ability to get going at range.

Strickland’s stance is very square for MMA. That is, he stands with his rear foot very close to his lead foot. Typically that’s an issue because it makes him more vulnerable to takedowns since it’s easier for an opponent to collect both of his legs. It also makes bracing against strikes more difficult because a square stance is less stable than a bladed one and it reduces the amount of weight transfer Strickland can achieve with his own punches.

Against Israel Adesanya though, this stance meant that it was quick and easy for him to lift both of his legs to check kicks. To augment this, Strickland often marched forward, alternating raising his left and right legs, refusing to spend much time with either leg firmly rooted on the ground. This is not an uncommon tactic in Muay Thai, but it requires a good deal of defensive awareness to risk being on one leg this often.

Strickland’s marching footwork allowed him to close the distance on Israel Adesanya while always being ready to defend kicks.

One of the reasons this worked for Strickland was because he was constantly mixing in teeps and snap kicks that allowed his raised knees to function as feints as well. Adesanya had trouble predicting when Strickland was going to stab a foot into his gut or when he was going to plant the front leg and immediately throw a jab (more on this later).

This all worked well to unravel the offense of Adesanya because he has proven to be incredibly dependent on his kicks and kick feints to get his offense snowballing. The kicks are supposed to give him the time and space he wants at range to accumulate damage and his opponents are supposed to respond to his feints by trying to wildly close the distance and throw heat at him.

Strickland, however, refused to play this game.

Israel Adesanya’s Positional Problems

Cage-craft can often be the single most important factor in a fight. It is simply too difficult both to defend takedowns and land strikes with your back to the fence. When trapped up against the cage, you completely lose the ability to step back with your rear foot, eliminating linear retreats. Strickland consistently walked Adesanya down.

The primary problem with Israel Adesanya’s cage-craft in this fight is that he was overly reliant on big side steps for lateral movement. This means that when he felt trapped, he almost always responded by bringing his lead leg back to be on a line with his rear leg, enabling him to hop side to side for an escape. However, this limited his ability to move and shoot…

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Miguel Class
Miguel Class

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