Long before he ever sniffed the middleweight title it had become a kind of guilty pleasure to ponder a world in which Sean Strickland was a UFC champion. With a hot microphone and a long-nourished fetish to kill a man in the cage, along with a few neo-Nazi memories from his not-so-distant youth and a healthy dose of misogyny, you could see how the UFC might easily spook at the idea of ever finding out.
Yet when Dricus Du Plessis was unable to fight Israel Adesanya at UFC 293, the day arrived. Strickland was given his shot, and therefore a share of the spotlight. He made the most of it. By the time Strickland got his hand raised in what was the greatest upset of 2023, the fans in Sydney, Australia were giving him a standing ovation. Fans back home in America were singing a different tune about him. Certain connoisseurs who like to pair a little controversy with their fight game deified him as an unfiltered truthteller. When he unloaded a barrage of punches on Du Plessis from his cage-side seats at UFC 296, we no longer needed to ponder what it would look like.
Now we could see it. In full color, captured from different angles and repackaged for every UFC 297 promo that has ran this week. Sean Strickland as a champion looked exactly like Sean Strickland the taboo.
Therefore, when Strickland went in on MMA Fighting’s Alexander K. Lee at the UFC 297 media day in Toronto for asking him about some previous ugly comments about LGBTQ community, his response shouldn’t have come as any surprise. It was one of those “fuck around and find out” moments with the UFC’s great anti-PC Vesuvius.
In the span of a few minutes, Strickland dragged Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau into the conversation, told Lee to go fuck himself, said that 10 years ago to be trans was a mental illness, that people who saw it otherwise were an “infection,” that they were everything that is wrong with the world, tossed out a “chicks with dicks” reference, and a bunch of other stuff. By the time he was done he had to ask the UFC wranglers if he’d gone overboard, to which he already knew the answer.
Of course he had!
The only thing I could think was that we’d come a long way since UFC 129 in Toronto when Georges St-Pierre showed up to the press conference in suit and tie and the manners of a 18th century duke. A dozen years later we have a guy who looks fresh off an episode of Cops, sporting a tee-shirt that read, “A woman in every kitchen, a gun in every hand.”
Yet what Strickland effectively did is what Strickland has always done, which is create conversation. Rifts. He opened the floodgates for the use of nouns such as “soy” and “snowflake,” and such adjectives as “ugly,” “soft,” “based” and “gross.” As media outlets ran with the clip, the great sea parted. People who’d never heard of Sean Strickland but had long chafed at the subject matter had a new hero. The other side was disgusted. People wondered why the question was even asked, as it had nothing to do with the fight. Others wondered why wouldn’t it be? Isn’t media’s job to ask such questions?
Everyone else, I suspect, sat nauseated at what a shitty world it’s become. Ten years ago, people would have been just as astonished that hate speech could have so many defenders, anonymous or otherwise.
Love him or hate him, Sean Strickland has people talking. Josh Koscheck used to say that it didn’t matter if people loved you or hated you, so long as they cared. Strickland has people feeling some kind of way ahead of his fight with Du Plessis. He created another outrage tug of war on social media, and his red flags are waving just as proudly as ever. And this is what it looks like when he’s the champion.
There was always going to be some discomfort in him holding that distinction. The most dangerous thing in his arsenal remains what might come out of his mouth. For a minute it was easy to align with a guy who still drives a “shitty Hyundai” even after winning a title and is loyal to his coaches. When Strickland cried on Theo Von’s podcast recalling his unimaginable childhood, even the most prudish snobs among us felt a soft spot for the UFC’s most unhinged champion. The psychological damage he was dealing with ran deep, and it was easy to trace why he’d become a ticking time bomb.
Yet when he said he would literally stab Du Plessis for bringing that stuff up, there was a reminder that for every saving grace the loose cannon is never far away. Ten years ago, that might’ve prompted the UFC to reprimand him. Ten years ago that might’ve seemed like a mental illness, too. Not today.
Today we just accept Sean Strickland for who he is, even if he’s not interested in returning the favor.