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Editorial: Sean Strickland versus the world

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Bloody Elbow’s Connor Ruebusch breaks down the mindset and mechanics of one of MMA’s most idiosyncratic oddballs, Sean Strickland.

MMA: UFC 224- Zaleski dos Santos vs Strickland Jason Silva-USA TODAY Sports

This weekend, Sean Strickland is slated to fight Uriah Hall in a contest that could see him elevated to contender, or relegated back to the ranks where he has spent the entirety of his 13-year MMA career.

It’s a tantalizing thought, mostly because Strickland is such an exceptionally weird fighter. The way he stands, the way he punches, the way he talks—everything Strickland does seems designed to invite trouble.

I call him a “young veteran,” because that’s what he was for most of his career. Strickland started MMA training at 14, and by 17 he was fighting grown men for money. By 23 he was in the UFC, where he has since fought 13 times.

Strickland’s been training with real veterans since a sprout. As a member of Team Quest, his list of in-house sparring partners reads like a collection of all the weirdest, grittiest, manliest fighters in American MMA history. Dan Henderson, Pat Healy, Sam Alvey, Josh Burkman. All guys who seem like they build barns whenever they’re not busy burning one down.

But Strickland doesn’t confine himself to just one gym’s worth of janky old men. He might make the trek to Albuquerque to train with the stable at Jackson-Wink one month, and then hop over to Fresno to work with Josh Koscheck the next. He’s trained with Michael Bisping, Marvin Vettori, Raymond Daniels, and yes, even the man he’s slated to fight this weekend, Uriah Hall, who Strickland describes as “a damn good gatekeeper.”

Strickland is also known for butting heads with these men in the gym—whatever gym that happens to be.

Any time Michael Bisping calls a Sean Strickland fight, you get the distinct impression that he doesn’t really like Sean all that much. “If there’s one thing I know about Sean it’s that he knows everything,” Bisping quipped during Strickland’s last fight. “So why tell him anything?” The kid’s a loudmouth, in other words, and Bisping doesn’t particularly like rubbing elbows with his own ilk. Yet the two have trained together many times.

A couple months ago, video surfaced of an altercation between Strickland and BJJ blackbelt Orlando Sanchez, in which the mustachioed grappler can be seen trying to wrench Strickland’s shoulder with a vicious, standing shoulder lock. The footage made Sanchez seem like an unforgivable dick—until Strickland himself admitted that he may have accidentally antagonized Sanchez when he told him that he didn’t belong in the gym next to real UFC fighters such as himself. The two later made up.

Earlier this year Strickland trained with Marvin Vettori. “He was just an arrogant fucking Italian guy,” Sean said of the experience. “You meet Marvin, and it took me a while to like him. I’m sure it took him a while to like me. Most people don’t like me, so that’s good.”

Unsurprisingly, Strickland also clashed with Josh Koscheck when he joined the veteran’s camp in preparation for a fight back in 2015. “When I first met him,” Strickland said, “I was like, ‘you’re a dick. I don’t even want to talk to you.’ But then we started talking about political ideologies and we started warming up to each other... I think Koscheck is just so angry, you have to kind of chip away to get his guard down.”

Hey, Bisping’s not the only one who gets to project on his training partners.

One shudders to think what shared political ideology brought Koscheck and Strickland closer together. But this is how Strickland operates. He’s a man at war with the world; authority figures, be they older fighters or would-be dictators, only earn Strickland’s respect through shows of force.

All this flitting around, picking fights at every gym he visits, has greatly informed Strickland’s game. He has a road dog mentality and a road dog sort of style, a style born of a lifetime spent biting off more than he could chew and then striving not to choke. He’s a guy who excels in front of a hostile crowd, who imagines that every opponent is trying to kill him just so he can muster the will to kill them right back. And he has spent the last 13 years getting quietly better (well, maybe not quietly) without ever once sniffing a title shot.

So what? Does this make him an honorary member of the Black Murderers’ Row? The Charley Burley of MMA?

Well, no.

For one thing, Strickland’s style is, well… frankly, it’s kind of ugly. I mean, he’s not exactly George Benton out there, with his locked out knees and his weird, square posture and his chin stuck up and out, waving like a flag some six ungainly feet above the floor. If you were being complimentary, you might call his style idiosyncratic.

Then there’s the fact that, unlike the men of the Murderer’s Row, Strickland’s MMA career has been fairly meritorious. If anything has stood between Strickland and championship success these 13 years, it’s his own goofy technique and general aimlessness.

But there is still something of those legendary slicksters in the way Strickland fights. It’s in the way he makes those idiosyncrasies work for him. Is his game technically inefficient? Yes. But conceptually it’s very strong.

We’ve mentioned Strickland’s unusually upright stance a few times already, but let’s paint the complete picture: the chin is high, and the hands are low; the feet are flat, the knees all but totally unbent; the hips are turned to face the opponent square on. In short, Strickland stands like a sitting duck, a barn door just begging for a bullet.

Yet Strickland evades a whopping 67 percent of the distance strikes sent his way. That’s five percent better than Israel Adesanya, six percent better than Lyoto Machida, and seven percent better than Anderson Silva, just to name a few other middleweights you may have heard of.

So how does Strickland get away with it?

Why, conceptually.

All that experience has made Strickland very calm, and very focused in the cage. Study his face during a fight and you’ll note that his eyes almost never venture away from the man in front of him, not even to flinch. That means that he rarely gets hit by a shot he doesn’t see coming, and usually gets out of the way in time.

Fighters who flinch and freak out under fire don’t just get hit harder, they tend to gas out. Strickland does neither, and thus never seems to get tired. When he does get tired, he’s calm enough not to fight like it. Usually he doesn’t even bother to sit down between rounds. Half the time he sends his cornermen back out after 20 or 30 seconds just so he can spend the rest of the break pacing and mean mugging the guy in the opposite corner.

Strickland also has a superb command of distance. To paraphrase Teddy Atlas, Strickland doesn’t waste shots. He only lets one go when he’s sure he can land it. He gets to that range with a steady output of feints and an unusual, handsy defense that seems built for parrying and jabbing with guys who want nothing more than to stick their own jabs in Strickland’s face and back him the hell off.

But Strickland doesn’t back off easily. He keeps coming forward, keeps chipping away, methodical yet relentless, until at last he finds a good moment to sit down and really lay one in. Strickland will spend 90 percent of a fight throwing loose, easy punches, but when he throws hard he can really crack. Those straight legs belie Strickland’s strong weight transfer, which enables Strickland to put his punches right through his target.

Sean Strickland is a weird guy with a weird game. Frankly, it shouldn’t work half as well as it does. But the fact that his awkward positioning and weird, flailing defense work at all is a testament to how good he really is. The fruits of experience, focused through anger. He treats his sparring partners like opponents, and his opponents like enemies, and at the end of the day shakes hands with both.

Uriah Hall will be a tough nut to crack, but it would be fun to see Strickland ply his trade against the cream of the middleweight crop. If nothing else, it would send the message that seems to have underwritten Strickland’s whole career: you don’t have to be normal to be good.

In this sport, it can actually be a handicap.


For more on technique, style, and MMA weirdos, check out the latest episode of Heavy Hands, a podcast about the finer points of face-punching.