Rarely does it feel so glorious to be wrong than in MMA.
“Subverting expectations” has grown to be a buzz word in recent years, an easy patch to excuse away bad writing in movies and television. In fighting, however, it happens organically. Everyone has the experience of being utterly confident in a fighter, fully convinced of their dominance based on prior performances, pattern recognition, style match ups, and maybe even a small bit of expertise. Then, all logic is binned, and the impossible happens.
“No man who beats off to cartoons is going to beat me” - UFC 276 press conference pic.twitter.com/i3pNGv3bXU— MMA Mania (@mmamania) September 10, 2023
On at least four separate occasions in the last week, I’ve written pessimistically about Sean Strickland’s chances against Israel Adesanya. Strickland is a volume puncher without significant knockout power or a threatening ground game, and he was going up against perhaps the best striker in UFC history. Worse yet, he’s got a well-known and proven weakness to low kicks, which just so happens to be the favored weapon of “The Stylebender.”
I was not alone in largely writing off Strickland. He did enter this title fight as a 6-1 underdog, after all, and only scored the title shot in the first place because Dricus Du Plessis was still recovering from an injury suffered while battering Robert Whittaker, a result that similarly floored the MMA community as a whole (though I’ll proudly claim to be ahead of the general curve on that specific outcome).
What’s truly stunning about Strickland’s performance last night is that he didn’t do anything new. By and large, his approach to the fight was typical to any Sean Strickland fight. He stood in his bizarrely square stance, kept his shoulder high, and parried while standing on one leg. He threw his arms out weirdly to block kicks in a form that every Muay Thai coach worth their salt would frown upon.
Strickland stood in front of the champion of the world for 25 minutes, pushed the pace, and walked away with nary a scratch on his face. That’s f—king defense! It’s telling that Strickland has now gone toe-to-toe with Adesanya and Jared Cannonier and walked away unscathed. He was widely mocked for losing to Alex Pereira, but you know what? It happens. “Poatan” is a legendary knockout artist. Sometimes, you get wet while dancing in the rain.
Last night was vindication for Strickland, proof that his defense is still excellent in the face of world-class kickboxing. His incredible defense stats exist for a reason ... and Adesanya failed to break that trend.
Strickland and his camp do deserve credit for one adjustment: low kick defense. Everyone who fights Strickland kicks the crap out of his legs. He does a remarkable job of just walking through low kicks without much of a limp, but when Brendan Allen, Abus Magomedov and Krzysztof Jotko all find success with calf kicks ... it’s reasonable to predict that Adesanya, one of the sport’s best low kicks and kickers in general, will hamper his movement.
Instead, I actually think Strickland prioritized taking away the low kick above all else. It’s my belief that he was less active than normal because he wanted to check and withdraw against the low kick more than he wanted to put numbers on Adesanya. Most of the time, Strickland’s lead leg is blasted while exposed from jabbing, a necessary aspect of his usual volume attack.
Strickland didn’t out-volume Adesanya. “Stylebender” threw way, way more. But, Strickland made him miss often and at all targets, and then Strickland made his punches count. That strategy is NOT usual Strickland, and it won him the title!
If you’re like me and entered UFC 293’s main event expecting a washout, take an extra moment to savor being so, so wrong. Fights like this are what make MMA such a great and intriguing sport! Grow too confident in fight outcomes and predictions and style match ups, and MMA will shock you, time and time again.
For complete UFC 293: “Adesanya vs. Strickland” results and play-by-play, click HERE.