Veteran scrapper, Sean Strickland, will square off opposite knockout artist, Jared Cannonier, this Saturday (Dec. 17, 2022) at UFC Vegas 66 inside UFC Apex in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Strickland enters this fight is an unusual position: as the butt of the joke. Fight fans around the world were shocked when Strickland purposefully struck with Alex Pereira, and the general reaction was the exact opposite of surprise when Pereira flattened him in the very first round. Why did Strickland stand with the nastiest knockout artist in perhaps the entire sport? Because he’s CRAZY! Lost in all the hubbub is the simple fact that Strickland remains a very talented Middleweight, even if he made some dumb decisions against Pereira (more on that later).
Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:
Strickland has really proven his striking skill since his move to Middleweight. Strickland may have a bit of an awkward, flat-footed style, but consistent offense and excellent defense are responsible for his rise into the Top 10.
He’s a boxer first and foremost. All the way back early in his UFC career vs. Luke Barnatt, Strickland showcased a solid jab. He’s still using that probing strike to find his distance and do damage, but Strickland’s hands have been exceptionally loose in recent performances. As a result, he’s really snapping the punch, which is why seemingly innocuous connections are bloodying up the nose and convincing his foes to back off. Strickland doubles up the jab well and will often follow with his right hand.
In his recent wins, Strickland has shown how he can employ his boxing skills in various situations (GIF). Against Brendan Allen, for example, Strickland did tremendous work from the back foot. Allen stalked his foe, looking to establish his own jab and kicks. The low calf kicks were definitely an issue — they usually are against a jabber like Strickland — but the Californian did do a nice job of intercepting Allen’s jab with his own. In addition, he helped avoid the low kicks by scoring a takedown off one early in the bout.
Having at least somewhat mitigated his foe’s primary range offense, Strickland was landing the better shots, encouraging Allen to push forward even harder. Despite his reputation for flat-footedness, Strickland actually changed directions really well once in the pocket. He’d wait for Allen to throw then evade at an angle, often stepping to his left behind a check left hook or intercepting right hook across the center line.
Allen landed some shots, but he consistently walked into harder ones while trying to force a scrap. Just as he started to pick up a bit of momentum with his low kicks, Strickland planted his feet and really sat on a counter 2-3 combination. Both punches landed clean, and Strickland swarmed hard to score the finish of a very bright talent (GIF).
In his next bout, Strickland walked Krzysztof Jotko down the entire fight. Initially, Strickland was having trouble getting his jab going and walked into left hands, but he soon made smart adjustments. He began leading with his cross and following up with the left hook, which can often catch Southpaws blind.
Jotko was avoiding the pocket and staying evasive, which forced Strickland to kick more often. He first established a front kick up the middle with his right leg. Then, Strickland began targeting the lead calf with switch kicks. Throughout the second half of the fight, Strickland was lifting his knees in marching steps, keeping his foe confused on which strike was coming and helping him to land more and more significant calf kicks. The slower Jotko’s feet grew, the more Strickland touched him with punches.
Finally, Strickland defeat Uriah Hall primarily by out-jabbing “Prime Time,” which is no easy feat. Hall’s best weapon is his jab, a powerful tool that capitalizes on his massive reach. Despite this, Strickland was able to outwork him with his own lead hand for a number of reasons.
For one, Strickland was throwing more jabs. Hall’s jab is a piston, but Strickland was likely throwing three jabs for each of his opponents — the simple numbers game counts for quite a bit. In addition, Strickland was well-prepared for Hall’s jab, making the adjustment of sliding his right hand in front of his chin, keeping it there and ready to parry. As a result, he was able to fire back right away, further discouraging Hall from jabbing with him.
Many exchanges went something like this: Strickland flicked a jab, Hall attempted to answer with a power jab that was parried, and Strickland immediately fired back a jab or left hook of his own. Now, Strickland definitely got stung right on the nose a few times in the process, but winning the jab battle allowed him to keep Hall on his back foot and prevent many of his big swings before they happened.
Strickland’s defense has to be mentioned as a strength, even if it played into Pereira’s hands. Strickland really excels at parrying punches and checking hands while advancing. Even when shots do land, he does good work in rolling with them, and in general is statistically one of the more difficult to hit men at 185 lbs. Unlike the vast majority of MMA fighters, Strickland is generally comfortable and competent at seeing punches in the pocket, likely a testament to the mass amounts of sparring Strickland tends to do.
Strickland’s ability to parry shots and fire back — on the counter or lead foot — is a core component of his game. It’s pretty much what makes Sean Strickland who he is as an athlete. Though adding takedowns into his attack would’ve been wise, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Strickland remained true to his style against Pereira. Going against elite opposition and only bringing one’s B game to the table is a difficult prospect, even if Pereira’s left hook demanded an adjustment.
Strickland’s bouts tend to end up kickboxing battles more often than not. He’s definitely opportunistic with his ability to gain top position. For example, two of his more recent takedowns came from catching a kick from Allen and hitting a switch on Court McGee — reacting to his opponent’s offense. It may not usually be a main aspect of his game plan, but Strickland has been pretty nasty with top strikes when able to get on top.
Against Hall, Strickland was more active with his attempts to ground his opponent. He shot for a few double legs along the fence and did find an outside trip in the open, but much of his success came when Strickland was able to get behind Hall. From that position, Strickland dragged his foe down several times, even throwing in a hook standing to help trip his opponent to the canvas.
Defensively, “Tarzan” has defended an impressive 80 percent of the takedowns that have come his way. Often, Strickland will use the fence to defend, leaning against the cage and spreading his legs wide. He does a nice job of hand-fighting from this position, preventing his opponent from locking up the double and keeping him stuck on one leg.
In the last five years, only Kamaru Usman has managed to take down Strickland.
Strickland has secured four wins via tapout in his professional career, but his sole submission inside the Octagon came in his UFC debut vs. Bubba McDaniel. That performance was a great demonstration of how important strikes can be to MMA grappling exchanges, as Strickland pummeled his foe with elbows and punches to convince McDaniel that giving up his back was a good idea.
It was not. Strickland has attacked the back in other bouts, but it has not yet resulted in another rear-naked choke finish. He did manage to do big damage to Hall from top position as well, convincing him to give up his back before the clock ran out.
Fortunately, Strickland has yet to be submitted inside the cage, either. He did scramble with a grappling specialist in Igor Araujo quite a bit back in the day, holding his own with the jiu-jitsu black belt and never winding up in trouble.
Strickland is a very consistent Middleweight, which is uncommon. He has consistently strong defense on the feet and on the canvas, and he combines that skill with an ability to push the pace and wear on his opponents. Whether he can implement his style against a second-consecutive knockout threat in Cannonier remains to be seen, but Strickland should be expected to fight like usual.
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport’s most elite fighters.
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