Tuesday, December 5, 2023

UFC 293 results, takeaways: Sean Strickland may have scored the biggest upset in promotional history

In a sport as unpredictable as mixed martial arts, it’s hard to ever feel completely confident in the result of a fight — regardless of the betting odds — before it takes place. 

Yet, somehow, even that doesn’t properly prepare for the shock that is the aftermath of Saturday’s UFC 293 pay-per-view card from Sydney, Australia, after Sean Strickland stunned nearly everyone in a unanimous decision over Israel Adesanya to capture the UFC middleweight title. 

Elsewhere on the card, Alexander Volkov scored a second-round submission of hometown favorite Tai Tuivasa with an ezekiel choke. The former Bellator heavyweight champ picked apart the Aussie fighter on the feet before dropping him and securing full mount, where he then smothered Tuivasa for the unique submission. Plus, both Justin Tafa and Tyson Pedro were able to send the hometown fans happy with first-round knockouts in brutal fashion. 

Let’s take a closer look at the biggest takeaways from the UFC’s latest trip down under. 

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1. This wasn’t a fluke, it was a systematic dismantling

Remember that overused saying from boxing that styles make fights? That was never more evident than Strickland’s shocking upset win as he never shot for a single takedown yet outstruck (not to mention, outclassed) the man whom UFC analyst Joe Rogan has often called the greatest striker in the sport’s history. Strickland didn’t employ the reckless and desperate style he teased that he would during fight week when he announced his intentions of channeling Kelvin Gastelum, who once dragged Adesanya into deep waters in their memorable 2019 interim title fight, by taking big chances to lure the champion into a brawl. Instead, he painted a masterpiece of patient yet intentional boxing by constantly pushing Adesanya back to the cage with pressure all the while retaining responsible defense behind his modified “Philly shell” style. 

Although Adesanya is known as one of the most dangerous counter strikers in the game today, Strickland rarely gave him a clean target he could hit by moving his head and relying on an active, high guard to parry Adesanya’s punches. From there, Strickland simply relied on the basics of a long jab and well-timed right crosses, one of which dropped Adesanya to close Round 1 and nearly led to a finish. Not only did Strickland never let Adesanya get comfortable, he refused to fight on the champion’s terms, save for a rather pedestrian Round 2 that Adesanya swept on all three scorecards thanks to cleaner punching. But the remainder of the fight was all Strickland as he systematically chipped away at Adesanya and swelled up his right eye. Strickland was so persistent and perfect that his constant pressure even prevented Adesanya from seizing enough urgency to go for broke in the final round. 

2. There’s a case to be made this is the biggest upset in UFC title history

I get it, Georges St-Pierre appeared nearly unbeatable until Matt Serra stopped him with punches in 2007. The same could be said for Ronda Rousey until a head kick from Holly Holm upended her in 2015. And let’s not forget about the injury-induced implosion from Amanda Nunes against Julianna Pena in 2021 or Leon Edwards’ Round 5 head kick heard around the world against Kamaru Usman the following year. The difference between those fights, which often appear on the short list of greatest upsets in UFC history, and Strickland-Adesanya is that there isn’t an obvious excuse as to why the champion came up short. This upset wasn’t caused by a single lucky strike, a big mistake or the misfortune of a bad cut. Adesanya, who knocked out rival Alex Pereira in April to win back his 185-pound title, was nearly a 7-1 betting favorite against a fighter who was only getting a title shot because of a perfect storm of events, including Adesanya having cleaned out the division and Dricus du Plessis not being healthy enough for a quick turnaround. 

Strickland had also previously come up short in consecutive attempts at fighting elite competition (Pereira and Jared Cannonier) and although he bounced back with a pair of victories, they simply didn’t come against world beaters. Add in the fact that Strickland was previously dismissed as a fighter without a clear cut path to a title victory given his lack of one-punch power and a largely non-existent ground game, and this upset starts to feel unique unto itself. Adesanya has never been unbeatable, as evidenced by his own fifth-round knockout loss to Pereira last fall. But he entered a style matchup that, on paper, he simply couldn’t lose. Only he did, and did so in a manner unworthy of debate or asterisks. In the case of Holm-Rousey, there’s an argument to be made that we should have seen that upset coming (at least, in hindsight) given the gap in technical striking skills between them. When it comes to Strickland beating Adesanya at exactly what the former champion does best, and making it look easy in the process, there’s a case to be made that this was the most unlikely of all. 

3. Although star power may get him one, Adesanya doesn’t deserve a rematch

If there’s a trope that UFC has leaned on too often in recent years, it’s granting an immediate rematch to a long-reigning champion following a defeat. Even Valentina Shevchenko, who shockingly tapped out to a choke from Alexa Grasso in March to drop the UFC women’s flyweight crown, will get a second chance to reclaim her title next weekend. But in the case of Adesanya, who has now lost the title twice in a 10-month period and failed to have an answer for Strickland’s attack, it’s time for the UFC to move on because the former champion doesn’t deserve it. Not only is du Plessis already due for the next shot at the belt, rising star Khamzat Chimaev has a fight next month against Paulo Costa that UFC president Dana White, earlier this week, seemed to tease could produce the next challenger. At Saturday’s post-fight press conference, however, White appeared to change his tune altogether by suggesting Strickland-Adesanya II would be next. Even if such a move is the right call for business, that doesn’t make it right in practice.

4. Eric Nicksick is quietly becoming one of the best trainers in the world

Although he has previously won coach of the year awards from various online publications in both 2020 and 2022, Nicksick has never been one to brag or overly inflate his own growing stardom. Yet the head coach of Extreme Couture in Las Vegas continues to show himself as a master gameplanner and cool head in the corner. On Saturday, he not only guided Strickland to an unlikely UFC title, he kept firecracker and flyweight contender Manel Kape calm between rounds in his decision win two fights earlier against newcomer Felipe dos Santos who tried his best to lure Kape into a war. Nicksick’s biggest victory as coach, however, may have come when Francis Ngannou fought through a serious knee injury to surprisingly outwrestle Cyril Gane to unify the UFC heavyweight title in 2022. Adding such a thorough audit of Adesanya by Strickland should only add to the growing reputation Nicksick has built as one of the sharpest minds in the game.

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