Friendly and professional are not words used to describe the build to Sean Strickland vs. Dricus du Plessis. Crass and combustible better define the UFC 297 main event in Toronto on Saturday. Strickland denies that emotions are high, but if that’s true it’s because the UFC middleweight champion and his team worked tirelessly to stay focused.
There wasn’t much baggage when Strickland vs. Du Plessis was announced last year, but tensions escalated with each encounter. Strickland and du Plessis were bizarrely seated one row apart at UFC 296. This unsurprisingly did not end well. Strickland leaped onto his opponent as people swarmed to separate the fighters. UFC president Dana White took responsibility for the alleged oversight but the company was more than willing to use the footage as promotional material to sell the PPV headliners.
“I was happy,” Strickland told CBS Sports this week. “I don’t know if you watched the brawl. I get to fight. That’s what people don’t understand… I’m a violent man. I never get to enact violence not in a cage. It’s nice. It’s freeing.”
Trouble started when the two came face to face for the first time at a press conference in December. The atmosphere was already ugly after Colby Covington used Leon Edwards’ deceased father as microphone fodder earlier in the week. It didn’t get any better when Strickland and du Plessis hit the stage and Strickland launched homophobic slurs at his challenger’s team. Du Plessis volleyed back by mocking Strickland’s childhood abuse.
“You think your dad beat the shit out of you? Your dad doesn’t have shit on me,” du Plessis said in December. “I’m going to show you what it’s like to get beaten. Every childhood memory you have is going to come back.”
“I will take your f—ing soul, you understand me? You f—ing p—y…” Strickland replied. “Yeah, you did hit a nerve, you f—ing bitch.”
Strickland brushed off the idea that he was emotionally charged during his scuffle with du Plessis. It’s hard to believe that happiness is the true root emotion at play but even happiness can be overwhelming. Strickland’s head coach at Xtreme Couture, Eric Nicksick, heard of the brawl while traveling. He diffused the tension by asking, “Did we win?” before putting on his mentor cap.
“I have to step in and say, ‘Look, this is what he wants from us.’ The best example I could possibly give was the guy who fought that night,” Nicksick told CBS Sports. “I said, ‘Leon Edwards was poked and some foul heinous shit was said about this dad. Do you know what he did? He fought tactically and calculated and didn’t let his emotions overrun the fight.’
“‘We’re not this type of fighter. We’re a tactical fighter. I think if you fight with emotion that favors Dricus.’ He said, ‘Nope, you’re right. You’re absolutely right. Let’s stay on our course.’ And that was that.”
Check out the full interview with Eric Nicksick below.
Strickland’s violent upbringing was nothing new, but his feud with du Plessis and increased celebrity put more attention on it. Strickland struggled to hold back tears in a recent interview with comedian Theon Von while reflecting on his childhood. It was a rare moment of vulnerability for a fighter whose reputation is built on irritating the politically correct.
“I’ve never hidden my past,” Strickland said this week. “I’ve never hidden that I’m a f—ing murderous human being and I love violence. Nothing has changed. Just another day in the life.”
Strickland continued to downplay the emotional toll of the last 30 days. It may be an indicator that his camp has succeeded in preparing him mentally. Strickland is volatile, but Nicksick has molded him into the focused fighter that upset Israel Adesanya to become champion.
“He’s really leaned on us. He’s leaned on his team,” Nicksick said. “He got a little emotional today after practice because it was his last spar at Xtreme Couture. The words that he said, the thing that translates most to me is that he has a family now… The gist that I got is that ‘I got a home. Thank you guys for giving me a home.’ I think that’s where a lot of people misunderstand him.
You won’t get far being sappy with Strickland. The man keeps his Philly Shell up. But ask him about the family he’s found at Xtreme Couture and you’ll spot a small window into his true source of strength.
“You can’t see my face but I have a black eye, I have a cut on my nose. These motherf—ers bleed with me day in and day out,” Strickland said. “I would not be here without these guys. The level of bond and friendship you get with your teammates is something the average man will never understand.
“We’re going to try to murder each other for the greater good of my fighting. I just like to thank them for all the work they put in. They show up day in, day out, brain damage. My team gives me so much that I’m forever grateful to them.”