Sean Strickland is a UFC champion. Do not adjust your screen. That is not a typo.
On Saturday, Strickland dethroned heavy favorite Israel Adesanya to win the UFC middleweight title via unanimous decision in the main event of UFC 293. Adesanya is among the greatest middleweight fighters ever to step into the Octagon. Strickland has primarily been a journeyman in his career. But this was no fluke. The polarizing Strickland won a one-sided match to earn the belt.
Although MMA is difficult to predict, Strickland’s win over Adesanya is one of the biggest upsets in UFC championship history.
Where does that victory stand in the annals of UFC title lore? What does this mean for the UFC middleweight division and its future? And how about Adesanya’s next steps?
Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim answer those questions and more, as we also look ahead to Noche UFC this coming Saturday in Las Vegas.
Real or not: Strickland’s victory over Adesanya is the most impressive title upset in UFC history.
Raimondi: Kinda real. There’s a case to be made. Other biggest upsets — Matt Serra over Georges St-Pierre, Holly Holm over Ronda Rousey, Julianna Peña over Amanda Nunes — all were via finish. Strickland’s was a comprehensive, unanimous decision victory. This was not a close fight by any stretch. He badly hurt Adesanya in the first round and then outpointed him in the majority of rounds thereafter.
Strickland had a terrific game plan — Xtreme Couture’s Eric Nicksick probably just locked up Coach of the Year — and stuck with it. It was a marvelous performance, not a fluke. Strickland was simply better than Adesanya at UFC 293, as ridiculous as that might have sounded before the fight. And that’s all you need in this wild sport. The respective résumés don’t matter once you get into the Octagon. Anything can happen in there. On Saturday, the impossible did.
Okamoto: Not real. Unbelievable, for sure, but not the most impressive ever. Serra’s knockout of St-Pierre in 2007 has long been the benchmark of UFC title-fight upsets, and it still stands well above this one. Holly Holm’s demolition of Ronda Rousey was also more impressive.
This one stands out in that Strickland beat Adesanya for five rounds — at his own game, no less — but other than the first-round knockdown, there weren’t a lot of highlights to pull from it. I would rank TJ Dillashaw‘s upset of Renan Barao ahead of this one, in that it was also far more dominant over the course of five rounds. I’m certainly not trying to diminish what Strickland did, but it’s not No. 1.
Wagenheim: Not real. Strickland was mighty impressive, no doubt about it. It wasn’t simply that he dethroned Adesanya, it was how he did it. Strickland didn’t just clip the champ with a game-changing punch for an unlikely finish; he walked him down for five relentless rounds. But only those with short memories would call this the most impressive upset in UFC championship history. There have been several iconic upsets through the years — and in every one of those cases, the champ being dethroned had not been knocked out less than a year earlier, as was the case with Adesanya.
Is there a more up-for-grabs division in the UFC right now than middleweight?
Wagenheim: I understand why this question is being asked since the middleweight title has changed hands in three straight championship fights. But things don’t get more “up for grabs” than at light heavyweight, women’s bantamweight and women’s featherweight. All three weight classes have vacancies at the top of the mountain. The women’s 145-pound division appears to be a lost cause, with few fighters on the UFC roster competing at that weight and no contenders in sight. But many 205-pound men and 135-pound women have something to grab for. Unlike them, the middleweights at least have someone to chase.
Raimondi: The only other ones that immediately spring to mind are women’s bantamweight and light heavyweight, because the titles are vacant and up for grabs. Many people think Jirí Procházka will return soon and take what was his before, though. Certainly, that’s no slam dunk. That’s a division where styles will make fights.
Middleweight does seem wide open, depending on your view of where Adesanya is at this point in his career. Skill for skill, he’s still the best guy the 185-pound weight class has. Maybe the UFC does the immediate rematch, which UFC president Dana White has indicated would be next, and Adesanya wins to get right back on top. In any case, the face of the division seems to be changing. Adesanya just lost the title for the second time in two years. Dricus Du Plessis knocked off Robert Whittaker in July. And Khamzat Chimaev will be waiting in the wings if he beats Paulo Costa at UFC 294 on Oct. 21 in Abu Dhabi.
Okamoto: The division is up for grabs because its current champ, Strickland, would be a betting underdog against any of the other top six names at the weight. So, it’s up for grabs in that the champ seems beatable. I wouldn’t call it the most up-for-grabs belt in the UFC.
Women’s bantamweight is wide open with the departure of Amanda Nunes. That one is most up for grabs to me. Bantamweight is up for grabs with the amount of parity at the top. Sean O’Malley, Aljamain Sterling, Merab Dvalishvili, Henry Cejudo, Marlon Vera, Cory Sandhagen — I could see any of those holding the belt on any given night.
After UFC 293, if you’re Israel Adesanya’s manager, what do you tell him to do next?
Izzy still vibing after the loss to Sean Strickland 😂
— ESPN MMA (@espnmma) September 10, 2023
Wagenheim: I’d advise Adesanya to focus on two “R” words — and neither of them is “rematch.” I believe the two-time former champ needs time to rest and reflect. The rest I’m referring to is not physical. It’s mental. On Saturday night, in losing for the second time in his past three bouts, Adesanya looked like a fighter without a lot of fight. As Round 5 began, it was clear he needed a finish to remain champ, but where was his drive to go for it? Adesanya could use some time away from the sport to relocate the motivation that made him a pound-for-pound top-five mainstay. Or perhaps Adesanya will decide that he doesn’t want to be doing this.
Okamoto: Take a break, man. Disappear off the grid. Adesanya has always thrived on a busy schedule, but I’m sorry, there has to be a limit to that. In a post on social media on Sunday, Adesanya hinted as much when he said he was going to be with family before addressing “the people.” Adesanya has been highly active, and his last fight against Alex Pereira carried some of the biggest stakes we’ve seen in UFC history. His entire fighting legacy was on the line against a man he’d lost to multiple times back in April.
The pressure of that is hard to define, and then he essentially went right back into camp. He also suffered a knockout loss just nine months ago. We shouldn’t dismiss that like it was nothing, just because he happened to beat Pereira in the rematch. The competitive pressure, weight cuts and media pressure have a cumulative effect. I’d be telling Adesanya to bail on all of it. Disappear for a while, and come back fresh when the time is right.
Raimondi: Take a break. Seriously. Adesanya’s activity over the past few years is incredibly laudable. But it also might be unsustainable. There’s a reason UFC champions have not fought as often as he does. The stresses on the body and mind are unlike most things in sports. This was Adesanya’s seventh UFC title fight in the past 30 months. That’s an absurd clip. And if we’re putting it in perspective, Adesanya is only 4-3 during that stretch. He’s 2-2 in his past four fights. The signs that he should slow down have been there, but we’ve ignored them because he’s so entertaining to watch two to three times per year.
Where do you rank Valentina Shevchenko among the greatest women’s fighters of all time?
Okamoto: Fourth. 1. Nunes. 2. Ronda Rousey. 3. Cris Cyborg. 4. Shevchenko. I see Rousey and Cyborg as interchangeable. You can make a strong case for either of them to be No. 2. I view Shevchenko as close behind them.
If Shevchenko reclaims her belt against Alexa Grasso this week and moves on to another title challenger, she would be very close to jumping up to No. 2. It’s easy to be a little down on Shevchenko because she hasn’t been her dominant self since 2021, but don’t let that overshadow what this woman has done over the past two decades. She is one of the best ever to do it, regardless of gender, and there’s a good chance I’ll comfortably rank her as the second best of all time.
Raimondi: Probably in the top five. Amanda Nunes is at the top of the list. Ronda Rousey has to be on there somewhere. Cris Cyborg. Shevchenko is among those names, for sure. Shevchenko’s reign as the UFC women’s flyweight champion was historic. She had seven successful title defenses, the most consecutive title defenses by any woman in UFC history. Only Nunes had more total (eight) across two different divisions.
We’ve learned over the past several years that staying on top as UFC champion is demanding. We all got a reminder of that Saturday at UFC 293. So, those kinds of long runs with the belt, like the one Shevchenko had, need to be respected and appreciated. We’ll see how much Shevchenko has left in the tank. Mentally, there is no one stronger. But age and miles are undefeated.
Wagenheim: Fourth. Obviously, Amanda Nunes is No. 1, and Cris Cyborg is right behind. A case can be made for Shevchenko at No. 3, but I’m ranking Rousey there because of her run of quick finishes and unprecedented dominance. Now, if Shevchenko were to regain her flyweight belt on Saturday and then get the bantamweight strap, she could leapfrog “Rowdy Ronda.” Maybe. But now, I don’t have her breaking into the top three.