UFC middleweight Sean Strickland has developed a reputation for being one of MMA’s most unfiltered and honest athletes, and now he has revealed that his life before fighting was filled with behavior he has come to deeply regret.
On a recent episode of The MMA Hour, Strickland shared the disturbing details of a troubled youth that involved a psychologically abusive father and the idolization of a racist grandfather that led him down the path of neo-Nazism when he was in grade school.
“The rough childhood thing, like everybody has a f*cking rough childhood,” Strickland said. “I’ve met people in my life that make my f*cking life look like Disneyland. For me, I was just really f*cking angry. I was so angry, I actually went through this weird neo-Nazi, white supremacist phase when I was younger, and I got kicked out of school for, like, hate crimes, all this crazy sh*t.
“I was just so angry, and I had a lot of f*cked up influences in my life, that it felt so good to f*cking hate something. I would walk down the street with just a knife or like a rock hoping to kill somebody. And when I started training I realized, ‘Man, you’re just f*cking angry.’”
Though Strickland doesn’t remember ever being physically abused, he was exposed firsthand to other cruelties that he was powerless to stop.
“It was a lot of psychological sh*t, like my dad was f*cking nuts,” Strickland said. “Let’s say you had something you really loved like a toy or something. He would come home f*cking drunk, maybe he thought my mom cheated on him, and he would just go f*cking break the toy.
“There was a story where I remember I used to sleep in my mom’s room a lot because I thought he’d kill my mom; I thought I’d wake up with my mom dead. One day, I f*cking crawled underneath their bed and he f*cking gets on top of my mom — maybe it was just rough sex, who f*cking knows? — he gets on top of my mom and he’s strangling her saying, ‘Tonight’s the night you’re gonna f*cking die.’ I’m probably like in the third grade, I’m young. The only thing I see is a guitar, so I go and I grab the guitar and I f*cking just smack him in the head as hard as I can. I grab the phone, I run out, I call the cops and my mom — her dumb ass, she f*cking bailed him out of jail the next day.”
With his relationship with both of his parents strained — he says he has a much better relationship with his mother now, while his father has since passed — a young and impressionable Strickland looked to his grandfather for guidance, which proved to be disastrous.
According to Strickland, it was his grandfather who first put him on the path to becoming a neo-Nazi.
“My grandfather was this big piece of sh*t,” Strickland said. “When you’re a kid, you don’t see that, you hero-worship him. My grandfather was, like, 6-foot-7 ... he just kind of filled your head with crazy sh*t. Because you’re in seventh grade, spouting off Nazi [ideas] — you don’t f*cking know that. You don’t even know what the f*ck that means.
“But you hear it and you think it’s someone you look up to and almost hero-worship because he was a massive figure that wasn’t my dad, and that identity consumed me. I’m drawing swastikas on my arm and walking to school and I didn’t know what the f*ck that was.”
Strickland’s fascination with neo-Nazi ideology only grew when he saw the film American History X, the 1998 film in which Edward Norton plays “Derek,” a violent white supremacist who has his world view challenged after going to prison.
It was the domineering lifestyle portrayed by Norton’s character and his allies in the first section of the film that initially appealed to Strickland. But like Derek, Strickland’s interactions with other cultures ended up changing him, and he now firmly renounces his past.
“Have you ever seen American History X?” Strickland said. “People always asked me when I was a kid who did I want to be? That’s who I wanted to be, was one of those guys. I thought they were so f*cking cool, man. I loved the life they lived, just dirty, white trash, to have respect, you know? When I was a kid, that was somebody I would hero-worship, that ideology.
“Again, I had no idea what the f*ck it meant. I’m in elementary school, I’m in seventh grade, I don’t know what the f*ck that means. Then I started training and the moment I started training I was like, f*ck man, I don’t hate anybody. Everyone’s cool. Then a lot of people who helped me out in my life, they weren’t white. Usually the white people in my life were f*cking dicks. A lot of ethnic people were the ones that held their hand out, which is nuts because I’m a little f*cking neo-Nazi Hitler Youth, and yet people are helping me out and they’re not even f*cking white. So that was a weird thing to deal with, and you also feel ashamed. Now, you feel shame because your entire life you’ve been spouting off this rhetoric — again I’m being a kid — and the next thing you know people are helping you and they’re not even f*cking white. It’s also shameful thing you have to come to terms with. My entire life I hated you just because of your color, and now you’re the one f*cking helping me out. Life is strange.”
It was after he said he was kicked out of school for committing a hate crime in the ninth grade — he does not recall the exact details of what he did — that his mother decided to take him to an MMA gym where he could work out his problems. Strickland and his brother, Lawrence, were fans of the earliest UFC events, and when Lawrence made fun of him for doubting he could become a fighter, that lit a fire under the future middleweight contender.
Strickland’s first day at the gym proved to be cathartic.
“I remember crying after I got done sparring,” Strickland said. “Even when I think about it, it makes my eyes water. I don’t think I ever really experienced happiness until that day. You’ve got to understand, you live your whole life in a certain mindset, and then you do something and then you’re just like, ‘F*ck dude, this is what it feels like. This is what normal people experience. I f*cking love this.’”
Currently on a five-fight winning streak, Strickland has gained notoriety not just for his impressive in-cage performances but his outlandish comments, including his declaration that he would like to “kill somebody” in the cage someday.
Even for a professional fighter, Strickland’s personality has shocked some fans. But he believes he’s simply a product of his environment and his childhood forced him to develop coping mechanisms that caused him to act in a way that was at odds with societal norms.
“I’m not a victim, I never say I’m a victim. I like who I am,” Strickland said. “But, I mean, just little sh*t, like I remember hugging my mom’s leg in the kitchen, pre-elementary school, my dad all f*cking drunk, telling my f*cking mom, ‘I’m gonna f*cking cut you up into little pieces and bury you in the backyard in a bottle of acid.’ So you grow up and you hear that sh*t day in and day out from my earliest memory … your brain biologically f*cking changes. So my brain was made in such a way to survive that encounter that whenever it came to transitioning to the normal world, fitting in, my brain wasn’t built for that. It wasn’t built for the modern world. It was built for the insanity that I grew up in.
“It was so hard for me once I got older, like 14, to transition from thinking about my mom dying every night to, ‘Alright, now it’s time to go be a normal person, go assimilate, go have a good time, go to a bar.’ So I fell into this weird hatred, like neo-Nazi thing, and I started training when I was around 14, 15, and it was like therapy. Just helping me with all my issues, I’d seen the light, like, wait a minute, I started connecting the mental dots of why the f*ck I feel the way I feel.”
Strickland began his pro career with the King of the Cage promotion, and he credits former KOTC fighter Neil Cooke with getting him into the business. That, and some questionable decision-making that arguably worked out in the end.
Despite a 5-0 start, Strickland was actually planning to return to school to earn his GED when fate once again played its hand.
“I turned 19, I almost wanted to quit fighting,” Strickland said. “I separated my shoulder and I was like, ‘F*ck fighting. This sh*t’s stupid. I’m broke, I f*cking hate my life.’ … I’m 19, riding a bike to the gym. Then I went to a f*cking party — because I had to finish high school so I wanted to get, like, 15 college credits to be eligible for a GED to join the army — and the day before class started I went to a f*cking party and I f*cking got in a fight and got arrested. I got charged with two felonies — they’re not felonies, I got [them] dropped down. I was so broke I had to pay my bail bondsman.
“So I was like, f*ck it, I called King of the Cage, I called [KOTC founder] Terry [Trebilcock], I said, ‘Terry I need money, I’m f*cking broke.’ And he got me a fight in South Africa, so that’s my life, the rest of that’s just history, that’s why I’m a fighter to this day.”
Strickland was victorious in South Africa and continued to rack up wins for KOTC, knocking off his first 15 opponents before getting a UFC call-up in 2014. He went 7-3 before being involved in a horrific motorcycle accident in December 2018 that threatened to end his career, but he returned two years later with a win over Jack Marshman and hasn’t lost since.
If he hadn’t gone to that party, hadn’t been arrested, hadn’t needed bail money, most fight fans likely would never have heard of him.
“I would have stopped, hands down,” Strickland said when asked if the circumstances of his arrest led to him continuing his career. “I hated it. I love fighting because I do it, but you have to understand that until you’re a UFC fighter — not even when you’re a UFC fighter, until you hit your four-fight contract — you’re a f*cking loser. You make sh*t money. All your friends have done something with their life, they’re making over $100,000, the UFC signed you at, like, what, 10 and 10? F*ck, that’s sh*t money.
“So even when you’re a UFC fighter, you’re still broke and you’re still a f*cking loser. Now take that back to King of the Cage, when you first start fighting you’re fighting for, like $500 and $500, like sh*t money. It’s a hard thing to be a fighter. You’ve got to f*cking love it, or have no other options in life.”