There are a lot of ways to describe UFC middleweight contender Sean Strickland, but the one word that seems to encompass him best is unconventional.
Never one to bite his tongue in interviews or over social media, Strickland has often detailed the wars he seeks out in the gym not to mention a few fiery exchanges he’s had with some training partners or teammates in the past.
In recent months, Strickland has become a fixture at Xtreme Couture — one of the most established combat sports gyms in the world — while preparing for his upcoming main event fight against Jack Hermansson. Head coach Eric Nicksick will be the first to admit that Strickland is definitely one of a kind, but he also adds that 27-fight veteran has been a welcome addition to the team.
“I love working with him,” Nicksick said when speaking to MMA Fighting. “It just reminds me of the old school days at Xtreme Couture to be honest with you. When you have Mike Pyle and Jay [Hieron] and these guys get in on sparring day and they didn’t give a sh*t who you were and if you were friends. They were trying to fight you everyday and that was the vibe. Of course we went away from that because it wasn’t great for the longevity of your career but there’s an element of that, that I do like and a tenacity that I think is important.
“You want to have competition in the training room. Now Sean’s delivery is never the best. He doesn’t deliver things like nicely to people, but when you boil things down, the way Sean talks to his teammates or some of the people in the room, it’s really because he cares and he wants to get the best out of you.”
According to Nicksick, Strickland’s demeanor could rub some people the wrong way but he knows there’s a method behind the madness.
“I know it sounds weird to say but a lot of times he’ll ride certain fighters in the gym and he’s riding them because he sees more potential out of them than they’re giving themselves,” Nicksick explaind. “So understanding that Sean Strickland, he’s going to tell you how he feels.
“He’s going to be real all the time. I think it’s kind of a breath of fresh air because in this day and age, you don’t get that a lot.”
Because Strickland has earned a reputation for his ferocious style in the gym, Nicksick admits that they had to sit down and have a conversation about joining the team at Xtreme Couture, which counts a long list of UFC champions, former champions and top contenders among the ranks.
“We kind of just sat down and went over some ground rules on hey, this is the standard for the gym and the team,” Nicksick said. “We’re going to let you be you but you have to meet the standard and follow our rules as well and we’re not going to butt any heads. He’s been great. He’s been absolutely great since then.
“It’s funny because him and Brad Tavares will spar one round every sparring day. Brad will only give him one round. He goes ‘that’s it, that’s how we remain friends.’ If we spar more than one round, we’re going to fight, and we’re going to hate each other. So you get one round and that’s it, we’re done, moving on to somebody else.”
There may be no better way to understand Strickland than to hear about his call outs in the gym where he will seek out any fighter who could be better than him regardless of weight class.
Perhaps the name at the top of that list is UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou, who is likely 50 pounds heavier with a seven inch reach advantage, a three-inch height advantage and power that’s unmatched by anybody else in the sport of mixed martial arts.
None of that deters Strickland from asking to clash with Ngannou on sparring days and Nicksick can’t help but love that attitude.
“That dude will literally spar anybody in our gym,” Nicksick said. “He calls Francis out every sparring session. He loves to spar Francis because he goes ‘I want to feel as close to death as possible and I want to have that fear of god in my heart every time I spar a guy like Francis Ngannou.’ So sure, we throw him in there and let him get some rounds with Francis.
“I watched him and Roy Nelson get after it last week. Those two try to knock each other’s heads off and here’s Sean Strickland, big old smile ear to ear.”
Nicksick knows there are plenty of people who would rather not have the UFC heavyweight champion throwing punches at them even if it’s in a setting where training partners aren’t trying to knock each other out.
Meanwhile, Strickland loves to throw down with Ngannou every chance he gets.
“You feel like at any moment Francis could just [throw a punch] and knock his lights out if he wants to but Francis, to his credit, he’s done a really good job of keeping his sparring partners intact,” Nicksick said. “That’s been the challenge a lot of times having Francis in your gym is keeping guys alive and around that can give him the rounds that he needs. So I usually have a ‘hey, don’t break your toys’ and he’ll ease off.
“The rounds between him and Sean are actually very competitive. Sean gets in there and gets after it and Francis will entertain him if you will and not knock him out. There’s some great rounds and credit to Sean, not everybody is champing at the bit to hop in the cage with Francis.”
All of that serves as the example that Strickland has set since joining Xtreme Couture and Nicksick couldn’t ask for anything more out of him.
“He wants to compete and he wants to compete against the best in the room,” Nicksick said. “If there’s somebody better than him in the room, he’s going to ask for that round. He wants to compete. He wants to see where he needs to get better. You’ve got to give him credit.”