Sean Strickland was one ridiculous story away from not becoming middleweight champion at UFC 293.
As Xtreme Couture coach Eric Nicksick tells it, the fighter’s mouth (and fists) almost got him into some serious trouble in Sydney. It was the kind of trouble that almost had the UFC call backup Jared Cannonier to replace him on fight night.
Strickland told Fox Sports Australia that he punched a fan in the stomach a week before the fight, and though the comments seemingly blew over, it was touch and go for a while, according to Nicksick.
“We were walking on eggshells all week,” Nicksick said Wednesday on The MMA Hour. “Honest to God, I thought we were going to get pulled. I really did. They went to the beach and Sean basically incriminates himself during fight week [in an interview], ‘Yeah, this guy comes up to me talking trash and I punched him in his belly.’ Apparently, the Australian government or whoever heard this, they got word of this, and it went downhill from there. It got to the point where they were flying John Crouch out from Arizona, from MMA Lab, to come out and corner Jared Cannonier.
“When I heard that, I was like, ‘Bro, we’re off. They’re going to pull us from this card.’ Remember, these guys probably didn’t want Sean in this spot to begin with. We were walking on thin ice the moment we got there. Every fan that we had an interaction with, when I was there, absolutely adored Sean, loved him. Pictures, hugs, this and that.
“The one day I’m not there, I get a call and they’re like, ‘Yeah, I guess some fan came up to Sean and started talking s***.’ And Sean just gave him a rip, like a little bump, I don’t even know, it wasn’t like he hit the guy hard or something. It flew under the radar, there was nothing being said about it, and then Sean’s dumb ass goes on and says something in an interview and basically incriminates himself and I’m like, ‘Bro, what are we doing?’”
Nicksick isn’t exactly sure how far the replacement talks went, or how close Strickland was to facing punishment from either the authorities or the UFC, but he’s grateful nothing happened to his fighter’s opportunity. He did, however, have one more incident to sweat out during fight week.
At the UFC 293 open workouts, Strickland invited a fan to come on stage and spar with him. It was a thrilling moment for the fan and a memorable scene for all involved, but Nicksick saw plenty of potential for calamity.
“Then we go to the open workout, and I’m just thinking in my head, ‘This is an awful idea,” Nicksick said. “I’m looking at everybody, Dave Lockett, Megan Olivi, I’m like, ‘What kind of liability is this right now?’ I’m going to tell Sean, ‘Don’t hit this guy hard and don’t get cut. This is beyond stupid.’
“Sean does what Sean does, and it turned into a hit. They loved him, Sean ended up getting the guy a ticket to the fight, the guy came to the fights, he was front row and he was there for Sean’s victory. Won the whole crowd over. The guy’s a sitcom. He’s an episode of Seinfeld. How is this guy going to get out of this jam today?”
Nicksick joked that along with a bodyguard assigned to the team and Strickland’s girlfriend, it was their job to “babysit” Strickland in the days leading up to the biggest fight of his career. As it turned out, Strickland was quick to win over the Australian fans, and by the time he was having the UFC belt wrapped around his waist, he was receiving plenty of vocal support from the crowd.
“Off the jump, I felt like it was going to be 50-50, and it kind of was, but just knowing Sean and his personality, I felt like he was going to win the people over,” Nicksick said. “I actually had a good talk with Luke [the bodyguard] about that, who’s from Sydney, and Luke was like, ‘Sydney, Australia, especially the rural parts, Sean Strickland is this style of human being out here, so he’s going to win the hearts of the Australian people pretty quickly.’ So he wasn’t surprised by it, a guy that lives in Sydney. Over the weekend, [Strickland] was the star of the show.”