Israel Adesanya’s next title defense should be his easiest one yet – if things were ever that simple.
Few are giving challenger Sean Strickland a shot at dethroning the middleweight king when they meet in the main event of UFC 293 on Saturday in Sydney. But then again, stranger things have happened in combat sports, and Strickland has proven himself time and time again to be one of the toughest outs in the division. Can Strickland really pull off the upset, and if so, where would that moment stand among the biggest surprises in MMA history?
Join MMA Fighting’s Shaun Al-Shatti, Jed Meshew, Alexander K. Lee, and Steven Marrocco as they attempt to figure out whether a Strickland championship victory could send the world spinning off of its axis – and other talking points heading into UFC 293.
1. Where would an Israel Adesanya loss rank among the all-time great upsets?
Al-Shatti: It wouldn’t break into the Al-Shatti all-time top three (Matt Serra def. Georges St-Pierre, Julianna Peña def. Amanda Nunes, Michael Bisping def. Luke Rockhold), but it’d have a pretty damn convincing case for breaching into the top 10. Strickland is the definition of an elite gatekeeper — he loses to the guys he should lose to at 185 pounds but beats everybody else. His best career win is what, Brendan Allen? Jack Hermansson? And there’s nothing wrong with that. Every division needs these kinds of guys. Your Rob Fonts, your Vicente Luques, your Calvin Kattars — the types who separate the wheat from the chaff and keep weight classes humming along. Strickland plays an important role in the middleweight ecosystem, but there’s still a Grand Canyon sized chasm between excelling in that role and becoming The Man Who Beat The Man.
Strickland isn’t a power puncher, is far from a fearsome wrestler, and his own head coach even admitted that Adesanya is a terrible stylistic matchup for the skill set the American carries. He’s as high as a 6-to-1 underdog (and climbing) for a reason. Strickland isn’t outworking and outguiling one of history’s most sophisticated middleweight strikers en route to a 25-minute decision, so if he flies into enemy territory and stuns the world by finishing the second-greatest 185-pounder to ever do it, yeah, that’s a top 10 upset all-time.
Meshew: Well, let’s start here: from a gambling standpoint, it actually wouldn’t be that big. Adesanya is only a -600 betting favorite over Strickland. In just the UFC’s history, we’re looking at Holly Holm upsetting Ronda Rousey (-1400), Serra over GSP (-1300), and Peña over Nunes (-1125) as much bigger upsets, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are at least 10 bigger betting upsets across MMA history.
That being said, Strickland somehow feels more improbable than any of those happening (particularly the Peña one, since I called that). As Shaheen pointed out, Strickland doesn’t seem to have the style to do much of anything to Adesanya. But never underestimate the MMA Gods’ thirst for entropy. The Gods are chaos merchants with a terrible sense of humor, and in a year that has already been full of some of the funniest/stupidest outcomes possible, Strickland claiming the UFC middleweight title and derailing Adesanya vs. Dricus Du Plessis would be extremely on brand for them.
So it’s probably 50-50 it happens.
Lee: I’ll be the first one to tell you that just based on circumstances that can never be recreated, nothing will top Serra knocking out St-Pierre to win the welterweight title. But Strickland finding a way to topple Adesanya is definitely something none of us would forget anytime soon, nor dismiss so easily.
If we’re going to compare it to some of the aforementioned all-time great upsets, it’s probably closest to Peña beating Nunes, as far as why the challenger received the title opportunity (to put it kindly, there is nobody left at the moment that fit Adesanya’s timeline and desire to fight in Sydney), and how one would most likely picture the shock victory playing out (and unless you want to give Strickland the classic “puncher’s chance,” his best bet is to push the pace for five rounds and hope for the best). One could also make the case that Strickland and Peña share a propensity for ruffling feathers in interviews and on social media, with neither having much grace when it comes to their public personas.
So I’m more than comfortable putting it in the Peña-Nunes range, which would make it a top 5 upset at the very least. Strickland’s style seems tailor-made for Adesanya to exploit. We have a lot of significant in-cage data to work with, and nothing we’ve seen suggests that he has a path to victory. We know Adesanya is better. But again, there’s nothing like a bizarro MMA fight to remind us that we truly know nothing.
Marrocco: It would fracture the space-time continuum. Duh, just read the headline.
Lee: Now that you mention it, we should probably dig further into the potential aftermath of such a reality-warping result.
1b. What would a Sean Strickland championship reign look like?
Marrocco: About what it would look like if Colby Covington won the title, albeit meaner. It seems like Strickland is making a hard pivot to MAGA, so I expect all the usual talking points aimed at culture wars with even less regard for coherence. That’s just outside the cage. In it, I don’t expect Strickland to stay champion very long. His talent for suffocating opponents will be his eventual downfall when somebody finds his chin or wrestles him to the canvas for five rounds. I don’t see Strickland suddenly turning into GSP and taking the safe route. So he’ll be a car crash to watch, while he lasts.
Al-Shatti: A self-admitted former neo-Nazi who was booted out of school for hate crimes, rants ceaselessly about pronouns and why women should stay in the kitchen, and speaks openly and proudly about his yearning to murder people? Who are we kidding? This is the Disney era, baby! Controversy sells, and that kind of publicity is the Mouse’s wet dream. Strickland’s title reign likely wouldn’t be here for a long time, but it’d certainly be here for a good time (if you’re into that sort of thing). Hell, Disney executives could probably buy themselves a few new private islands solely off the inevitable rematch considering the unprecedented amounts of s*** Strickland would hurl Adesanya’s way.
Meshew: I’m zigging while everyone else is zagging here: I don’t think it would be that bad. Yes, Strickland says and does some really lame stuff, but the list of MMA fighters who have done and said terrible things is honestly impossible to keep track of. It’s just part of the sport and probably always will be. And for Strickland’s flaws, he’s at least wholly himself, which is better than the performative bigotry of Colby Covington, or insipid misogyny of Sean O’Malley.
Far be it for me to be the Strickland defender here, but while I disagree with just about everything he says, there are two important things to remember about him. First, he is a company man to his bones. He’s going to do what is asked of him, which means he won’t get too wild on the mic, at least not on a UFC mic. That’s been the case for his entire career, and it’s not like he just recently became who he is.
Second, and this one is harder to explain, but Strickland’s abhorrent actions are somewhat softened by the fact that he comes off as a profoundly damaged and lost individual, instead of as someone posturing as the messiah. If you say something terrible, but follow it up with “I’m a white trash motherf*****” (his words), I dunno, that seems more palatable. Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems like the times he does get out of pocket, he won’t be inspiring a clutch of people to commit hate crimes in the same way other people might.
Plus, it’s not like he can possibly hold the belt for long anyway. Right?
2. How does UFC 293 compare to the rest of 2023’s pay-per-view lineups?
Lee: As a man of science (and, of course, Xyience), it’s my duty to go by process of elimination here, and after considerable deliberation, one can only conclude that UFC 293 is either the worst or second-worst UFC pay-per-view lineup of the year so far.
Harsh, but true.
What would you rank beneath it? UFC 289? A strong contender (or whatever the reverse of contender is), but besides Amanda Nunes-Irene Aldana, we had a hardcore’s dream co-main event of Charles Oliveira vs. Beneil Dariush. That’s arguably a better fight than anything on UFC 293. Dan Ige vs. Nate Landwehr also looked like a banger on paper, even if didn’t pop off in practice.
UFC 293? I’ll give you that one, which was headlined by a makeshift light heavyweight title fight between Jamahal Hill and Glover Teixeira, a fourth Brandon Moreno-Deiveson Figueiredo fight (an awesome series, but I understand if there was fatigue with these two at this point), and then decent star power with Gilbert Burns vs. Neil Magny, Jessica Andrade vs. Lauren Murphy, and Johnny Walker vs. Paul Craig on the main card. It loses major points for the Shogun Rua retirement fight against Ihor Potieria. So that could be the worst.
But other than that, you’re not putting UFC 293 — a lineup that inexplicably features two heavyweight fights on the main card — above any other card this year, most of which featured either a must-see championship headliner, two title fights, or a hot headliner backed up by a strong undercard.
As much as I love a card that features the nicknames “Blood Diamond,” “Ladies Night,” and “The Pleasure Man,” that appreciation can only take my evaluation so far.
Marrocco: How do I put this nicely? Not great. But hey, welcome to 2023, otherwise known as Dana White’s Contender Championship. As the old (and expensive) heroes continue to retire, they are replaced by fighters who’ve come through the development show. Some have stuck around, and many have flamed out after a handful of fights. A few, however, have won titles, meaning they’re here to stay, for better or for worse.
This pay-per-view offering is an Australia vs. the world card, and that country has reliably produced exciting fighters. Placed in front of a home crowd, I think (and I hope) they’ll come to scrap, and the dearth of star power will be offset by a bunch of bangers. At this point in the sport’s evolution, I’m just as happy to accept that as anything else.
Meshew: It’s the worst PPV event of the year, and it probably ranks as a lower quality non-APEX fight card. This is a main event that isn’t even the title fight we want, and then there’s four other fights of nominal importance. The lone saving grace of this card is that the Australia crowd should be lively for all the regional fighters on the card, but that’s really the only thing to hang your hat on.
It’s official: this card receives no Meshewlin stars. First PPV of the year not to earn any.
3. Which storyline outside of the main event has you most intrigued?
Lee: Did I mention the awesome nicknames? Because that’s about it.
OK, as the resident “Prince of Positivity,” I suppose it’s my duty to shine a light on some of the bright spots here, and if you dig into the card just a little, it’s not that difficult. For one, these international shows always guarantee a receptive crowd, and they’ll have plenty to cheer for with the likes of Tai Tuivasa, Justin Tafa, Tyson Pedro, Carlos Ulberg, Jamie Mullarkey and more representing their people. If even half of the Oceanic set end up with their hands raised, Qudos Bank Arena will be rocking by the end of the night.
Then there’s the fact that (fingers crossed) we might actually get to see Manel Kape fight this year. The hard-hitting flyweight has lost out on fights with Alex Perez, Figueiredo and would-be UFC 293 dance partner Kai Kara-France, but finally, FINALLY, it looks like he’ll get a chance to extend his three-fight winning streak.
So tip of the cap to undefeated 22-year-old prospect Felipe dos Santos for stepping up to the plate, if only to keep one of the division’s most exciting fighters on the card.
Al-Shatti: I’m personally offended that AK used up two separate storylines for a card that’s grossly lacking in compelling options for this question. Leave some for the rest of us, guy.
I was going to say Kape fighting anyone with a pulse, because that dude is the best kind of lunatic on the rare occasions we actually get to see him compete. But since Mr. Prince of Positive already mentioned him, I suppose I’ll default to the big boys. Regardless of whether he wins or losses, no one has ever had a bad time watching Tai Tuivasa fistfight another human being — and really, the prospect of seeing Shoeyvasa Mania run wild over a delirious Sydney crowd is simultaneously gross and delightful, a tandem you rarely see these days.
Marrocco: Well, obviously it’s the heavyweight bout between ... no. Actually, it’s that really important flyweight contest featuring ... darn. Can I pass on this one?
But seriously, here’s one from the rafters: John Makdessi. This guy has been a UFC fighter for 13 years now. That’s a lot! He hasn’t fought more than once a year since 2016, so that should partially explain the length of his tenure. The Canadian has endured a lot of injuries. But by golly, he is a link to sponsored trunks past, a Tristar vet who keeps on trucking well past his contemporaries at the height of the Montreal gym.
Why is he still doing this? How much does he have left in the tank? Will we say goodbye to another link to the UFC’s past on Saturday? He’s fighting the tough and slightly underrated Mullarkey, so chances are high that no matter the outcome, he may lay down his gloves. Then I’ll feel sad and just a little bit older, but also get a little hit of nostalgia that keeps me going on this ride.
Meshew: None of them. That’s why this card doesn’t get any Meshewlin stars.