UFC 293 takes place this Saturday at the Qudos Bank Arena in Sydney, headlined by a middleweight title fight between Israel Adesanya and Sean Strickland. It’s not the matchup most wanted for Adesanya, but with the UFC needing to fill card space, it’s the one we’ve been given. Can Strickland pull off one of the biggest upsets in recent memory or will Adesanya start his second title reign off in dominant fashion? Let’s discuss.
Paths to Victory for Israel Adesanya at UFC 293
Adesanya is the second-greatest middleweight of all-time, behind only Anderson Silva. Even after losing his title to Alex Pereira last year, “The Last Stylebender” rebounded by knocking Pereira out in April, exorcising his demons and reasserting himself as the best striker in MMA. And that’s a good recipe for facing Strickland.
Adesanya is a former kickboxing standout who ported over to MMA beautifully, building a strong defensive wrestling game to supplement his primary skil lset, and at the risk of sounding overly simplistic, that’s all Adesanya needs in this matchup. Adesanya is tall and rangy, with expert footwork and a deep well of options that Strickland doesn’t possess. He can fight on the counter or off the lead, can lay traps and play with range, and simply open up scoring opportunities with his feints. In short, Adesanya can do just about everything on the feet and he can mix that all together in a blend of offensive and defensive efficiency that Strickland is going to struggle to compete against.
Heading into this fight, I suspect Adesanya’s game plan will be quite simple: Keep the fight at range and snipe Strickland with kicks and counter-shots when he becomes too aggressive. Strickland’s game is pretty pared down and he struggles a lot with opponents who kick. Adesanya is an excellent kicker and will almost certainly use those to score points and draw Strickland into a more aggressive style, opening up opportunities to counter.
Feints are the other weapon that Adesanya will likely lean heavily on. Adesanya has always been a big on using feints and Strickland has shown a propensity to bite on those, at times badly. If Adesanya can start opening up Strickland with feints, it won’t be long before he lands a big left hook or head kick that Strickland isn’t prepared for.
Paths to victory for Sean Strickland at UFC 293
Umm, a miracle? Seriously, when your own coach admits that this is a bad stylistic matchup for you, you know this is a tough one. Adesanya might not be as bad an opponent for Strickland as Pereira was (Pereira’s power is the difference-maker here), he’s still really, really bad for Strickland, and at least with Pereira there was the idea of taking advantage of his ground game. That’s not all that realistic here. Strickland simply doesn’t have enough tools to consistently generate offense in this one, and when he does, his offense is cumulative, not immediate. So what does he do?
Well, for starters, Strickland’s coach Eric Nicksick clued us in a little as to the plan: “What I love about Sean is his durability and his toughness. His ability to get into those deeper rounds and really drag on guys and make the fight gritty and turn the fight into his style of fight, where it gets ugly.” That’s the best plan I can see for Strickland as well. Kelvin Gastelum put Adesanya through hell by being shoe-leather tough and staying in his face. Strickland isn’t that same level of durable, but he can replicate some of the game plan and put his own twists on it to perhaps find some success.
The two key things I would suggest for Strickland in this fight is doubling up on the jab and committing to body work. Strickland has to come forward to score, and while that brings him directly into the line of fire, he’s also a sitting duck standing at range. Stepping in behind a jab that’s doubled and tripled up can offset Adesanya’s timing and allow Strickland to dictate more of the exchanges instead of putting his chin on a platter for counters.
The body work plays to Strickland’s strengths. For one, Adesanya’s head defense is exceptional and Strickland isn’t a one-shot puncher anyway. For another, Adesanya can fight five rounds comfortably, but Strickland would appear to have the better cardio, so tagging the body repeatedly should slow Adesanya down for the later rounds. If Adesanya starts to fade, his footwork slows up, which makes him more hittable and could allow Strickland to start stringing together real offense.
All the factors of this fight seems to be blatantly obvious on paper, but the one thing you can never account for in MMA is the gods and their fondness for entropy. After Adesanya reclaimed the middleweight title, the division looked to be in a standstill again, with Izzy having functionally cleared out the division. Then Dricus du Plessis — a man who Adesanya has genuine animosity for — upset Robert Whittaker and became the unquestioned No. 1 contender, and instead of getting that fight, we get Sean Strickland on short-ish notice in a matchup that even the UFC assumes will be a showcase for the champion. Wouldn’t it just be the most MMA thing in the world for Strickland to upset this applecart and throw a little chaos into the mix?
As fun as it would be for Strickland to somehow become UFC champion (and boy would it be funny), it seems nearly impossible for it to actually happen. This wouldn’t be the biggest upset of all-time (Matt Serra over Georges St-Pierre holds that title forever and always), but it would be right up there. Adesanya simply has too many tools and is too good for Strickland to do much other than bleed on him.
Israel Adesanya def. Sean Strickland by TKO (punches) — 1:25, Round 3.