MMA Awards 2023: Why Sean Strickland won Men's Fighter of the Year

Author Photo
The Sporting News

Entering 2023, the idea that Sean Strickland would be in consideration for The Sporting News male MMA fighter of the year was highly unlikely. He didn’t have a great 2022 that saw him close the year with the first two-fight losing streak of his career when he was brutally knocked out by Alex Pereira and dropped a close decision to Jared Cannonier. 

It appeared that the top of the 185-pound division belonged to Israel Adesanya and Alex Pereira with Strickland being considered as nothing more than a gatekeeper. 

MORE: The 2024 MMA schedule

And then the calendar turned to 2023 and Strickland had one of the most unlikely runs to a championship that you’ll ever see, going 3-0 despite being the betting underdog in every fight. 

Less than a month after losing to Cannonier, Strickland reported back to the Octagon for an assignment at light heavyweight against Nassourdine Imavov in the main event of UFC Vegas 67. The opportunity came about when Imavov’s original opponent, Kelvin Gastelum, was forced out of the fight with an injury and Strickland pounced on the opportunity to erase his previous setback. 

Strickland stepped into a new weight class and turned back the rising talent with a unanimous decision to get his 2023 started on a positive note. Still, nobody could have possibly foreseen what was about to happen. 

For his next assignment, Strickland was scheduled to headline UFC Vegas 76 in July against Abusupiyan Magomedov. Once again, Strickland was the betting underdog against a surging talent looking to make his mark in the UFC. 

After a strong first round that saw him score with punches, kicks and a late takedown, Magomedev appeared to be in control. But the tide turned in round two when Strickland took advantage of a fading opponent and unloaded a sizzling barrage of punches into Magomedov to get the stunning second-round stoppage. 

It was a high-risk, low-reward fight for Strickland but set him up for his greatest performance to date. 

Middleweight champion Israel Adesanya was slated to headline UFC 293 in Sydney, Australia. But when No. 1 contender Dricus du Plessis revealed that he wouldn’t be able to make the September date, another opponent needed to be found. 

With the UFC desperate for an opponent and Adesanya adamant that he wanted to compete, Strickland was selected as his challenger. To most, this was a monumental mismatch as Adesanya was fresh off of knocking out Pereia, who made short work of Strickland just a year earlier. 

Oddsmakers installed Strickland as a 7-1 underdog and the expectation was that Adesanya would make easy work of his opponent and look ahead to a showdown with his rival du Plessis. 

Strickland didn’t get the memo. 

In one of the biggest upsets in UFC championship history, Strickland outstruck one of the most brilliant strikers the sport had ever seen and won a unanimous decision to become the new UFC middleweight champion. 

There was no lucky punch to be had. Strickland set forth a phenomenal gameplan that neutralized Adesanya's striking for the entire 25 minutes they shared in the Octagon. By the time the decision was read, few could believe what they were hearing. 

Sean Strickland was the UFC middleweight champion. 

This was the stuff reserved for fairy tales and children's books. But it happened and it's the reason why Strickland deserves the recognition of being the best male MMA fighter on the planet in 2023. 

Andreas Hale Photo

Andreas Hale is the senior editor for combat sports at The Sporting News. Formerly at DAZN, Hale has written for various combat sports outlets, including The Ring, Sherdog, Boxing Scene, FIGHT, Champions and others.