What the hell just happened?
We’ve bore witness to some reality rattling upsets in the octagon the past few years, but Sunday’s upset in Sydney that saw Sean Strickland supplant “Stylebender” might have cracked the multiverse.
It’s not that Israel Adesanya was an all-but-invincible UFC middleweight champion. We’re not even a year removed from his TKO loss to longtime thorn-in-his-side Alex Pereira — a loss he avenged just 4 ½ months ago.
But Pereira doing the deed at Madison Square Garden last November wasn’t all that shocking, given their history. Strickland (28-5, 15 finishes), known as much for his out-of-pocket chatter between trips to the cage than for his actual action within those eight walls, was not supposed to beat one of the UFC’s biggest stars.
“Man, I was even doubting myself at times,” Strickland said in the octagon, gold-plated UFC title belt strapped snugly to his waist.
Totally fair. I doubted Strickland too.
Given Adesanya (24-3, 16 finishes) was a -675 betting favorite at some books, I wasn’t alone.
It took Strickland less than a round to make believers of all. Adesanya moved constantly for four minutes, with Strickland keeping the defending champion on the outside and neither man daring to take much in the way of a chance.
With 30 ticks to go in the opening frame, a committed missile of a straight right turned Adesanya’s head and corkscrewed his legs, and Strickland spring into action. Adesanya desperately sought to escape a barrage of left hands, managing to get back to his feet and to the bell but not before absorbing one of the most hellish swarms of his MMA career.
For his part, Adesanya managed to recover enough before the second to know the fight at a round apiece, but that was owed as much to Strickland’s lack of follow-through as it was to Adesanya’s own offense.
We’ve been blessed by some virtuoso combat concertos from Stylebender. This, by comparison, was a screeching violin, as Adesanya failed to truly take over the fight. That’s happened before, as in his dud of a decision win over infamously inactive power puncher Yoel Romero just before Earth curled up in a COVID-19 shell.
This was different. Strickland wasn’t forcing the issue, but he was patient. When Adesanya opened up — at times as open as a refrigerator door — Strickland punished him for it with crisp fists to the dome.
By the fifth frame, few could doubt that Strickland was five minutes from another stunner from Down Under to match Holly Holm’s heckuva head kick that ended the mighty reign of Ronda Rousey nearly eight years ago.
Adesanya had to know it too; he’s no fool. And yet, the fire within him never burned enough kindle to take the fight to Strickland the way Strickland took it to him.
To the contrary, Strickland looked even better than he had since he threw cold water on our conceptions of what a fight between he and Adesanya was meant to look like 15 minutes prior. Strickland continued to pounce on the soon-to-be-ex-champ’s errors and, as he has been wont to do near the end of past five-round decision victories, put on his fierce face and bellowed a challenge to his foe to come at him.
Adesanya did not.
“I had a different plan for this, but life throws curveballs at you,” Adesanya said in his only comments to reporters before puzzlingly handing the floor to his coach, Eugene Bareman. “Win or lose, I wasn’t going to say much anyway, but right now, I lost tonight to the better man on the night and I just want to be with people who care about me, my team, so I’m going to go do that.
UFC president Dana White wasted no time suggesting an immediate rematch would be a good idea. And why not? Adesanya — born in Nigeria, coming of age and residing in New Zealand, attaining renown across the United States and beyond — is an international star.
As much as the MMA leader doesn’t have the same need for stars it once did — they certainly cost a lot more than the hundreds of fighters plucked from “Dana White’s Contender Series” — it was about 90 percent through his magnetism that UFC 293 had any appeal to fight fans. The rest of the 12-bout lineup more closely resembled a Saturday “UFC Fight Night” that leaves the hardcores grousing but unable to look away.
Those die-hards have seen enough to know that, in this wacky sport, anything can happen.
Sean Strickland is proof of that.