UFC 293 concluded with a shock as Sean Strickland pulled off the major upset to grab the middleweight title from Israel Adesanya. Before that, some standout performances on the main card put Alexander Volkov and Manel Kape on an interesting path. Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim react to the biggest moments of the night.
Israel Adesanya had everything set up for him. He was fighting in Sydney, a quick hop across the Tasman Sea from his home in Auckland, New Zealand. It was Adesanya’s first bout Down Under since he won the UFC middleweight championship in 2019. Back then, he put on a sublime performance both inside the cage and during a boldly choreographed walkout. Now he was back, again positioned to entertain the fans in his corner of the world.
But Sean Strickland instead turned the UFC 293 main event into his show, walking down Adesanya for five rounds and battering him to earn a clear unanimous decision and become 185-pound champ in a true shocker.
This event at Qudos Bank Arena was conceived as an Adesanya showcase. Strickland was a Plan B opponent booked for the title fight only after Dricus Du Plessis, who became the top-ranked 185-pound contender two months ago with an upset of former champ Robert Whittaker, could not make this date. Strickland was well down in the middleweight rankings and on just a two-fight winning streak. The American’s résumé showed not a single victory over anyone in the top five.
But Strickland was ready and willing, and even as a 5-1 betting underdog, he was the perfect foil for Adesanya. Strickland is a fighter who plods forward, unafraid of getting hit. And hitting is what Adesanya is known for.
On this night, though, Adesanya was the one getting hit. The worst of it came late in Round 1, when Strickland landed a straight right hand that dropped the champ then pounced with a flurry of left-handed haymakers on the canvas. Adesanya survived to the horn and even won the second round on the scorecards, but the champ absorbed far more than he dealt out for the rest of the fight.
Adesanya connected with just 34% of his strikes. And it wasn’t like Strickland was hard to find. The challenger just kept marching forward, and the champ could not halt those advances.
How many miles did Strickland cover over the fight’s 25 minutes? That’s hard to estimate. But one thing is for certain: Not one of those steps was backward. He wore down Adesanya, and as the final seconds ticked off the clock in Round 5, Strickland sensed the moment and started talking to the champ as he walked him down. When the horn sounded, Strickland raised his arms in triumph.
After the scores were read — all three judges had it 49-46 — Strickland broke into tears. He covered his face as the gold belt was wrapped around his waist. Adesanya then raised the arm of his conqueror as the crowd roared. It was a moment.
And yet Strickland presents a new challenge for the UFC. Not only is he a far cry from the dominant champions of the UFC’s past, but Strickland has courted controversy with racist, homophobic and misogynistic comments. To date, Dana White has dismissed concerns over those comments, but the win over Adesanya has made it more difficult for the UFC to ignore.
Long gone are the days when Demetrious Johnson was piling up 11 consecutive defenses of the men’s flyweight title, when Anderson Silva was squashing the dreams of 10 straight middleweight challengers and when Georges St-Pierre was beating down nine welterweight contenders in a row.
A deep-rooted UFC championship reign is a rarity these days. Alexander Volkanovski has made five defenses of his featherweight belt, and he is the only reigning champ with more than one title defense. (Heavyweight titlist Jon Jones made eight defenses during his first light heavyweight reign and three during his second.) Volkanovski is the only current UFC champion crowned before last year.
Consider the volatility within the championship picture within the past five months. Three weeks ago at UFC 292, Sean O’Malley took away the men’s bantamweight title from Aljamain Sterling. UFC 291 was the rare pay-per-view event with no title bouts. (The BMF belt was on the line, but what supremacy does that signify?) At UFC 290 in early July, Alexandre Pantoja dethroned Brandon Moreno at men’s flyweight. Amanda Nunes successfully defended her bantamweight title at UFC 289 but immediately retired, leaving two women’s titles vacant. Sterling retained his belt at UFC 288, but his time as champ was counting down. And another title changed hands at UFC 287 in April, when Adesanya regained championship status — which soon would be grabbed away from him again.
A UFC championship run has become a sprint, not a marathon. Titles have changed hands or champs have otherwise left belts behind at five of the past seven UFC pay-per-views. Three of the company’s 12 weight classes are vacant at the top. Five champs have zero title defenses.
Now, the middleweight division has a journeyman fighter wearing its crown. Strickland was 2-2 in his four most recent fights coming into this night. But there’s no begrudging him his accomplishment. He traveled across the world to Adesanya’s home region and won the belt fair and square. And Strickland was one of the heaviest underdogs ever to capture UFC gold.
Will Strickland’s time at the top be brief, following the current trend, or will he have staying power? And during his reign, for however long it lasts, will he elevate the sport? We’re about to find out.
Who’s next for the new champ and former champ?
Okamoto: What should be next? A rematch.
I think Dana White summed this up perfectly on the night of the fight. He said an immediate rematch makes sense and even wondered if Adesanya was a bit flat coming off the fight of his career against Alex Pereira in April. He said he doesn’t have those answers, but Adesanya does. And that’s the correct way of phrasing it, in my opinion.
This fight, this result, left us with questions. Give Strickland credit. I’m not trying to take anything away from him. But I think we all would agree that UFC 293 was a flat performance by Adesanya — and that begs the question, ‘Why?’
Was it what White threw out — that he had a bit of a hangover from that crucial fight in April? Or was it simply Strickland’s defensive prowess and awkward rhythm that gave him a legitimate fit?
It’s a question worth finding the answer to immediately.
If the title rematch doesn’t happen for one reason or another — and with White willing to talk about it on the night of the fight, that doesn’t seem likely — then Dricus du Plessis is the first name to enter the conversation.
Middleweight is about to see a lot of movement, between this result and an upcoming fight between Paulo Costa and Khamzat Chimaev next month. There will be a lot to sort out in the coming months at 185 pounds.
But ultimately, if the UFC can’t make an immediate rematch for the belt, I would expect Strickland to face du Plessis next.
Have we underestimated Alexander Volkov?
Raimondi: The list of the fighters at heavyweight who people think could challenge Jon Jones — if Jones beats Stipe Miocic and sticks around — is short. It’s usually led by guys like Sergei Pavlovich and Tom Aspinall. Volkov is rarely mentioned in the same breath.
And maybe that is rightfully so. Volkov has lost to Aspinall, Ciryl Gane and Curtis Blaydes. But the 6-foot-7 Russian has won three in a row after taking out Tai Tuivasa with a rare Ezekiel choke submission Saturday at UFC 293.
Volkov is just 34 years old. Heavyweights peak late in MMA. We may be only seeing the best version of him now — or maybe we haven’t yet, even though he’s been a pro since 2009.
Let’s also be clear here. Volkov’s height and 80-inch reach make him a stylistic nightmare for many opponents. He’s also quite skilled on the feet. Remember how much Jones struggled in 2013 against Alexander Gustafsson? Many people said Gustafsson’s sheer size alone gave Jones fits. Volkov is considerably bigger than him.
We may never get to see that matchup. Jones could ride off into the sunset after a win or loss against Miocic at UFC 295 on Nov. 10 in New York. Aspinall and Pavlovich are surely ahead of Volkov as possible contenders right now. But don’t be surprised if Volkov hangs around near the top five for a bit and remains a threat as a heavyweight contender moving forward.
Volkov recently moved to Las Vegas with his family and has benefited quite a bit from the strength and conditioning and technology of the UFC Performance Institute. That could be the thing that gets him over the hump.
Who’s next for Volkov?
Okamoto: Derrick Lewis
I guess? Volkov is a tough one. He’s only 34, somehow. It feels like he’s been around for a long time and fought almost everyone. One problem he has is that he’s lost some of the biggest fights of his career — and in spectacular fashion. He got dominated on the scorecards of five-round fights against Ciryl Gane and Curtis Blaydes. He didn’t last a round with Tom Aspinall.
When you have a fighter who has lost so convincingly to the top of the division, it just limits the interest in seeing him get another crack.
He has a history with Lewis, in that they fought in 2018. Volkov was winning the fight, until Lewis created some third-round magic. Lewis just re-signed with the UFC, and I imagine he’ll want to get going on that new, lucrative contract. The history here is fun, and the fight makes sense according to the rankings.
Wild card: Serghei Spivac
Only because of rankings and timing. Spivac just fought last weekend. It didn’t go his way against Gane, but he’ll still be on a similar timeframe as Volkov. There’s not much of a story in this potential matchup, nor would it mean a great deal for any title conversation, but it would make sense, and it has yet to happen.
Who’s next for Manel Kape?
Okamoto: Kai Kara-France
In his post-fight interview, Kape told Kara-France, “I’m going to fight you next,” and I certainly don’t see any scenario in which he’s wrong about that.
As we all know, that was the fight originally booked for UFC 293 before Kara-France was forced to pull out with injury. It’s still the fight to make, and the UFC has plenty of promotional material. Kape has looked terrific, no other way to say it. Sure, Felipe dos Santos was a little more competitive than most thought he would be going in, but in the end, Kape was in the driver’s seat and he looks far more comfortable in the Octagon than he did in 2021 when his UFC career got off to a 0-2 start.
Stylistically, these two match up beautifully. It’ll be a great fight. I’d love to see it as a main event. Give the flyweights some shine, and the fight will be extremely entertaining.
Wild card: Matheus Nicolau
Again, I don’t see anything getting in the way of the Kara-France matchup. But if something does, I like this rematch. These two fought in 2021, with Nicolau taking a split decision. Nicolau is still ranked higher, but he’s coming off a loss to Brandon Royval. From a rankings perspective, this one would make sense, but less than the home run Kara-France matchup.