The Most Controversial Yet Beloved UFC Fighter

Sean Strickland’s enormous popularity inside and outside of MMA due to his controversial statements and why that makes him the current biggest star in the UFC.

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Former UFC middleweight Champion Sean Strickland is one of the most polarizing figures in the fighting world. While half of the community adores him for his brash personality and his courage when speaking his mind, the other half writes him off as a bigoted, big-mouthed buffoon. But, no matter what one’s opinion of his personality is, all would agree that Strickland was the most unlikely challenger to capture UFC gold last year. 

Starting off with an inconsistent run in the UFC’s welterweight division, getting into a life-altering motorcycle accident, and being stuck headlining Fight Night main events in the UFC Apex, Strickland did not have an easy path to his first title shot. Therefore, when he outstruck world-class kickboxer and consensus second-greatest middleweight of all time, Israel Adesanya, the fans rallied behind the underdog. His already massive fan base grew exponentially overnight, and so did his presence in the mainstream media. 

As details of his personal life began to surface, fans’ perceptions of him only became more complicated. For example, Strickland posted CCTV footage in late November, showing him apprehending a trespasser in front of his house by pulling out a gun. The man was hiding in Strickland’s front yard as he fled from an assault he had committed. This altercation is an example of the hard-nosed, no-nonsense American spirit Strickland embodies. This persona does have a darker side to it, though. Strickland shared a vulnerable moment on comedian Theo Von’s podcast, opening up about his abusive father and the destructive path his father led as a white supremacist and neo-Nazi. Both of these moments are good representations of Strickland’s abrasive personality and rough upbringing that channeled his passion for fighting. With both of these moments going viral across the MMA space, Strickland cemented himself as an endearing yet relatable figure.

His growing fame was most apparent in the build-up to UFC 297, where the entire Canadian venue erupted to cheer on the American champion as he walked up to the press conference stage. He received a similar reception in Australia, where he fought New Zealand-based Adesanya. Universal approval from the UFC fan base has usually only been seen for champions with multiple title defenses or legends of the game, not for someone relatively new to the spotlight. Why is this case different?

Strickland represents the MMA fanbase on the big stage. In every post-fight interview, he thanks his fans for the support and claims he would be nothing without them. His lack of professionalism and counterbalancing charisma allows the average fan to relate to him better, or at the very least, find him an interesting personality compared to the majority of fighters who lack the skills on the mic to captivate the audience’s attention. Every hardcore fan knows of the ridiculous anecdotes he shares during every media day interview and the endearing insults he throws at every media member. Unlike other fighters with big personalities such as Conor McGregor or Chael Sonnen, Strickland is unafraid to make his political alignments known in his interviews. It was just a matter of time until the larger MMA space was aware of them. 

It would be these politically-charged statements that sparked Strickland’s biggest controversy with “the other half of the community,” stemming from his media day interview during the week of UFC 297. MMA journalist Alexander Lee confronted Strickland about homophobic and transphobic comments he made on Instagram two years ago. Rather than apologizing for his immaturity, Strickland doubled down on his statements, even ridiculing Lee for bringing up irrelevant information during fight week. “Strickland should be suspended from UFC 297. His language went WAY beyond anything remotely acceptable,” said Lee in an Outsports article he reposted. The fan base was not upset at these comments, as many of them, middle-class, conservative Americans, shared his opinion. To them, Strickland is the guy who says what everyone else is afraid to say. Those who disagreed saw no surprises in these comments as it is what to be expected from the loud-mouthed middleweight. And yet, the media insists upon this narrative that Strickland should face punishment for actions unrelated to the sport.

However, other fighters and even UFC president Dana White refused to demonize Strickland. During the post-fight press conference, Lee asked White his opinions on Strickland’s comments and if he should control what fighters say. “Free speech, brother. People can say whatever they want and they can believe whatever they want,” said White. Any attempts from the media to cancel Strickland for his comments were futile. Women’s bantamweight fighter, Mayra Bueno Silva, who is an open lesbian, stated her love for Strickland and his funny comments. In any other sport, the company would have succumbed to the pressures of the media and reprimanded him for his comments. Instead, the promotion took the side of the fighter who has been loyal to them for almost ten years. This harkens back to why the fans adore the former champ: even under the bright lights and new expectations placed on him to act differently, Strickland is unwilling to backpedal and has maintained the same personality since his resurgence in 2021.

Strickland’s following will only grow in the foreseeable future. Despite the loss of his championship belt, fan support is at an all-time high. Strickland’s bout against Dricus Du Plessis was one of the closest title fights in recent memory, with half of the media outlets scoring for Strickland and the other half for Du Plessis. Though an argument for scoring the fight for either man can be made, the fan response says otherwise. Comments across all social media platforms claim a “robbery” against the former champ and that he clearly won the fight. The support for Strickland flooded the comment section of every MMA post up to days after the fight. 

The MMA fan base had not rallied behind a fighter over a close decision since the likes of featherweight Max Holloway in 2020. However, unlike Holloway, Strickland’s controversy during fight week brought attention to the sport outside of the MMA sphere, as the video clip of him berating Lee went viral. Despite the now mixed public perception from the fans and the media, Strickland has brought the greatest publicity to the sport in a time without many legitimate superstars. Though he will most likely never reach the superstar status of the notorious McGregor, Strickland will single-handedly bring attention to any future pay-per-view event.