Skip to main content

Is this the craziest man in the UFC?

Sean Strickland has a highly unusual approach to sparring in the gym.

This story is a small part of a large effort by to understand what works in martial arts. The process is to study what happens on the street, or in this case the gym, rather than what happens in the arena. Check out the free Best Of library on:
Gym Fights
Martial Arts on The Street
Mutual Combat

Sparring is a pillar of martial arts, and without it, the art is inevitably weak. The ancient Greeks figured it out thousands of years ago. The most influential martial artist in the last 100 years, Dr. Jigoro Kano, learned the importance of randori from Hachinosuke Fukuda, a master in the Tenjin-Shinyo school of jujitsu. However, there are questions about how hard to spar.

The tradition in boxing is to spar hard. Gyms like Manny Steward's Kronk Gym were famous, or perhaps infamous, for gym wars that rivaled main event bouts for skill level and intensity. On the other end of the spectrum is Muay Thai, where sparring is typically much more on the technical side. This is smart, as purses in the Art of 8 Limbs are low, fights are frequent, it's hard to elbow a face gently, Nak Muay are human, and pain hurts.  If you fought Saturday, and are fighting the next Saturday, you don't want to have a war in the gym on Monday, Wednesday, and/or Friday.

MMA sparring typically fell somewhere between the two. However, the rise of understanding about CTE has led to a substantial decline in hard sparring. That said, some fighters didn't get the memo, perhaps none more so than UFC middleweight Sean Strickland.

Strickland has to a degree assumed a mean online persona, because being the bad guy is good for business. He is by all accounts in reality a great dude. But there's one more thing about him - when it comes to sparring, Strickland is genuinely bat$#!@ f@$%ing CRAZY.

In a recent interview with Danny Segura for MMA Junkie, former PFL light heavyweight champion Emiliano Sordi recalls what it was like when the pair sparred regularly at Alliance MMA in San Diego, California. Strickland, who lives in Las Vegas and trains there at Ultimate Couture, would take a 90-minute flight each way three times a week to attend sparring nights at Alliance, which are Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. The other days he would spar at Alliance.

“He’s crazy, and I’ve told him, ‘You’re really crazy.' He’s truly not right in the head,” recalled Sordi fondly. “His training is basically just doing sparring. He doesn’t do anything else.”

"The problem with him is that many people don’t want to do sparring with him because he hurts them. ... He does spar in that manner, but that doesn’t bother me. I know he does it to get in your head and get in that mental game, so he can get the edge. ... What I respect from him is that he’s authentic. It’s not like he talks about the sparring for social media. No, that’s how he is in real life."

This is Strickland sparring Soriano in real life. Warning, NSFW language.


Strickland's head coach Eric Nicksick explained to Damon Martin for MMA Fighting that there is a method to the madness.

“I love working with him,” said Nicksick. “It just reminds me of the old school days at Xtreme Couture. When you have Mike Pyle and Jay [Hieron] and these guys get in on sparring day and they didn’t give a s*** who you were and if you were friends. They were trying to fight you every day. Of course, we went away from that because it wasn’t great for the longevity of your career, but there’s an element of that that I do like, and a tenacity that I think is important."

"When you boil things down, the way Sean talks to his teammates or some of the people in the room, it’s really because he cares and he wants to get the best out of you. ... A lot of times he’ll ride certain fighters in the gym, and he’s riding them because he sees more potential out of them than they’re giving themselves."

“He’s going to be real all the time. I think it’s kind of a breath of fresh air, because in this day and age, you don’t get that a lot.”

immediately below the madness continues, as Strickland is sparring for kickboxing at Steel MMA and Fitness in San Diego. It lasts seconds.


At first glance, Strickland appears to be bullying his sparring partners. However, that stance is sorely misguided. Ultimate Couture is also home to towering UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou, the most powerful fighter in the sport today, or ever. Bullys don't run toward beatings.

“He calls Francis out every sparring session," said Nicksick. "He loves to spar Francis because he goes ‘I want to feel as close to death as possible and I want to have that fear of God in my heart every time I spar a guy like Francis Ngannou.’"

“The rounds between him and Sean are actually very competitive. Sean gets in there and gets after it and Francis will entertain him if you will, and not knock him out. ... Credit to Sean, not everybody is chomping at the bit to hop in the cage with Francis.”

Strickland was criticized widely for the sparring KO above, but defended his conduct in an interview with Donagh Corby for The Mirror.

"The story behind that was he was a really cool Japanese guy, a kickboxer," said Strickland. "I get the call from somebody who says, 'my boy is in town, he has a kickboxing match, go spar him.'

"So I say 'alright, f*** it,' but before we start I let him know 'I'm not your friend, I'm not here to be your f***ing buddy, I'm here to hurt you - f*** you up.'"

"His coach pulls out a camera. So if that's what we're doing I had my brother pull out his camera. So I just beat the f*** out of him, but it wasn't sneaky, I didn't lie to him, I didn't hide my video camera. ... I have so many videos of me knocking f***ing professional fighters out, you know? I don't post videos of me hurting my friends, if you're a main training partner of mine and I've knocked you out, that's never seeing the light of day.

"But if you're just some random guy that shows up to the gym and I put you out, yeah I'll post it I don't care. But I live by the sword and die by the sword, a couple of weeks ago Maxim Grishin dropped me. He's a 205er, good striker, big motherf***er but I'm not a b**** about it, me and him were having wars, I was trying to kill him and I got caught. It is what it is."

What it is is extremely entertaining, but it's not something that the sport wants to emulate.

“I’ve seen his sparring footage and I would never spar with an idiot like that,” said UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya to TalkSport. “I’ve hurt people in sparring before and I’m just like, ‘Oh, s***, my bad.’ Or I’ll pull back with the body shot or whatever, but I’ve seen what he does. I don’t like to hurt people even though that’s our job. I like to make sure they come back the next day to do their job and give us work."

Adesanya's remarks are wise. Sparring Strickland-hard is fun to look at, and may work well for him, but it is not something that needs to be embraced widely.