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Sean Strickland reacts after a unanimous-decision victory over Israel Adesanya of Nigeria in the UFC middleweight championship fight during the UFC 293 event at Qudos Bank Arena on September 10, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
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Coach Conversation | Eric Nicksick Discusses Sean Strickland's Middleweight Title Victory

Xtreme Couture Head Coach Reflects On Strickland’s Surprising Performance In Sydney, And Opens Up About The UFC’s New Middleweight Champion

Since introducing the Coach Conversation series ahead of UFC 275 last summer, there have been 27 different championship bouts that have taken place inside the Octagon, including interim title fights and the recent return of the BMF title.

Prior to each of those contests, some of the sharpest coaching minds in the sport have sat down with me to dissect the upcoming contests, offering insights into how things might play out, what each competitor brings to the table, and the intricacies and details that pique their interest the most.

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Xtreme Couture head coach Eric Nicksick has made numerous appearances in the series since its launch in June of last year, delivering keen observations and accurate analysis of key title matchups, including Alex Pereira’s middleweight title win over Israel Adesanya last November, and Adesanya’s knockout win to reclaim the belt in the rematch at UFC 287 in April.

Earlier this month, Nicksick was in the corner as Sean Strickland ventured to Sydney, Australia and won that same middleweight belt from “The Last Stylebender,” so it only made sense to sit down with the standout coach to look back on one of the most unexpected performances of the year.

Sean Strickland reacts after a unanimous-decision victory over Israel Adesanya of Nigeria in the UFC middleweight championship fight during the UFC 293 event at Qudos Bank Arena on September 10, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Sean Strickland reacts after a unanimous-decision victory over Israel Adesanya of Nigeria in the UFC middleweight championship fight during the UFC 293 event at Qudos Bank Arena on September 10, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

Kyte: I know you enough to know that a lot of work went into it.

Originally it was supposed to be Dricus (Du Plessis), and I know Sean is always ready to go, always in the gym, and if they call, he’s ready to go, as we saw in January. So when the call comes in, and it’s going to be you guys, and you’re going to Sydney to face Izzy, how do things start?

How do you start laying out “this is what we’re going to have to do” between yourself, Sean, Danny Davis, and Alex Zarate?

Nicksick: In my mind — and this is something I was staying on Sean about — was, “Hey, we’ve gotta prepare like it is our spot, no matter what happens, because we might be the backup. One of these scenarios might shake out, but we need to prepare ourselves like we’re in that fight.”

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You and I talk about this all the time when it comes to specific fighters, and I like to use the analogy of their bandwidth — some guys you can’t overload with too much information because it’s really going to bog them down and impair them as a fighter. With Sean, a lot of our tape studies — meaning myself and Danny’s — was on a “need to know” basis when it comes to Sean.

If you try to over-analyze, over-coach, and things like that, you’ll see Sean almost have a little panic attack. You can see it in his body language; it just becomes too much for him. You almost have to coach him in spurts, and tell him, “Today, when you’re on the pads, here’s how I want you to cut the cage off.” It’s one or two things and that’s it. He’ll understand what we’re trying to show and accomplish, and then we’ll start applying that into sparring, and then he sees it work, and it’s like, “Okay,” and we’ll go back to the drawing board.

Sean Strickland Octagon Interview | UFC 293
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Sean Strickland Octagon Interview | UFC 293
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There are also some things I like to do, systematically, on my cut-offs that he saw something different, where it was, “I like to do this instead, because I think it will draw this out.” So, in doing so, that allows him to maintain creative control in terms of what he sees, and then we’ll go over the consequences in terms of “If you’re going to do it like this, you have to be aware of these consequences and be prepared for it.”

There are no rules when it comes to MMA, like “Don’t circle towards the power hand side,” because you can circle towards the power hand side as long as you’re prepared for what comes next. You can do it, just understand the consequences for doing it. You have to trust in your fighter, their skill set, and what they’re trying to accomplish when they do certain things.

It was a real good give-and-take in terms of what we were seeing on film, my thoughts on what I thought Izzy would do, and what Danny’s thoughts were in terms of what Izzy would do.

RELATED: The Best Middleweight Moments Of 2023 So Far

All of us were on the same page, and the one thing that really stood out to me was Danny talking to Sean about the fade check-hook that Izzy throws — the one he dropped Whittaker with and the one that Sean was able to capitalize on. We came to understand that if we can beat him down the midline with a straight right hand, we can catch him there, and sure as s***, man, once we got him back to the barrier - that’s where Izzy likes to check left hook off of - it came, and Sean was able to capitalize on it in the first round.

A lot of our premise was to back Izzy up, to put him on the barriers — just like when you and I broke him down in that fight with Pereira; that same blueprint with a different style and skill set where ours is going to be a volume, pressure striker versus Pereira being more of a power puncher.

Sean Strickland reacts after a unanimous-decision victory over Israel Adesanya of Nigeria in the UFC middleweight championship fight during the UFC 293 event at Qudos Bank Arena on September 10, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Sean Strickland reacts after a unanimous-decision victory over Israel Adesanya of Nigeria in the UFC middleweight championship fight during the UFC 293 event at Qudos Bank Arena on September 10, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

As you get looking at Izzy and you’re getting more into that tape study — he’s come out and said, “His coach saved his life,” giving you credit for calling stuff out.

How much time goes into that? And then to what you said about not wanting to overload Sean, how much of that is you need to know it so that when you call it, he knows you know it and trusts that you know what’s coming?

I thought the calf kick was going to be very prevalent and the left head kick was going to be very prevalent out of both stances, so those were thing we definitely wanted to work on: how do you want to counter? How do you want to check? When do you want to counter off?

The biggest thing for me — and it’s something Izzy and I actually talked about — is after the end of Round 1, there was so much excitement because of the knockdown that I tried to stay calm, and in order to do so, I looked over at (Jon) Anik and Megan (Olivi) and just watched them, because in that moment, there is no coaching to be done; there is nothing I can do or say.

Going into Round 2, that’s where I felt I had to get Sean’s attention on some of the defensive stuff, and that’s where Izzy was setting him up.

Sean Strickland punches Israel Adesanya of Nigeria in the UFC middleweight championship fight during the UFC 293 event at Qudos Bank Arena on September 10, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Sean Strickland punches Israel Adesanya of Nigeria in the UFC middleweight championship fight during the UFC 293 event at Qudos Bank Arena on September 10, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

Right — “He’s gonna come because he’s faced this adversity, he’s down 0-1, at home, got embarrassed a little bit.”

It’s that old, “We’ve got ourselves a game now!”

When you get to that point, he has that first round — your adrenaline goes up, his adrenaline goes up — what’s that process like in that moment where you’ve got 60 seconds to bring him back down and get him focused?

Are there things you can see in him, from him, that you know from experience that show you he’s still dialed all the way in?

Quite frankly, I love his mentality between rounds: I love the body language, I love that he’s pacing because I think it says something to the opponent that he sees this rabid dog over here that’s not getting water, he’s not tired; he just wants to fight.

And so this is where some of that stuff we’ve talked about in the past comes in because I don’t want a whole minute of your time — if you can give me 20-30 seconds to deliver pertinent information, you can get back to your pacing and doing whatever the hell you’re going to do, and that’s what was happening.

Best Middleweight Moments of 2023
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Best Middleweight Moments of 2023
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I would get in there, give him two or three pieces of information, and then I’d turn around and walk away, because I knew he was in a zone.

After Round 1, I said, “He’s not the boogeyman anymore, is he?” and he said, “No, he’s not.” He started pacing and I grabbed him by his arm and said, “You have to listen to this piece right here: he’s setting you up for the same-side head kick. He’s dropping to southpaw, he’s throwing his left hand at your right hand to parry it, and he’s going to follow behind that same hand with his kick.

“You have to understand that when he’s going southpaw, listen and know when he goes southpaw, I need you to jam his lead side, get in there.” He said, “Okay. No problem,” and he did it.

So going into Round 2, that’s when I started to call it — “He’s going to southpaw! He’s looking for that same side!” I just tried to stay ahead of my reads when I saw them and let him know, rather than overload him with a bunch of different information. Between myself and Danny, if we saw something, we would call it, and after the first round was over, the second started a little slow — and that could have been from the adrenaline dump, but it also could have been from Izzy trying to force his way back into the fight — that’s where I go on him going into Round 3 because I knew “You can still apply that same pace and pressure that you used in Round 1, and let’s not lose this by points because we’re waiting back.”

You and I have talked about Sean a bunch. I’ve written about Sean a bunch. I think I’ve got a pretty good overall handle and read on who Sean is, but what was his mindset like when this came together?

He had done the Sean way of saying he’d like a title shot, but where was he at going into this?

Sean Strickland Post-Fight Interview | UFC 293
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Sean Strickland Post-Fight Interview | UFC 293
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His first conversation he had with me, I was very surprised because he actually felt like a human being, felt vulnerable to a sense, because he said, “Hey man, this might be my one and only opportunity at this. You get into the UFC because you want to be a champion, you want to make money, but this might be my only shot, ever, to be a world champion.”

It was a real moment, and I said, “Bro, let’s do it all right and get after it!”

I think just knowing that I had been there four or five times already in title fights, that we believed in his skill set and that we could build a game plan to win, the more the camp started going, the confidence started growing.

We left there on an all-time high. He left there thinking, “I’m going to go there and win this title.”

He’s one of those guys where the work is going to be done, regardless, and it comes down to the mental part — whether he goes in thinking “I get this opportunity, I get some extra money” or does he go in there thinking, “I can do this.”

For sure.

Could you feel it in him throughout the fight that the confidence was growing? That there was an understanding of like, “Hang on a minute — we’re gonna win this fight!”

Could you feel that with him and with yourself?

Sean Strickland battles Israel Adesanya of Nigeria in the UFC middleweight championship fight during the UFC 293 event at Qudos Bank Arena on September 10, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Sean Strickland battles Israel Adesanya of Nigeria in the UFC middleweight championship fight during the UFC 293 event at Qudos Bank Arena on September 10, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

I erred on the side of caution — I said 2-2 going into five, and there were two points of emphasis on that for me:

  1. I had to take into consideration where we were — we’re in his hometown-ish, you never know what the judges are looking at, and the last thing I wanted was another (Jared) Cannonier moment where we didn’t put the gas pedal down, and then…

     
  2. I didn’t want Sean to be at C range; I wanted him to be at A range, where we fought the entire fight. I didn’t want him to run laps around the cage and just be done, and maybe we’ve done enough because that would also put us at a kicking range Izzy wanted us at where he could inflict some damage with hard, heavy kicks.

And the last thing, honestly Spence, was I wanted to put my foot on his throat; I wanted to make that statement in Round 5, put a stamp on that, and I think that last 30 seconds when Sean went off on him, screaming, really won the crowd over.

As a football player and guy that loves sports, that was going to be a moment I remember for the rest of my life. I just remember standing up and clapping. It was amazing. I wanted to watch my guy go HAM.

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(I felt good) right after that first round when we got the knockdown and I said, “He’s no boogeyman, is he?” and he said, “No he’s not; he’s human just like us.”

In the back, he was nervous; I’ve never seen him that nervous.

We had a good conversation before we walked. Manel (Kape) won, and I ran back, and it was very quiet, very ominous. I let it sit for a second or two, and I just said, “Hey MF’er — you’re gonna beat this dude! I don’t care who believes in it — all that matters are the five of us in this room that believe you’re gonna win this fight. Now tell me!”

And he said, “I’m gonna win this fight.”

“Say it again.”

“I’m gonna win this fight!”

We all had a big hug, and I looked at him and said, “We’re in this s*** together!” and I felt his energy pick up a little bit. He said to me after the fight, “You motivate the s*** out of me. I look over at you and I feel like I can do anything. I appreciate your compassion and love towards me.”

And that’s it, man — sometimes you just need those guys next to you that believe in you.

It looked and sounded like you got a little emotion there talking about it. What’s it like for you to be a part of this one?

All of them are different, but Sean — everyone knows his story, a part of what makes Sean winning this title so great is that he’s a kid that bounced around from gym-to-gym because he couldn’t stay anywhere, and then he showed up at Xtreme, and you said, “Go do your thing, but when it’s time to dial in, when it’s time to focus, I need you listen, I need you to trust me.”

He did, and now he’s a world champion. What’s that like for you?

Sean Strickland poses for a portrait after his victory during the UFC 293 event at Qudos Bank Arena on September 10, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC)
Sean Strickland poses for a portrait after his victory during the UFC 293 event at Qudos Bank Arena on September 10, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC)

It’s pretty cool because I’ve known him for a long time. I met him in 2014, we’ve always had a good friendship, and when he was bouncing back and forth between our gym and Syndicate, he hit me up one day and was like, “Is it okay if I come back to Xtreme?” and I was like, “I never kicked you out!”

We’re always joking around about ABC — Always Be Coaching — but with him, he reminded me of an only child.

He showed up one day at 3:40pm for a 3:30pm pro practice — guys had already started sparring and all the rounds are taken up. He goes on this temper tantrum saying nobody in the gym wants to spar him, this is the worst, yada yada yada. I pulled him to the side and said, “What time did you show up today?” and he said, “3:40pm.”

I said, “Do you realize that everyone showed up at 3pm, 3:15pm, got their rounds lined up, and then you showed up late. So who’s fault is it that you don’t have rounds? Is it their fault or your fault because you’re 10 minutes late; technically 30 minutes late?”

“I guess it’s my fault.”

“Not I guess — it’s your fault. Start taking accountability for your shortcomings.”

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Now he shows up every day at 3pm. He’s started a group text. He sets up rounds to make sure he’s got all his rounds lined up, who is going to be there. It forced him to take some initiative and be a better teammate. We talked about his delivery, and the way you talk to certain individuals because some guys aren’t going to respond to you.

“What you’re saying is correct, and your critiques are correct, but the way you’re saying it to another alpha can be very condescending, so if you care about this individual, let’s change our tact and what you want to say to this person.”

The whole idea was just to give this guy a little leeway.

Give him the space that he needs, but when it’s important to coach him, make sure he gets this stuff — you kind of give him enough rope to hang himself, right? Like “You can go over there and just spar, don’t drill because you hate it, but when I need you to do this thing, get over here and listen!”

Exactly — just grab him by his ears and tell him to come over.

It got to that point where he understood that we all had his back, and whatever he said, however he was, we just laughed it off because, “Hey man — you’re a good teammate. Be in here, work, and be on time; do the things we’re asking you to do, and we’re not going to ride you.”

When I ask him to do something — “I need you to be here for this” — it’s, “Yes sir; no problem.”

We have a really, really good friendship, and a really good coach and fighter dynamic. I couldn’t ask for a better guy.

Sean Strickland Post-Fight Press Conference | UFC 293
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Unlock MORE of your inner combat sports fan with UFC Fight Pass! Fighting is what we live for. And no one brings you MORE live fights, new shows, and events across multiple combat sports from around the world. With a never-ending supply of fighting in every discipline, there’s always something new to watch. Leave it to the world’s authority in MMA to bring you the Ultimate 24/7 platform for MORE combat sports, UFC Fight Pass!

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Sean Strickland Post-Fight Press Conference | UFC 293
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He’s talked about it a little, and I know he mentioned it somewhat coming out of the Alex Pereira fight — that he hadn’t quite fully bought into you guys as coaches.

How real was that? Have you felt in these last couple fights that it’s really come together?

It’s still a trust process that is still growing, but skill-building things come in small spurts versus the motivational, trust-factor stuff with him. The talent has always been there.

When you talk about game plans, we already have an Earl Campbell type of running back, so we’re going to put a game plan together that fits the style of running back we have, and that’s like three plays.

Not taking anything away from you, but yeah, Sean is a pretty easy dude to coach: “Do that thing where you pressure dudes and hit them and stay out of the way of most of it!”

Sean Strickland reacts at the conclusion of his UFC middleweight championship fight against Israel Adesanya of Nigeria during the UFC 293 event at Qudos Bank Arena on September 10, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Sean Strickland reacts at the conclusion of his UFC middleweight championship fight against Israel Adesanya of Nigeria during the UFC 293 event at Qudos Bank Arena on September 10, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

100 percent!

The offensive stuff we went over was significantly less than the defensive stuff we had to cover. That was the meat and potatoes with him because with the offensive stuff, you’re not going to change too much of what he does. We asked for some two-ones and off-beat combinations, stuff like that — straight punches, teep kicks — but it was more about footwork and geography than anything else.

And then just keeping his head in the fight.

Credit goes to him. It’s his style that beat Izzy in my opinion.

Eugene (Bareman, Adesanya’s coach) came out after the fight and said, essentially, “If we did it again tomorrow, we’d get a different result.”

This isn’t the old Pardon The Interruption, “Did Sean win or did Izzy lose?” because Sean won the fight, and he won it handily. But, for you, as someone that has watched and studied Israel for some time, what was your assessment of him?

Did he look like the guy you expected? Did it feel like there was something missing, lacking, different? Or was that just all because Sean Strickland is in his face for 25 minutes?

Sean Strickland taunts Israel Adesanya of Nigeria in the closing moments of their UFC middleweight championship fight during the UFC 293 event at Qudos Bank Arena on September 10, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Sean Strickland taunts Israel Adesanya of Nigeria in the closing moments of their UFC middleweight championship fight during the UFC 293 event at Qudos Bank Arena on September 10, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

I think it’s the last one, and people were coming out and saying this.

The guys that have been in my gym, and Danny Davis, was adamant about this all during fight week in the Embedded episodes that he’s just a different animal, and until you understand that style, that pace, that pressure — Sadibou Sy screaming from the rooftops, “You don’t understand what it’s like to be in there with him until you’re in there with him!”

Could Izzy have had an off night? Sure. I feel like Sean put him there. Somebody said, “Stuck in the mud,” and I said, “Yeah, Sean threw him there!”

Would they go back to the drawing board and have some new things, new wrinkles? Absolutely — that’s how you get better at dealing with Sean.

When those guys get in there with him, it’s a different, different pace.

We talked about going into things. What about after? What happens when you get in the back? What is said? What’s that feeling?

It was cool. You just have that serenity of like, “We did it!”

I remember wishing I stayed in that moment longer with Francis (Ngannou) after (Ciryl) Gane and I didn’t because the whole thing felt super-weird. I just got in the car and went to Newport to hang out with my wife; there was no afterparty or celebration.

So I remember telling Danny that this is such a rarity: “This is your first title fight, and you won. Hopefully this comes more and more for all of us, but enjoy and celebrate it as much as possible tonight.”

We had some really good moments with Sean. He had that “Holy s*** — I did it!” sort of moment. Everybody that was with us all week came out and enjoyed it with us, and I really enjoyed that. For me, I just wish my wife could have been there to share that moment with everybody, but that was the crowning achievement — getting everybody together, reminiscing about the whole week.

What’s he like afterward? I think people have their ideas about him — you see the Sean-ness of it all, and think this is a guy that’s going to be going crazy and being a s***head, but I imagine it was dinner, celebrate, and then go back to the hotel to hang out with my girl.

Sean Strickland reacts after a unanimous-decision victory over Israel Adesanya of Nigeria in the UFC middleweight championship fight during the UFC 293 event at Qudos Bank Arena on September 10, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Sean Strickland reacts after a unanimous-decision victory over Israel Adesanya of Nigeria in the UFC middleweight championship fight during the UFC 293 event at Qudos Bank Arena on September 10, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

I was surprised he even wanted to go to dinner, and the only reason he wanted to go to dinner is because we had Luke, the bodyguard, with us all week, and we had a couple guys from Sydney that said, “We’ll call ahead, get you all set up in the back.”

It was low key, the family was all together. There was no big hoopla or anything like that. He had on the same sweatshirt that he wore when we landed that had a coffee stain on it for 10 days. He hadn’t washed his shirt, changed it, bought a new shirt or anything.

Once it was all said and done — he doesn’t drink, he doesn’t smoke, he doesn’t do anything. He said, “I want to go back and hang out with my girl,” and I said, “All right. Gimme the belt — me and Danny are going to the Irish bar to party!”

I think people will be surprised to learn he doesn’t drink and just wanted to go hang out with his girl, because that’s not the idea they have about him.

For sure, and I think the other thing to bring up in relation to when Francis won, it was a continent of people — there was an outpouring of love from not just Cameroon, but all of Africa — and it was pretty cool to see in this one the outpouring from people that grew up in broken homes or in abusive families or whatever it may be.

I cannot tell you how many people wrote and said they feel like it’s a win for them, too.

Well you started to see people discover that different side of Sean a little bit with the video packages about the bike accident, and not being able to fight again, having to come to terms with it.

To me, he’s a sympathetic figure. He came from a s**** home, didn’t have all the social stuff, and is still trying to figure it all out. He’s not the guy people want to believe him to be. He’s going to say some dumb things, and he can be annoying, but he can be a good dude.

A detail view of the UFC middleweight championship belt as Sean Strickland reacts after a unanimous-decision victory over Israel Adesanya of Nigeria in the UFC middleweight championship fight during the UFC 293 event at Qudos Bank Arena on September 10, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
A detail view of the UFC middleweight championship belt as Sean Strickland reacts after a unanimous-decision victory over Israel Adesanya of Nigeria in the UFC middleweight championship fight during the UFC 293 event at Qudos Bank Arena on September 10, 2

He’s a kid that needed some love, some guidance, and some attention, and I think that’s why I got emotional talking to Jimmy Smith about it because we just wanted to provide this guy with a home; that was really it.

It wasn’t “Hey Man — we’re gonna make you a world champion.” It was “We just want to give you a sense of belonging, and have a place to show up at, enjoy, and love being here.”

I had people call me and tell me, “This guy is a problem,” and I listened to what they had to say about the situation, but my heart told me he’s never done anything to me or the people in this gym for me to (decide not to let him train here). But I thought maybe I could use that as a way to help this guy.

As you said, the aim wasn’t to make him a world champion, and I know that’s not the aim with anybody, at least in terms of it being the only thing you’re looking for and judging yourselves on.

But to have done all the stuff you set out to do and then some, what’s it like?

I wish I was better at reflecting on some of this stuff, because I get home and I gotta go again.

For me, I’ve gotten to the point where I want that same shared feeling with Dan Ige, Brad Tavares, and Puna (Soriano) and Casey O’Neill and on and on and on. Your true friends are happy for your successes, and I want to shepherd these guys into those different experiences and share these same things with them.

It’s hard because it really is right back to work.

What’s it been like since he’s been back? Is he strutting a little?

Nope — he got back and the mats needed to be cleaned after one of the practices, and him and (Chris) Curtis grabbed the mop and the broom, and that stuff sets the tone.

UFC 293: Adesanya vs Strickland took place live from Qudos Arena in Sydney, Australia on September 9, 2023. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass!