ESM’s 2023 UFC Fighter of the Year – Sean Strickland

MMA: UFC 293 - Adesanya vs Strickland
Jasmin Frank-USA TODAY Sports

With the final UFC event of 2023 in the rearview, it’s now time that we all reflect on the year that was in 2023. We saw so many great title fights, so many great moments, and so many great upsets throughout this crazy year.

Every year, I look back at everything that happened and we give out annual awards from Empire Sports Media. The first one that we are going to talk about is the UFC Fighter of the Year. While there are many fighters who had incredible years, to me, there’s one fighter who stands above the rest in my opinion.

That man is the undisputed middleweight champion Sean Strickland (28-5). A few years ago, it wasn’t clear if Sean Strickland would fight again. While competing in the welterweight division, Strickland got into a motorcycle accident and was out for two years. Upon his return, he moved up to middleweight in 2020.

Strickland looked like a completely different fighter and won six straight fights. Some of the highlights included a knockout over rising contender Brendan Allen and decision wins over Uriah Hall and Jack Hermansson. That led him to July 2022 where he took on Alex Pereira in a title eliminator. Strickland’s run came to an end there when he was knocked out.

Following the knockout loss, Strickland was booked in a Fight Night headliner against Jared Cannonier. Strickland had his moments but he never truly put his foot on the gas and lost a split decision. Two straight losses closed out 2022, but that led to a hungrier Sean Strickland as the UFC’s calendar turned to 2023.

UFC Middleweight Champion

Just a month after losing to Cannonier, Strickland got the call to fight again. Kelvin Gastelum fell out of his main event against Nassourdine Imavov and the UFC needed a replacement. Strickland jumped in on just a few days’ notice and went five rounds with Imavov winning a decision. It was a huge win to get Strickland going back in the right direction.

After that win, Strickland was booked in another main event at the APEX in July against Abus Magomedov. Strickland put on a helluva performance and wilted Magomedov over two action-packed rounds picking up the second round TKO. After the win, Strickland called for a title shot, but nobody thought he’d get one.

UFC 293 in September was in Australia and Israel Adesanya was set on headlining that card. The promotion wanted him to defend his title against Dricus Du Plessis. However, DDP suffered an injury and couldn’t compete on the card. As a result, Sean Strickland got the call to take on the middleweight champion.

Many didn’t give Strickland a chance and he was a massive betting underdog. However, Strickland proved he belonged in the first round when he dropped Adesanya. What followed was a five-round masterclass of tremendous striking defense and crisp boxing. Sean Strickland shocked the world and defeated Israel Adesanya with ease in September.

There’s no doubt in my mind, he is the Fighter of the Year. He gets a quick start to his 2024 when he headlines UFC 297 in Toronto against Dricus Du Plessis. There’s a ton of heat with this matchup with both men having fought in the crowd as this past Saturday’s fight. If Strickland wins, it’ll be another feather in his cap as he continues climbing the P4P rankings.