UFC newcomer Sean Strickland: 'If it wasn't for fighting, I'd be dead or in prison right now'
MAR 13, 2014 7:00p ET
At 12 or 13 years of age, most young people are looking ahead towards high school and for the most part still living life as a kid. It's too young an age to truly determine the path a person will walk even in just a few short years as graduation, college and adulthood really begins.
New UFC signee Sean Strickland got to the fork in the road of life much earlier than most kids would ever have to face. He was a troubled youth who found a way to always end up in the wrong place at the wrong time, but at it usually just meant expulsion from school and punishment at home.
Two years before Strickland would ever see the inside of a high school, he got a harsh lesson from a teacher that sticks with him to this day about the kind of kid he was already becoming and where he was likely headed if things stayed this way.
"When I was in seventh grade I had a teacher come up to me and say 'Sean, you're the reason why they build prisons," Strickland told FOX Sports. "It sucks because you look at a lot of people that get into trouble or they are life long criminals that go in and out of jail, and it sucks because they never had anything. I had a lot of support from my mom, but they are kind of like destined to fail from birth because of their environment."
“When I was in seventh grade I had a teacher come up to me and say 'Sean, you're the reason why they build prisons'”
Strickland's problems only mounted as he was growing up. He was constantly in and out of trouble, got booted from school, and he was about to become a cautionary tale of youth gone wrong. Luckily a chance encounter, almost a dare really, happened when he was 13 that got him into an MMA gym for the first time.
"The reason why I got into MMA and I was like 12 years old, I was watching Tito (Ortiz) and way back when he was fighting, and I was talking to my brother and I said 'that looks scary, I don't think I could do that' and my brother says 'oh you're a p--sy, I could do it' and that sat in my head for a good year or two years and finally I said 'I'm going to do this," Strickland said.
It's not a romanticized version of a kid trying to get out of poverty or a lifetime spent studying martial arts. Strickland got into MMA because somebody along the way told him he couldn't do it, and that was the only motivation he needed.
So Strickland started visiting a local gym along with eight or nine other kids around his age that all wanted to see what this MMA thing was all about. There were no real trainers or even advisors to watch over this group of teenagers strap on four-ounce gloves, step inside the cage, and fight just like they had seen happen on TV dozens of times before.
"I've never been hurt as much in training as I was in that gym. Broken noses everyday, black eyes, but that was before I learned how to train smart," Strickland said with a laugh looking back on his first days fighting.
Now to the common observer this kind of training not only sounds harsh, it just sounds flat out stupid. What 13 or 14 year old kids are left alone in a cage to essentially beat each other up with no supervision, everyday of the week? Looking back, Strickland knows it wasn't the best way to get involved with MMA, but it was the outlet he needed to finally release some of the rage that had been clouding his mind for so long. It cost him some bumps and bruises, maybe a broken nose on a couple of occasions, but it was far better than the reality of what would have happened otherwise.
"I don't really try to hide my past. I was the epitome of a screw up in high school. I was on the path towards prison before I started training. Training literally saved my life," Strickland said. "I had a lot of anger built up in me and I needed something to hate. I don't think I felt happiness, like true happiness, until I started to train. Once I started training, I had that outlet and I started to change. Like who am I? I'm a different person now.
"My vice was anger. When I was younger, I had been kicked out of pretty much every high school I had ever been in. I went through life as a wrecking ball and then the older I got, I figured out what was more the cause of it, and I got past it, but I think if it wasn't for fighting, I'd be dead or in prison right now."
“My vice was anger. When I was younger, I had been kicked out of pretty much every high school I had ever been in. I went through life as a wrecking ball ”
From those early days in a gym sparring with his friends, Strickland started to figure out he was actually getting good at fighting and that's when he met former UFC fighter Paul Herrera at a smoker event. For those of you that may not remember Herrera's lone appearance inside the Octagon, it's really an unforgettable experience.
He's the fighter that Gary Goodridge caught in a crucifix position before landing one of the nastiest barrages of elbow strikes that have ever been executed inside the UFC cage. The fight lasted 13 seconds, and Herrera took eight elbows to the side of his head before the referee could stop the fight. Years later, Herrera was still involved with the sport, this time as a trainer and promoter putting on local fights in California.
"When I first started and I did my first smoker fight, it was pretty much like an amateur fight, and Paul Herrera, he used to fight in the UFC way back in the day, that's who I first started training with and he just kind of threw me in there," Strickland said. "He was like 'do you want to fight?' and when you ask a 14 or 15 year old kid if they want to fight, of course they do. I mean I probably didn't even want to fight, I was probably scared sh-tless. He asked me and I was like 'I'll fight'. The first person I ever fought I was like 15 and he was 24 and I knocked him out, and I had eight of those and it kind of sucked me into it."
Now eight years later, Strickland has earned a shot at the UFC after Tor Troeng suffered an injury that forced him out of his scheduled bout against former Ultimate Fighter competitor Bubba McDaniel. Strickland took the fight on 15 days notice, but he's not worried about being ready because these days he virtually lives in the gym.
While Strickland is happy to share his story with the world about how MMA helped him find an outlet from the rage and anger that was eating him up inside to where he is now just days away from debuting in the UFC, the one thing he wants make perfectly clear is that he's not special. There are thousands of kids going through what he had to deal with everyday, and plenty of people who have probably had it even worse.
Strickland is just a guy who needed fighting as much as fighting needed him.
"Everyone has a crazy story and they're all unique," Strickland said. "Fighting is what makes me happy. I'd rather train all day long, go to sleep and do it over again than go out or something. Life's a trip and people all have crazy stories, but I'm stoked. I'm really excited, just being here now."